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How Do You Know When To Let Go?

A question that anyone who has loved an unwell elderly dog has asked themselves is, “How do you know when to let go?”

Our Little Man, Jake

One of our dogs, Jake, is now 16 years old. He is, sadly, a mere shadow of his former self. Physically he’s in good health: his blood tests are all perfect and he doesn’t have any life-threatening ailment. But he’s not the Jake we used to know.

The reason for that is the neurological changes he has undergone. The two main things that have affected him most are dementia and the stroke he had a few years ago. But, while the residue of the stroke has been some wobbliness and lack of balance, it’s really the dementia that has robbed Jake of who he is.

Once a sprightly dog who was curious about and interested in absolutely everything, now his only interests are eating, drinking, sleeping, and going to the toilet. His personality and intellect virtually gone, Jake has essentially become little more than a biological entity.

The Tragedy Of Dementia

If you’ve never watched a loved one suffer from dementia, you might not be able to imagine how devastating it is to watch helplessly as the individual deteriorates. I can assure you that it’s heartbreaking and thoroughly depressing.

Let me put you in the picture a little more by listing some of the things Jake used to love doing that he no longer does: play with Jasmin, play with other dogs, play with toys, go for walks, run in the park, sunbake on his banana lounge in the backyard, bark at cats, bark at birds, ride in the car, bark at motorbikes (while riding in the car), meet new people, have guests over, and kiss those guests while they’re least expecting it. Compare that list to the list of current interests - eating, drinking, sleeping, and toileting - and you can see that Jake’s world has diminished dramatically.

Keeping Jake's Shrinking World As Expansive As Possible

My partner John and I have tried hard to keep Jake’s world as big as possible.

For example, during Jasmin’s power walks Jake comes along in a stroller. And while I cycle with Jasmin running alongside, Jake rides in the attached trailer. We take him for car rides regularly too, and created a booster seat using a tower of cushions so that he can see out the window the entire time he’s in the car. We did this because, while before he used to spend the entire car ride standing on his back legs with his front paws on the arm rest looking out the window, it eventually got to the point where he would spend most of the time sitting there staring at the back of the car seat. How much of this change was due to loss of balance and how much was loss of interest is hard to tell, but the booster seat is our attempt at keeping car rides enjoyable for him. (And, don’t worry, both dogs are seatbelted in at all times while in the car!)

Part of trying to keep Jake’s world as expansive as possible is keeping him physically and mentally active. We take him for walks every day, and use food-dispensing toys as often as possible at mealtimes. Jake can no longer handle practising basic obedience and some simple tricks - it just doesn’t compute (not even the command sit is comprehensible to him) - so the food-dispensing toys are the only way to work his mind.

A Losing Battle

Despite our best efforts, Jake continues to decline.

For example, we don’t use some types of food-dispensing toys anymore because Jake can no longer figure out how to effectively get food out of them. (Note: while editing this Dog Blog this has changed: Jake no longer understands how to get food out of any food-dispensing toy - as of a few days ago, he only understands eating from his bowl. And with each new deterioration my heart breaks…)

It’s at the stage where Jake is confused about how to use the doggie door, and we sometimes find him standing in a corner with his head against the wall, not being able to figure out how to come away from it.

Asking Questions

When things get to this point, you start to wonder whether Jake is suffering and, if so, how much.

You wonder if his life is indeed a life. Sure, Jake’s alive: he’s a living, breathing being. But he’s hasn’t got much Jake left in him. His bright bubbly personality is gone, and his sharp intelligence has disappeared. So you ask yourself: can he possibly be happy? Does he experience any joy at all?

He wags his tail a little when we come home and he definitely enjoys eating. But that’s about it as far as obvious displays of happiness go.

Quality Of Life

My partner John and I have discussed the topic of quality of life many times.

John feels that Jake does have a decent quality of life, but I disagree. I wouldn’t call Jake’s quality of life "decent" in the least; comfortable, yes, but of a decent quality, no. To my mind, Jake is existing, not living.

Now, let me state very clearly that neither John nor I have any intention of euthanising Jake due to the fact that he’s changed so much. No way. We’re in for the long haul, and we'll do whatever is necessary to accommodate Jake as he declines. Both of us want him to stick around so that we can cuddle him and shower him with kisses for many years to come. Still, my love for Jake doesn’t change my opinion about Jake’s quality of life, or lack thereof.

How Will We Know?

What John and my conversations centre around is our concern as to whether, despite everything, Jake himself is happy.

We discuss how, considering that his life has dwindled into something so very basic, we will know when it’s his time. I mean, you can see from what I’ve already said that, compared to Jake’s former life, his current one is very much a non-life. And, following that, how do you figure out when that non-life becomes a burden to him? Clearly, he can’t speak to us to explain how he feels, so how will we know?

Two Different But Helpful Opinions

Our conversations didn’t get us to an acceptable conclusion, so we spoke to Jake’s neurologist. We figured that since she sees dogs with brain issues all the time, she’d have an educated answer for us.

Her opinion was that there is quality of life if there’s no pain present and the dog is comfortable in his or her immediate home environment. John and I found that answer useful, as it was pretty definitive and gave us something concrete to go on. Based on that premise, Jake had quality of life. No, his life wasn't the same as it used to be, but then whose life is as they age? All of our lives change as we age. 

I had a conversation with someone who has a great deal of experience caring for unwell elderly dogs. He told me that the dog tells you him- or herself when they want out, and they do this by shunning food.

His reasoning was this: if a dog eats, he or she is clearly showing a desire to continue to live. But once a dog stops eating, the desire to carry on living is gone; and that’s when it’s time to call the vet and do the dog’s will.

A Brief Summary

In summary: if a dog is clearly in terrible pain and there’s no help for the condition, then it’s time to ease him out of this world. In cases where the dog isn’t in crippling pain and is quite comfortable in his home environment, he will make the decision as to when it’s time to go; he'll indicate to you that the time has come by rejecting food.

If you have an unwell elderly dog, I hope the above opinions are as helpful to you as they were to John and me.

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Adopt a homeless animal instead - they all deserve a second chance

It's estimated that 130,000 dogs and 60,000 cats are killed every year in Australia because there are not enough homes for them all. And the global numbers amount to millions upon millions every single year.

Puppy mills are a major contributor to the terrible problem of overpopulation. Puppy mills are essentially 'dog factories' where dogs are forced to churn out litter after litter, with no thought for the welfare of the dogs and all thought for profit. The dogs live in appallingly dirty, cramped conditions all their lives, and when they no longer serve their purpose they're killed, dumped or sold to vivisection laboratories.

Petshops fit into the picture because puppy mills are generally where petshops get their animals from. Furthermore, having animals in shop windows encourages impulse purchases, and adding an animal to your family should be a conscious, careful decision - NOT one to be made while shoe shopping.

Breeders contribute enormously to the tragic statistics above too. And it doesn't matter whether they're professional breeders or backyard breeders, and whether they breed for profit or not, because while there are homeless animals sitting on death row in shelters, any and all animal breeding is utterly irresponsible.

Now, here's where you come in. You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. You can either buy animals from puppy mills, petshops or breeders and be part of the problem. Or you can adopt from a shelter or rescue organisation and be part of the solution.

If I haven't convinced you, visit your local shelter to see the homeless animals. Let their innocent faces convince you that adopting is the only responsible choice to make.

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