People & Other Animals: When Is the Right Time to End the Life of Loved Animal?

Those of us who work in animal welfare are frequently asked to answer a question that has no answer: When is the right time to end the life of a loved animal? A lousy question, but I guess it's just part of the job.

I first faced this question with Hamish, the much-loved dog of my roommate, many years ago. In the blink of an eye, he went from a happy, goofy pal to the point where every motion was labored. Still, he continued to smile when he heard his name, to sigh a happy sigh when held.

Ending Hamish's suffering by ending his life wasn't my decision to make, but I don't think I would have been any better at it than was my roommate. Every good hour seemed to erase a day's discomfort. We loved him; we didn't want to let him go.

Finally it was clear that Hamish didn't just hurt. He was in real pain. No more drugs, no miracles, no happiness left. Finally, it was clear that we had waited too long.

We bought him a pepperoni pizza, extra cheese, and fed him small bites. We drove to his favorite place, the beach, and unable to stand on his own, I ran with him in my arms. We chased some waves, splashed a bit in the surf, and then sat for awhile, this wonderful dog and a few of us who had been lucky enough to know him.

The veterinarian gently injected a vein as we held him. Surprisingly, his dying was without drum roll, without thunder. As we watched him and cried, it was clear that we had waited too long.

I still don't know much about the best "how" and "when" to make this choice for the animals in my family. But I do know that it is a gift we are responsible for giving to the animals who give us so much, and that avoiding the decision -- as understandable as that is -- is selfish. I also know that there probably never is a right time, and that each time I've made the choice I've wrestled afterwards with "did I wait too long" or "did I act too soon."

We should have been thinking more about Hamish and less about how much his absence would hurt. He wasn't the kind of guy to hold a grudge, so I stopped feeling guilty long ago. Mostly, then as now, I feel happy to have been with him. Mostly, I remember Hamish as he lived. And I know that everyone loved lives forever, perhaps in a literal way, and surely in the hearts of those who love them.