There are many strange phenomena in the world, but one of them is the fact that so many veterinary emergencies seem to happen on Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday, or Saturday night at midnight. And such was the case with Luke’s last day. By sharing our family’s story of saying goodbye to a dog, I hope to connect with others who have been touched by the lasting love of a dog. And perhaps Luke’s legacy will live on in the hearts of many.
Saying goodbye to a dog: It comes too soon
Luke was only seven years old. Our family had adopted him six years prior from our local animal shelter. He was literally in a cage on death’s row. His name was Belair, which we never could reconcile with his sweet, humble disposition. So we rescued him, renamed him Luke, and lived happily ever after.
The problem was this: “after” only lasted six short years. Saying goodbye to a dog is heart-wrenching no matter what his or her age or the circumstance, and there is no way to prepare your heart.
Two weeks ago my daughter Abigail said, “Luke was coughing last night.” He was predominantly her dog, slept in her room, and spent his days curled up at her feet while she did homework. This was an out-of-the-blue announcement that I didn’t think much about, but I listened to his chest with my stethoscope, just to be sure. I didn’t hear anything of concern and shrugged it off.
The next day she said, “Luke coughed a lot overnight.” And in my heart, somehow I knew it was something bad. Which it doesn’t always have to be, by any means. The rule-outs for a coughing dog range from infectious disease (like kennel cough or even dog flu) to heart disease (like congestive heart failure or heartworm disease) with lots in between. But somehow I just knew it was serious.
A diagnosis of cancer
I took Luke in for chest X-rays at the veterinary practice where I work. We saw several things that were concerning, but nothing particularly conclusive. Luke had a touch of pneumonia, pleural effusion (which is fluid in the chest surrounding the lungs), and we were suspicious of a tumor in his mediastinum. The mediastinum is the tissue that separates the right side of the chest from the left side of the chest and contains all the vital structures except for the lungs.
Our next clue to Luke’s problem would come from aspirating the aforementioned fluid in his chest to identify cells indicative of a diagnosis.
While I have practiced veterinary medicine for over 20 years, this was not something I had done before. I called the colleague in possession of the most expensive ultrasound unit in our town (because I wanted ultrasound-guided aspirates of the mass) and she graciously said, “There’s a radiologist who’s moved to town recently. He’s a board-certified specialist out of California, and he can come and actually do the procedure if you like with our equipment.”
“Absolutely!” I replied. I’m a huge fan of getting specialists involved in tricky cases to optimize care!
She brought in the specialist, who performed the ultrasound on Luke, sedated him for the aspirates, and confirmed that Luke had lymphoma in his chest.
I was devastated to hear the word “cancer,” but I felt a pinch of peace knowing that we now had answers. From here on out, we didn’t have to guess on Luke’s problem: he had a 6 x 9 cm tumor in his chest that he had miraculously masked up to this point because he was so fit and healthy.
Now lymphoma, of all cancers in dogs, is the one that’s typically most responsive to chemotherapy, so we had a decision to make. But of the types of lymphoma, the one in the mediastinum is probably the worst. We would expect chemotherapy to extend his life three to six months. I went home and talked to my daughter. She said, “I really don’t want to put Luke through that. I feel like I would be doing it for my sake and not for Luke’s sake.”
This is a very personal decision, so I offer no editorial here on the right or wrong choice. What I can say is that dogs generally do very well with the veterinary chemotherapy of today, and the stereotypical issues we worry about in people generally don’t occur in dogs (ie. nausea, hair loss, etc.) If your dog has been diagnosed with cancer and you are working through your options, I strongly recommend listening to my podcast, The Myths and Misconceptions of Cancer in Dogs with Dr. Sue Ettinger, Cancer Vet.
Palliative care for Luke
Our choice was palliative care, which basically meant doggy hospice. I gave Luke two different high-powered antibiotics for his pneumonia, and we cleared up his coughing within a few days. I’m not sure who felt better about this—Luke or his people. It’s hard to watch our pets struggle!
We also started him on prednisone, and I have a podcast on prednisone explaining how my hate-hate relationship with that drug has recently morphed into a love-hate relationship. In this case, it really helped Luke feel much more himself.
He had stopped eating for a day or two, which breaks the heart of any pet owner. Luke was part Labrador, so needless to say, turning his nose up at food was highly unusual for him. On the prednisone, he went back to eating voraciously. Of course, Luke had other side effects like drinking and urinating excessively, but he just seemed overall happier and the powerful anti-inflammatory effect from the medication helped him breathe easier.
The difficult choice of euthanasia
Unfortunately, it just didn’t last very long. I was hoping that we would get many, many weeks to months of Luke being truly happy, but we ended up only getting two weeks. His breathing became more and more labored.
We made the decision on Christmas Eve to euthanize Luke the day after Christmas. A colleague came to my house and did it for us in our living room. As you might imagine, there were many reasons why I didn’t want to do it myself.
Our children said their last goodbyes to our dog
Luke was the faithful sidekick for my eight children. Watching them say goodbye to him one by one, I really tried to hold it together. But one of them whispered in his ear…
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
And that was the end of me holding it together.
Abigail had asked that her younger siblings not be home for the euthanasia. She envisioned a reverent quiet, impossible with six young boys. Since Luke was her heart dog, I let her script the day.
Making preparations for the final day
So we were there, just my daughter and I, after sending the boys out with my husband. Next, I got the bed set up for Luke in our living room. Because dogs lose control of their bladder and bowels after euthanasia, I had layered a comfortable “nest” for him, which started with a waterproof mattress pad and finished with his favorite plush comforter.
Then all of a sudden I walked by the front door and saw the veterinarian, Dr. Marikay, and her assistant in our driveway. She had arrived a few minutes early, and suddenly the whole reality hit me.
