By Mike Jaynes
Everyone who has animals living with them has responsibilities. One of the last, and hardest to honor, is to make absolutely sure their passing is not painful. Sometimes we cannot control it; we cannot help them. But if we can, it is our mandate to be there for them and to ensure their transition is as easy as possible. For me, May 7th 2008, that unpleasant responsibility once again came spiraling through the universe and found me.
I inherited the care of Abby from a neighbor about five years ago. At the time she was violent and over ten years old. Indeed, a violent Chihuahua mix can be a formidable force, believe it or not! She warmed to us immediately and became an integral part of our family. Her downward pointing constantly wagging tail was indeed ubiquitous around the house, as was her barking, yipping, and occasionally biting the neighbors.
Years passed. Years of treats, rolling on her back, downward tail wagging. She slept under the bed and loved to sit in the grass on sunny days. She had a waddling stance due to old age induced hip displacement, but she rolled along quite nicely. Five years went by quite nicely and then last year the coughing started. My vet (Middle Valley Animal Hospital [mvahvets.com]) told me the X rays showed an enlarged heart, blood spillage from a faulty valve that wouldn't close properly, and a displaced trachea causing the incessant cough. A steroidal injection, Benazapril and Lasix held it under control for about a year and then around a month ago (I write this on May 9, 2008) it returned. I was told it might. The treatment was repeated and this time her liver enzymes were dangerously abnormal. The hope was it was due to the steroids. I was told to bring her in for a recheck in a month and to hope for the best. That, I always do. However, any caretaker of an elderly animal starts to get paranoid about any abnormal test results because at sixteen years, time is against you. And them.
Over the next month, bad signs appeared. I also urge anyone who notices this in any of the animals in your charge to get these things checked immediately. She began sleeping much more than usual. She was less active (not that a sixteen year old lady Chihuahua is that active anyway) and, most alarmingly, parts of her body began to turn yellow. The whites of her eyes, patches of her skin under her fur, the tip of her nose, and the insides of her soft silky ears all turned yellow. Jaundicing in an elderly pup is not a thing to dismiss or take lightly. Then, two days before her recheck, she quit eating.
The recheck was bad. Her liver enzymes and bile levels were off the chart and our fears were confirmed. X rays, ultrasound, and other tests ensued. I'll report what happened as much as I can because I am a person who is curious and wants to know things. The films were dubious. As mentioned, her blood work was bad showing liver enzymes were way into the dangerously high zone and her bile levels were to the toxic level due to what Dr. Gussack believed was a tumor in her liver. The yellowish jaundicing happens due to a bile excess and non-functioning liver. Abdominal ultrasound confirmed the doctor's differential and showed a very large ingrained tumor occupying a large portion of her liver and spreading to her gall bladder. She had been in heart failure for over a year, but I had hoped the medicine she was on would help and give her more years. Chihuahuas are notoriously unlucky when it comes to cardiovascular deformations, but they have also been known to live up to nineteen or twenty years.
The medication probably did help the heart issue and take the fluid from her lungs (pulmonary edema occurs when fluid backs out into the lungs due to some cardio defect), but I'm told when a tumor gets into the liver, there is little hope even for young, strong, and healthy dogs. Due to her age and the size of the tumor, she was immediately declared inoperable.
Dr. Gussack's confirmation led to a positive diagnosis of untreatable liver cancer. The presence of jaundiced skin and other signs such as vomiting and not eating signified the cancerous tumor was advanced, probably slowly growing from many months or perhaps years, as they tend to do. She was given only days to live and I was told that natural death by liver cancer and liver failure is a horrendously painful and disturbing way for an animal who does not know what is happening to die. Knowing and respecting the finite nature of life and the horrors of suffering, I completely support euthanasia when it is necessary to avoid suffering. People often prolong animals' misery out of personal weakness. In fact I know I have done this at least once before, and I vowed after that one time to never put my emotions or fears in front of a loved one's wellbeing ever again. I wanted to bring her home and have one last day with her; the doctor said it was possible she could die overnight but maybe not probable. I thought about it and realized that was a selfish option that only benefited me and my emotional state. The only way to guarantee her a one hundred percent pain free death was to do it then, or so I decided.
