Facing the End with Your Senior Dog
This is by far the most difficult post I have ever written because I had to say goodbye to my Milo two days ago after a two month struggle and my heart is breaking. Sometimes we lose our four-legged family suddenly, but other times we are there with them as they slowly and progressively get worse to the point when you realize that you have days not even months left with them. Unfortunately I have been in this position with several of my previous dogs and it never gets any easier.
Milo had been doing so well. I remember on his 14th birthday back in March commenting on how well he was aging. He did everything at his own pace speeding up only when food was involved and I felt that maybe his laid back approach to life would take him well into his senior years. But then a few months ago everything changed.
The only senior challenge Milo had over the past couple of years was a sore front left leg. It seemed to every vet that looked at him that it was most likely arthritis. A joint supplement was suggested and that seemed to do the trick. Then in June of this year, even while still taking the supplements, his limp returned. He very quickly started getting weaker and since he was so front heavy this weakness started to cause him to fall. I have never had a dog with a front leg issue before, but when he would fall he would literally go head first. As the instability became worse and his limp looked painful we tried Cartrophen shots without success and then we tried him on Rheumocam, again no improvement. Then things started to accelerate. He was having issues not only with that leg, but he started to weaken in all his legs, he was rapidly losing muscle and was needing to be supported when he walked and stood.
I ordered him a full support dog wheelchair hoping that if we could give him some support we could help him recover. Unfortunately after only one day of being able to use his cart he lost movement in what used to be his strong front leg. Then over the next couple of weeks he lost the use of all four legs. We tried Prednisone, new supplements but nothing helped. If Milo was stronger I would have considered taking him to a neurologist, but after talking with his vet it was clear that he would not be strong enough for surgery, if that was even an option, let alone being under anesthesia for the required diagnostics. At 14 1/2 years old in the condition he was in, this was simply not an option.
Milo needed 24/7 care which is something I would have done for him forever if it meant I could keep him with me. Milo was always challenging because he was a very vocal and dramatic dog which escalated as he aged, especially when he lost his hearing. It was also one of the funniest sides to him because the way he expressed himself showed so much character. Long before he started struggling he would literally scream at me for things like needing to be lifted down from the couch, or if I was late with his meal or if I was brave enough to have his nails clipped at the vet. You would swear he was being tortured. His communication method however made knowing what was really going on with him difficult to ascertain - was he crying out due to pain and discomfort or was he simply communicating as he has done so often before? Throughout all of his struggles he continued to be a food monster and when he looked at me I still saw light in his eyes so I hung on.
When your dog goes through what Milo went through in losing his mobility it is common for people to not understand why we refuse to give up. Many times this is because they also do not understand the deep bond that we form with our four-legged family. I know there were people around me that felt that I should have let go sooner, but despite the complete betrayal by his body it was still Milo in there. No one knew Milo like I did and I had to trust that I could read him better than anyone. I felt that if I could have asked him what to do, he would have told me that he wanted to be here even given his challenges.
In the past couple of weeks he progressively became worse and I questioned myself every single day, multiple times a day, if what I was doing was best and every time I'd be close to saying good-bye Milo would do something that made me hang on a little longer. This internal battle was the most difficult I have had to go through and it weighed on me heavily.
This is the time with our seniors that I fear the most. I'd wake up every morning, open my eyes and for a moment I'd forget what was happening. When I would look at Milo sleeping he seemed like his old self and I'd smile, but then reality would kick in and I'd be overcome with a feeling of dread as I'd remember that everything is not ok. I'd try to never cry in front of him since I believe that dogs are incredibly intuitive and pick up on the vibes we give off, so I'd pull myself together and smother Milo with kisses as we'd start our day.
This is a time when we are desperately seeking a miracle and look for even the slightest signs of improvement to give us hope to carry on. Did he sleep a little easier today? How quickly did he eat his dinner? Do his eyes look a little brighter today? Anything to help us see reason to carry on.
I would talk to Milo often letting him know that he needs to tell me when he's ready to let go, when his battle becomes more than he can handle. He let me know two days ago. Everything that day seemed wrong. I had a feeling we were approaching the end when our nights were more and more difficult in that he would only sleep for a couple hours at a time needing more water and a new position to be comfortable. And then that horrible day came. Milo had a seizure and then after going into a deep sleep woke in distress. Normally if I held him he would settle down, but that day not even my touch could reach him. It was time.
I had my sister come with me for support but also because I knew how much she loved Milo. I also made sure that Lily, the love of Milo's life, was with us so she could say good-bye. They had such a special connection to each other, they were soulmates and my heart breaks just thinking of them being apart. I have come to realize that in the end death is simply terrible. No matter how much you try and find the right time, the right place, with the right people (2-legged and 4-legged) it is incredibly sad, leaving a mark on your heart that will never disappear because a piece of you is now missing.
Milo was one-of-a-kind. I know I will never meet another soul like his and my goal as I grieve losing him is to remember him when he was not struggling, when he would run so fast to get his meals that he would knock over his water bowls. I think of his 9 pm bedtime that he'd never miss, putting himself to bed and looking so adorable doing it. And I will cherish how in the middle of the night he would work his way under the covers to spoon with me. The house and my car are now too quiet without his voice. Our family is not whole, but I know he will always be with us in our hearts and in time we will smile instead of cry when we think of the amazing times we all had together.
I am eternally grateful to have had you in my life Milo. You changed me and everyone you ever met, forever. Thank you for the time we had, I am so sorry I could not prevent what happened, I tried my best and I know you did to. You were so strong and I am very proud of you for fighting so hard to stay here with your family. We never took our time together for granted. Every single moment was cherished and we had fun in everything we did. I hope that you will hang on to everything good and happy through our memories of our time together because that is how I plan on keeping you close to me always. I love you.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs.