15 August 2010

Beyond My Limit

Today, I did something I never wanted to do...and was certain I would never bring myself to do: personally put my beloved dog out of her suffering. Over the years, I've had to put down injured or sick cats, goats, lambs, and birds. It was never pleasant, but I'd never hesitated. But all that time, dogs remained for me a line I couldn't cross. Especially a companion like Tabasco.

As regular readers know, we'd had Tabasco for nearly four years. We got her as a stray when we lived in Illinois; she showed up at the local rural animal shelter on the same day our Collie was hit by a car. Our vet happened to run the shelter (it was a really small county), and someone there knew we were looking for a new farm dog. Tabasco, it turned out, was a perfect fit. She was on the older side, and wasn't terribly large, but had plenty of spunk and energy. She had a wonderful temperament, was good with our kids, loved retrieving tennis balls, enjoyed riding around in cars, and made herself a fierce defender of our property (she was a determined enough "alpha" to stand up even to our Great Pyrenees...not to mention any intruders who might show up unannounced). She had long legs and a long narrow muzzle, and loved spending hours digging her way into field mouse dens. (Mrs. Yeoman Farmer didn't like it so much when these digs were in the middle of the lawn.)

As Tabasco got older, she increasingly spent her days with me in my office building. She'd go out to relieve herself, but grew less interested in everything else. She slept on my office couch each night, and was my constant companion by day as I worked. I found it particularly heartening when I'd return to the office after a few hours away...and find her curled up on my desk chair. She'd look up with her big eyes, thump her curly tail, and seem to be assuring me that she'd taken good care of my special place.

The first big turning point was last November, when we were gone for several weeks adopting Yeoman Farm Baby. Tabasco developed a hacking cough, bad enough that the family watching our farm mentioned it regularly over the phone. I took her to the vet once we'd returned, and x-rays confirmed a case of pneumonia. We gave her a course of antibiotics, which took care of the worst symptoms, but Tabasco was never the same. She seldom went out at all, or didn't seem interested in much of anything but eating and sleeping and watching me work. At the time, I chalked this up to the cold winter. But even when the spring thaw came, she never again tried to chase a tennis ball or tag along for chores. The kids would take her to the barn at milking time, but that was more about getting free squirts of milk than anything else.

Then came the bloat. As detailed in another post, her bloat got so bad about a month ago that I took her to the vet...who took another x-ray, and delivered the grim diagnosis: tumors all over her lungs. Technically, pulmonary edema, and possibly lung cancer. At her age, there wasn't much of anything we could do. The vet gave some medications to drain her fluid and open her airway, but there was never any question of Tabasco making a recovery. The medication was all about buying time so we could say goodbye.

And I am deeply grateful for that. When we were at the vet last month, he wasn't sure Tabasco would make it through the weekend. The news was such a shock, I broke down right there in the examining room. And then...the medications gave us five more weeks. Tabasco's bloat was dramatically reduced within a matter of days, and for the next three or four more weeks she seemed almost normal. Slow, subdued, uninterested in strenuous activity, urinating all the time --- but stable and able to get around. I treasured every time I walked through my office door and she looked up and thumped her tail. We gave her all the meat scraps and dog treats she would take, and told her over and over what a great great dog she was.

Then came the last week. Suddenly, she had a lot of trouble getting to her feet. Especially on the slick floor of my office. I told her that was okay; I'd help her get up. I wondered if it was a side effect of the steroids, or just her disease running its course. She'd have good days and bad days, but the general trajectory was downward. She went from having trouble getting up, to having trouble walking around. Her joints seemed stiff, and her hind quarters didn't want to follow her front quarters.

Then, a few days ago, she couldn't keep herself in a squatting position long enough to relieve herself. Or a standing position long enough to drink from her bucket. I'd hold her at the bucket so she could drink, but then she'd flop down on the grass. She seemed to like the fresh air, so I'd leave her out. And because she couldn't get to her feet on my office floor, I'd leave her out at night as long as it wasn't raining.

I sensed we'd reached a turning point, and began thinking more seriously about taking her in for the vet to put her down. I was certain I couldn't do it myself. I'm a dog person to the core, and Tabasco was my constant companion. Every fiber of my being revolted at the idea of inflicting harm on her body from my own hand. It'd taken four weeks just to get comfortable with the idea of cradling her in a blanket as I allowed a vet to put her to sleep. Tabasco was a survivor, and a fighter. As long as she was physically able to keep going and seemed to have the spirit to fight, I resolved to let her do it. I prayed she'd die on her own, but knowing her...I knew she wouldn't.

I wondered how I'd know when Tabasco couldn't go on, and I'd have to make The Call. She wasn't well at all yesterday, and I started to think Monday would be It. I began thinking about how I could squeeze a vet visit into my crazily busy schedule. I grilled a big batch of lamb steaks for dinner, and made sure Tabasco got every bone and every scrap. Even though she couldn't move to get anything, she seemed to be having the time of her life as we fed them to her.

Then, this morning when I came to her, I knew it was time. I couldn't make her wait till the vet opened on Monday. As absolutely revolting as it was to think about putting her down myself, a perfectly clear realization came to me: it was even more revolting to think about making her suffer a single additional day like this. And I couldn't make her do it. I cared about her too much. I cared about her so much, I knew in my core that I had to end this. Now.