It was time.
Dr. Marikay was so kind and gentle. She had lost two of her own dogs in recent months and empathy flowed through my living room. My brain was in clinical vet mode. I knew the drill. I’ve euthanized hundreds of animals.
I wrapped my arms around Luke in the proper “veterinary hold” so that Dr. Marikay could give him an injection of a sedative. I held him tight and distracted him with my voice and vigorous rubbing, because this initial step can sting. I’m sure it did sting, but Luke was very brave and didn’t flinch. Within seconds, he was going to sleep—a deep sleep like you might have had for a colonoscopy.
My own wish to say goodbye to our dog
The dominoes were falling fast and my heart wept as it struggled against my doctor brain. As Dr. Marikay placed an IV catheter, I was overcome with a sense of guilt because I never just sat and looked into Luke’s eyes and told him how much I loved him. I mean, of course I said it during the whole entire euthanasia procedure and on every preceding day, but I was so busy making sure all the kids got to say goodbye and working out practical details, that I’d failed to say a proper, private goodbye myself.
Now I wept about this, in addition to the obvious point of sorrow.
I encouraged my daughter to pet and talk to Luke to the very, very end because we now know from humans that hearing is the last sense to be lost at death. I wanted Luke to know that we were with him for as long as possible.
Our last words to our dog
What do you really say though? We just told him over and over what a good boy he was and how much he meant to us while Dr. Marikay pushed the plunger in the syringe containing euthanasia solution. Typically after this, I put my stethoscope on the dog’s chest and by the time I do this, the heartbeat is already gone. Dr. Marikay, however, had her stethoscope on Luke’s chest, listening for what seemed like an eternity. His heart wouldn’t stop. The scene was peaceful and still, except for one little heart that beat on for his people. Eventually, she nodded and said,
It’s different for every person, I know. There have been times I’ve whispered those words and broken-hearted humans let out a guttural wail of grief. For us, there were more tears in making the decision and in sending him off than in the moments after he passed.
He was resting in peace, and we were comforted by this.
After Luke’s death, he kind of “lay in state” in our living room for several hours while the grave was being dug. It was a surprisingly special time of sitting with him and laughing and crying with my daughter about his life’s adventures.
Our other dogs share in our grief
We opened the door for our two other dogs to come in and join us, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course, I’ve heard that it’s the right thing to do, but I’d never had multiple dogs before. How do dogs process death?
I didn’t know how they would handle it, and one dog, Zeke, wouldn’t even really come in the room. It’s almost like he knew what had happened, even though he’d been in another part of the house while the veterinarian was with us. To be clear, he’s NEVER not wanted to come into the living room (and get comfy on his favorite leather couch), but he just stood in the hallway for a while. When he finally did come in, he wouldn’t look at Luke’s body.
Zeke just went around him and got on the couch and looked away.
Then came Jake, the red hound, whom I have a blog post about titled: 7 Tips for Bringing a Stray Puppy Into Your Home. He’s a handful and he’s young. He came in and he sniffed Luke, sunk into a play bow, then took his front paws and pawed at Luke’s hind end, trying to get his attention. Clearly, in the mood to play, he then went over and bothered Zeke on the couch. Zeke paid him no attention, so Jake went back to Luke and pawed at him again. The whole time Jake was wagging his tail, obliviously happy. Finally, he jumped up on the sofa, laid his head down between his paws and just stared at Luke.
It was very surreal to watch him seem to “get it”, because then he just starting whimpering and whining, and he did that for many minutes.
I don’t know if that’s because there was this sensation in the room of deep grief, and he finally clued in on that, or if he truly understood that Luke, our canine patriarch, had died. I asked my colleagues for their opinions on a veterinary chat board and said, “What are your feelings on the best way to let dogs say goodbye?” And one of them, who’s a large animal vet, said that when there’s a death of a foal or a calf, so a baby cow or a baby horse, that they leave it in the pasture for a few hours for the mother to sniff and process. Eventually, the mother will just walk away and go on, like she understands.
Almost all of them agreed that it was the right thing to do and that animals sense when another animal’s spirit has departed.
Incidentally, Zeke, who wasn’t originally engaged in acknowledging Luke’s body, chose to come and be a part of the funeral service and was sniffing Luke even as we buried him. I felt like there was some closure there too for Zeke.
A funeral and final goodbyes
After the vet left, my red-eyed daughter said resolutely, “I’m happy now. For days I’ve been walking into my room and I would see my dog just not breathing right, and it made me so sad. I was sad that he was sad, and he was sad because he knew I was sad. And we could only both be sad. I didn’t want to keep him alive for my sake. That’s just not right.”
Her brothers came back and dug Luke’s grave. Abigail requested that Luke be buried on our property where she could see his grave out of her bedroom window, so we did that, and we had a little funeral with some friends. Abigail didn’t attend, but the rest of us stood around the grave. Everyone helped shovel dirt back over the hole and there was a sense of communal sorrow.
I’ve never seen those boys be so tender or quiet.
Saying goodbye to a dog and embracing fond memories
I am blessed to have spent the years that I did with Luke, and I dedicate this blog post to him. I know that most of you understand exactly what I’m expressing and what I’m feeling right now. My daughter vows that she will never have another dog because she cannot ever love something with this intensity and have such a huge part of her heart extinguished.
And yet I pray that as her grief fades with time, she will choose to love another dog someday. The grief is the price we pay for having a part of our heart and soul awakened by the love of a dog.
A pictorial tribute to Luke shared by his companion and best friend, Abigail
I was very sad to lose Luke, but he was suffering, and I know he is in a better place.” – Abigail