Recently, I was faced with making the decision that every pet owner dreads. Trying to decide when to let a sick or elderly pet go is not only difficult, it can be downright torture. I have to admit, I always thought I had it under control. As a senior dog advocate who has adopted and fostered about fifteen senior dogs in the past 5 years, I had been faced with this before, but never quite like I the situation I dealt with this time. My senior fosters, despite health concerns, had always recovered and been happily adopted. My adopted seniors who passed let me know without a doubt that our time together was over. It was an easy decision.Not quite the case with my most recent senior foster dog, a big-headed red Pit Bull named Finn. Finn arrived at the shelter at Christmastime and came home with me on New Year’s when his kennel cough turned into pneumonia. He also tested highly positive for heartworms. Our vet warned me that treating the heartworm would be difficult, but I was so focused on getting him through pneumonia that I couldn’t worry about that yet. After about a month of treatment, Finn recovered, only to develop bleeding ulcers that had him vomiting blood. Somehow we managed to get through this too. Then he developed a complication from his neuter surgery that required a second emergency surgery. Again, he pulled through.
After the surgery, we took some time for him to just recover and this is when I really got to know this enormous bully that I had been tending to for the past three months. He was very intimidating — I think my family and neighbors thought I was insane. But he met all of them and won them over instantly, because the only thing bigger than his head was his heart. He allowed a foster kitten to use his ears as a chew toy. He loved to look out the windows, but hated being outside for a long time. He would sleep in my doorway, as if to say, “no one gets in or out without my permission.” Every morning he would do a somersault and then wriggle around on his back working on some invisible itch.
He stole my heart and I didn’t even know it was happening.
After several months of good health, we decided to try the treat the heartworm and everything went wrong. At first, he responded well to treatment, but he quickly deteriorated. He would go 24 hours acting normally, and then have a terrible night of sickness. Every time he convinced me that he was suffering and it was time to say goodbye, he would rebound the next morning and act normal, smashing my resolve and sending me into an indecisive tailspin of regret, heartbreak, and fear. How could I make this decision when he seemed to be telling me that he felt okay and wanted to hang around just a little bit longer? And when I so desperately wanted him to stay with me?
After one of our bad nights followed by a happy morning with a full meal and a nice walk, he saw our shelter veterinarian and her words stuck with me. “This is heading towards a catastrophic end. Be grateful for this good morning.” The thought of my dignified Finn spending his last moments in pain, confusion, or fear because I couldn’t let him go was what helped me finally make the decision. I think I knew that despite coming in with a happy dog next to me, I would be leaving with only a collar and leash. I needed someone who knew and cared about Finn like I did to assure me that I wasn’t betraying him - I was doing what was best for him.I can’t describe how terrible the rest of the day was, but I’m sure many of you who have loved dogs are familiar with the terrible ache that is left and lingers on for days or weeks or longer. One of many lessons that Finn taught me was that this decision is not always as easy as looking at a quality-of-life scale or waiting for a sign that may or may not come. He had been strong for me for a long time and it was finally my time to be strong for him.
My time with Finn was a precious gift and I treasured every moment of it. My only regret is that we only had 8 months together - I wish it was 8 years. I took him in as a foster dog, but I realize that now that he was meant to be mine, and I’m so glad he was.
(Special note: I want to make sure that Finn’s story does not deter anyone from adopting a dog that is heartworm positive. Quite literally, every other dog I know with heartworms, young and old, has been treated successfully and recovered. Finn’s situation was complicated by a myriad of other health problems that had been left untreated for his entire life.)
The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.