How did I know? And how did I do it? Some of you may be uncomfortable with the details, but I think they need to be shared. For that reason, the details will be after the jump. Continue reading only if you want to.

(I don't know why the "Jump Break" doesn't work, so I'm inserting the following manual break instead.)


Tabasco's inability to stand on her feet, or to squat to defecate, was the core of the problem. I didn't mind carrying her around, or holding her as she drank. The issue became hygiene, and it was a lot worse than I'd thought. Bottom line: flies started to love her. By Saturday afternoon, they were all over her rear end. Saturday night, I got a look at what they were doing to her: her orifices were crawling with fly larvae. I hosed her down, and that brought some relief. Her spirits, despite everything, seemed to remain high.

Then, this morning, the larvae were back with a vengeance. And she smelled absolutely horrible. And Tabasco's spirit was gone. I sat her on her tail in my lap, put on a latex glove, and used peroxide to clean her up as best I could. But as much as I cleaned, the larvae kept coming. And, despite the early hour, the adult flies were already swooping in to lay more eggs. I knew there was no way whatsoever we could let her go a full additional day in this condition. Not in this heat. Not in this humidity.

It was time.

I went in the house and advised Mrs. Yeoman Farmer as to the situation. She agreed there was really no other option. It'd be cruel in the extreme to make Tabasco linger for another 26 hours while we waited for the vet to open, and we certainly couldn't call a vet to the farm on a Sunday morning to administer an "emergency" euthanasia.

We broke it to the kids, who took it surprisingly well. I think the five weeks of preparation helped a lot with that. Homeschooled Farm Girl got choked up, brought me a fabric flower that she'd been saving, and asked if I would bury it with Tabasco. Despite the huge lump in my own throat, I assured her I would.

I took a shovel to the pasture, and dug the deepest hole I could. When I came back to retrieve Tabasco, Homeschooled Farm Boy asked if he could go with me. I let him carry my (unloaded) pistol, while I cradled Tabasco in a blanket for the trek.

We set Tabasco in the bottom of the hole, and helped her curl up as comfortably as we could. HFB and I both said our last good-byes, and then I covered her head with an old dish towel before delivering the bullet that would end everything.

I'd actually given a lot of though to the type of round I wanted to use. A shotgun slug or .45 pistol or 7.62x54R rifle would be too big. I didn't want to blow her head off. A .22 or .380 might be too small and not do the job the first time. I settled on a 7.62x25 pistol; it's a relatively small but extremely powerful round that would be effective without overkill.

And it indeed was the perfect choice. One pop (which, I confess, I closed my eyes as I delivered), and it was over. No doubt, but no mess. HFB and I quickly covered Tabasco's body with rocks, and then filled the hole the rest of the way with dirt. We tamped it down, and then made our way back to the house with heavy hearts.

Strangely, my heart didn't remain heavy for long. Yes, I felt a sad pang the first time I entered my office and looked for Tabasco's thumping tail greeting that would never come again. But, at the same time, I felt oddly liberated. It was over. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer agreed: it was a relief to finally have resolution to the situation. Finally, we knew how it was going to end. Finally, we could move on.

I'm still surprised I found it within myself to pull that trigger, and I've sensed an odd change within myself today as I've reflected on it. I'm a stronger person now. I've confronted and overcome a challenge I ever even wanted to confront, let alone overcome. The other big challenges in life seem strangely less insurmountable today.

All that said, I have missed Tabasco today. Especially when I was de-boning the meat for lamb stew, and thinking about how much she would enjoy feasting on the scraps...before remembering.

But it's going to be okay. Scooter loved those scraps. And Tabasco...I'm just glad her suffering is over. And I'm grateful God gave me the strength to render that service.


Homesteading Mommy said...

You got me crying. Working with all of Creation is so bitter-sweet. Glad to know she's at rest. So sorry for your loss, but its been a good few years of gain too to even have had her. You've got great kids there too. You're doing a fantastic job raising them. :->

Anonymous said...

trampI'm sorry you had to go thru this but you definitely did the wise thing in a very kind and gentle manner. I had to take our mini schnauzer to the vet to have him put down for cancer and the way you described it seems more natural and caring. Our vet acted as if he was euthanizing a person, I paid the extra 40$ to be present because I wanted to make sure he didn't suffer, but looking back it was a bit strange. The vet even said 'too bad in this country this option isn't available for people'. I was shocked and at a loss for words. We still go to him. I bring all the kids and I'm determined to quietly convert him and his wife. -Loretta

Anonymous said...

I am reading my prior comment and first word 'tramp' is not me calling you a tramp, it was the word verification I had to enter and it put it in the comment - how funny. -loretta

TYF said...

Loretta - funny! Because it ran together as a long nonsense word with strange punctuation and capitalization, I dismissed it as a typical internet typo caused by fingers typing too fast or something. Only now do I realize it's "tramp" and "I'm" stuck together. LOL.

Allison Reynolds said...

You brought me to tears...took me back to when we lost animals. God bless as you deal with your loss!