Heavy Petting

When Should You Put Your Dog Down?

How to make a decision you never want to make.

Jack sells antiques in upstate New York; he’s a pretty upbeat guy, but when a vet diagnosed his 12-year-old black Lab, Schuyler, with cancer of the jaw and told Jack the prognosis was grim, he burst into tears, so upset he had to call his girlfriend to come drive him and the dog home.

He called me later that night. Punctuated by sobs and silences, our conversation lasted nearly an hour. “I really don’t know what to do,” Jack said. “My friends say I should go to Penn or Cornell for chemo. My girlfriend says I should try alternative medicine, maybe something homeopathic. I can’t bear to think of it. When do you put a dog down? How do you decide? I can’t bear to lose him, but I don’t want him to suffer.”

We spoke three or four times over the next couple of weeks, Jack agonizing over the many options he was hearing about. The vet had urged him to euthanize the dog before Schuyler’s condition worsened, but Jack had clearly decided against that. He was apparently going to put the dog down “when he was ready,” and thought he wasn’t ready yet. One evening, he said he’d talked to a friend and dog lover who’d told him that Schuyler would tell him when it was time to go, that Jack should watch and listen to the dog for cues. He asked if I thought this was the right course.

To be honest, I couldn’t quite say what I was thinking. Each decision about the death of a dog is personal and different, dependent on context and circumstances. But if I had told him what I was thinking, it would have been this: Dogs are voiceless. They can’t tell us when it’s time to die, even if they were capable of such abstract thought. That’s something we have to decide for them, wielding our love, compassion, and common sense as best we can.

I didn’t look to my wonderful yellow Labs to tell me when it was time for them to go, one diagnosed with congestive heart failure, the other with colon cancer. The responsibility and decision, it seemed to me, was mine, not theirs. I put them down before they endured any prolonged suffering—my own choice, not a recommendation for others.

In the context of the most personal decision any dog owner ever makes, there are few universal truths. Jack ended up keeping Schuyler alive for two months, until the dog’s jaw had swollen to grapefruit size. When he called me again, I told him it seemed time, and he put the dog to sleep. Later, he called this the most wrenching period of his life, so painful he’d decided never to get another dog. I told him that was a shame.

It is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than ours—just eight years, on average—and it has always been my belief that to love and own a dog is to understand and accept that along with loyalty, love, and devotion come the ever-present specters of grief and loss. This is as integral a part of the dog-loving experience as going for walks.

There’s no Idiot’s Guide for this question, no handbook. The many points of view are strongly held. One vet I know says a dog should be euthanized “when it can no longer live the life of a dog—and only the owner knows when that really is.” A breeder says she puts her dogs down when “their suffering exceeds their ability to take pleasure in life.” A trainer I respect believes her dog should live as long as it can eat.

Another friend and dog lover says she always knows when it’s time: “when the soul goes out of their eyes.”

I’m not among those who believe dogs have souls, but I know what she means. There is a certain visceral “dogness” about dogs, an interest in people, food, squirrels, passing trucks—whatever—that’s part of their individual spirits. When that disappears, it does seem the “soul” of the dog is gone.

But I know other owners—a growing number, according to vets—who fight to keep their dogs alive as long as possible, at all costs.

Researching my last book, I visited an emergency-care clinic that had six dogs on respirators at a cost of nearly a $1,000 per week per dog.

Their owners, the vets said, simply could not bear to lose them. In the context of America’s growing love affair with dogs—there are nearly 70 million owned dogs in the United States and nearly 10 million more in shelters—this seems to me a travesty, not only for the dogs but for the humans who’ve lost sight of the fact that these amazing creatures are animals.

Increasingly, we’ve come to see our dogs as human, childlike members of our families, companions that sometimes provide us with more emotional support than friends or spouses, more satisfaction than work, more support than we can find elsewhere. As a result, people are increasingly devastated by the loss of their dogs, more uncertain about how and when to put them down, more inclined to spend thousands of dollars on surgery, alternative cures, foods, and treatments that might prolong their lives.

As the owner of three dogs, I spend more than I can truly afford to keep them healthy and vigorous. But as my conversations with Jack reminded me, they are not people. Their lives and deaths ought not be conflated or confused with human losses.

To love dogs is to know death and to accept that there’s never a time we are more morally obliged to speak for them than when they face the end of their lives.