Her passing was as good as they can be. The doctor injected a sedative and I was told she would be out of it in ten to fifteen minutes, so I took her outside under the perfect and almost cloudless blue sky. I sat in the grass and held her. We chatted and talked and she slowly lost control of her legs and got very sleepy. We lay down in the grass like we did when we would hang out on the couch and watch Star Trek together, all those nights. The wind was making patterns in the tall grass in the side of the building.
Trees, birds, leaves, breezes, the Merry Month of May. A month for living, not for dying, but I suppose if you have to die in May, a postcard perfect day as this one is as good as any and better than most. I wanted her to be conscious of the breeze, the birdsong, the gently waving grass, the bushes, and my love as she slowly fell asleep. I took her inside to the same room where I have been with a few other animals who had to be euthanized. She was semi-conscious, but perhaps not too aware. The needle was injected. I put my face to hers and held her as the euthanasia agent was administered. Like all the previous times, it was painless, quick, merciful, and I was with her to the very last minute. It tore me to tiny pieces and I miss her terribly, but I will not abandon an animal that has been with me to go through that alone. I truly believe it is our responsibility as animal caretakers actually to be in the room, if at all possible, with them, holding them and in their sight if they have to be euthanized. It is not easy, but it is right. Please do not make your pet go through this in the company of strangers. Let them see you, the one who loved them, as the last thing they ever see.
A local pet cemetery called Pet Haven Cemetery and Crematorium offers very affordable cremation, so she is going to be cremated and delivered back to the vet in a day or so. I will pick her up, scatter her ashes, weep uncontrollably, keep her urn and her nametag in a special place, and sing her name for all my time to come. As with all animals who have been a part of my family and affected me deeply, as long as I live they will also. Then the ride home. This is horrible.
As I was driving home, I saw a turtle on the side of the road. Being an Animal Ethics writer and trying to help them at all costs, I was concerned. The human world is a sick place with sick people who often swerve and hit turtles and other animals on purpose. I quickly pulled over with the hopes of moving him off into the underbrush. Alas, he was dead; the front half of his shell crushed and his head was mangled. You can imagine what I went through on the side of that road. I can only hope it was a mistake, but my fear tells me it wasn't. Roadside funeral with wild flowers and more mourning, more disappointment and confusion in humanity descended on me in a great heavy black wave of hopelessness. I spread wild flowers over his great crushed body and drove home to my two remaining dogs and cat.
And today I picked up her ashes in her urn. She sits in front of me as I write this and I hope she had a good life, I hope she knew I loved her fiercely. I was with her to the very end and now I will sing her praises and remember her with joy and love. My friends may tire of me going on and on singing songs and making myths about Abby, the world's fattest Chihuahua who graced this world for 16 years (112 to you and me), but I bet they will understand. As all animals are, she was special and lived in the moment. She was cranky and even a little mean at times, but I saw her at her best. I saw her when it was just her and me. She loved to eat wet food and to thump her little downward pointing tail and lick her wise old animal lips. She would take long walks in the neighborhood and sit on patches of grass. I don't know if she ever had children before I got her or not. Was she ever a mother? Did she ever see the ocean? I don't know. But I do know that while she was with me, she was cared for and loved.
Another tragically fading amazing old lady once said to me that all Creatures of Great Worth inevitably have Myths arise around them. So thank you for reading the story of the world's fattest and most sassy Chihuahua mix that inexplicitly had the capability of flight. In my inner world of forests and animals, May 7th has been declared Abby Day, and I hope if she could understand it that this article, this very small tribute to her, would please her. Dear reader, if you do so you will not be the first to accuse me of sentimentality anthropomorphism, but as she was slowing and becoming sedated outside in the burning daylight, I think she was aware...I think she was aware of what was happening. I think it scared her a little bit, but I think she was okay with it. A graceful old lady of 112 knew it was her time, and I feel honored to have known her and to have guaranteed her an easy death. We should all be so lucky. She did great: She is Legend.
So, Dearest Abby, I love you. My heart is ragged. I love you and whatever comes after this life for us all, I hope you are flying free, maybe way past the speed of light toward that ancestral place we all are headed back to, the place called Home.
Mike Jaynes is an American writer living in the Southeast. He has published on various animal ethics issues including elephant captivity and issues facing sharks.