14 February 2008

'Pearl Drift'

Milou & his friend, Tallulah, the fox terrier

At last we have sun again after a week of rain. Goodness knows the garden needed it, although rain and a pile of muddy dogs don’t make for a clean house. Milou’s rose, however – he’s buried under a rose called Pearl Drift – needed rain to break into leaf, and it is doing just that. So perhaps I’d better stop complaining.

It’s nearly three years since Milou was put to sleep. The dreaded deed can be done properly and kindly or very badly. It’s always something we don’t want to think about but thank goodness we can help our dogs on their way to a peaceful end with no more suffering. But it must be done properly.

The veterinarian who put Milou to sleep made a botch of it. I’ve not written about the way it happened till now because it was too painful and it made me upset and angry just to think about it. Read this and remember. Don’t go thru what I did and more to the point, what Milou did. When we put a dog to sleep, we shouldn’t have to be worrying about ‘how’ it is done (that’s the veterinarian’s job) – it’s bad enough just going thru it but I learned a lesson on the day Milou went to doggy heaven. Even when we are desperately upset, we have to take responsibility.

I’d taken him down to the vet that morning following a dreadful night. I knew it was his time without asking the vet but she x-rayed him and confirmed that the tumours in his lungs had multiplied. Mindful of the night before, when he’d been gasping for breath, I had no intention of letting him go through another night. I’d had him up on the bed with me trying to soothe him so he could breathe more easily. So I was prepared for what had to happen and had put several small biscuits in my handbag. [I’ve always fed my dogs their favourite treat when it’s time for the needle to go in. That way they are so occupied with eating they are not watching what the vet is about to do. Of course sometimes a dog is too sick to eat but if not, I’ve found this to be a helpful and distracting thing to do.]

It’s always difficult to choose the right day to put a dog to sleep. Ideally it’s before pain gets too much but not too soon. If in doubt, look in your dog’s eyes. He’ll often tell you. Indeed, sometimes – not always - when a dog is really ready to go, he’ll get a film over his eyes as if he’s blanking out the world in advance.

Hiking on the hills above Gorbio

And although it’s not easy, we owe it to our dog to be there with him at that final moment. Some people simply can’t face it but if you can, your dog will leave this world in the arms of the person he loves most - you. Let him think this is no more than the usual yearly jab – or at worst, the taking of a blood test.

The decision was made. ‘Put him on the table, Jilly,’ my vet said. I lifted him up, cuddling him, crying. Milou was the dog of my life. I’ve had many wonderful dogs but had never had a relationship with a dog as I did with this wonderful American cocker spaniel. My handbag was already on the table and he could smell the biscuits. He’d always had a wonderful ‘nose’ and whenever Candy, my best friend in America, sent him tennis balls, he could smell them before I'd removed the wrapping paper, let alone opened the box.

So he was digging his nose into my bag, trying to get at the treats. How can you put a dog to sleep who is healthy enough to want a biscuit? And now, he was breathing quite well too. No matter, I’d seen the x-ray, I’d witnessed the difficulty he’d had during the night and I knew we had to go through this before he deteriorated further.
The vet prepared the needle. The first would send him off to sleep the instant she withdrew it from a vein - an anaesthetic. Then when asleep, she’d inject a further chemical to stop the heart. Easy peasy.

I gave Milou half a biscuit, which disappeared in a trice. Then another half. Then another half. The vet seemed to be taking a long time with the needle. I looked up. She was standing there, ready, needle in hand. ‘What are you waiting for?’ I asked. ‘I’m waiting for him to stop eating,’ she said. I’d explained to her earlier that this is the way I like my dogs to go – distracted by food and doing what they enjoy most – eating. ‘It doesn’t seem right that he should be eating when he dies,’ she said.

Of course, I should have insisted but I was totally choked up. I couldn’t argue with her. I shut my bag and put it on the floor. ‘Hold on to him,’ she said. I held him and she put a tourniquet round the top of his leg. He immediately started struggling, fighting, desperate to get off the table. It took all my strength to hold him. Probably, looking back, the tourniquet was far too tight. Was a tourniquet even necessary? ‘Hold him tighter,’ she said. I wanted to yell, ‘Stop, you can’t kill a dog like this – it should be a gentle easy passing – there shouldn’t be a struggle. He deserves better than this.’ And then I thought – all in a split second of course - ‘But he’s got to go and I’m just being stupid.’ And all the time, sobbing, sobbing. One of Milou’s legs had come off the table in his desperate attempt to get away. I got it back and held him as tightly as I could. Eventually, and it seemed like minutes but of course it wasn’t, she managed to get the needle into his leg – I manoeuvred myself around, whilst holding him and the last image I had of my darling Milou was his face, eyes wide and staring, scared and fighting - fighting so hard, for this not to happen. And then he collapsed. I’ll never forget the terrified look in his eyes. Then she put the chemical into the vein to stop the heart, took my money and I brought him home to bury him on the hillside above the house. And today his rose is about to burst into leaf.

But I couldn’t forget the fear in his eyes. My darling dog deserved to go gently into that good night, not with terror as he did. Of course, I’ve re-lived it a million times. I should have brought him home, let him relax for a while, fed him something he loved. Then later, given him sedatives before taking him back to the vet when he’d have been too sleepy to know anything. Or I should have got the vet up here and made her do it gently, allowed me feed the biscuits. But most of all I should have stopped it that day. I was appalled at myself although I’d never had a ‘bad’ death before and just hadn’t allowed for such a possibility. I wasn’t prepared and so didn’t stop it – couldn’t get beyond my emotion. I can’t forgive myself for not stopping the fiasco. He deserved better, my kind, beautiful Milou.

Two days later, and still distraught, I went back to the vet to ask her why she’d allowed this to happen – why she’d let him suffer so much in his last minutes. She said, ‘You are a dog person, Jilly, with years of experience and so I didn’t think it would have bothered you.’ She was plainly amazed that two days later I was still so utterly distressed. Good God in heaven! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I told her that had this been someone else’s dog (in other words had I not been emotionally involved) I’d have stopped the process immediately until the dog was calm – then we’d have started again but with Milou, I was too upset to even speak. To be fair to her, she then told me that she'd seen I was upset and just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. It wasn’t right though; it wasn’t the way it should have happened. I don’t think she’ll put another dog or owner through a death like that in a hurry. At least I hope not.

She sent me a note of apology a week or so later. Too late - too late.

Obviously, she didn’t intend for this to happen - any more than I did. She should though, with her experience, have done it properly. I’m not sure I’ve forgiven her but the anger has gone. Milou, who was the kindest dog in the world, has doubtless forgiven me long ago. He loved me too much – and me him. I haven’t yet forgiven myself though and certainly I can’t bring myself to go back to that particular vet even though it’s convenient as she is far nearer to me than the vet I use now. I never will go back to her.

Of course it was the vet’s fault. Not mine. We should all be able to trust our veterinarian to do things properly and kindly. But I wish I’d stopped it and I didn’t. My advice would be to discuss, in advance, exactly what procedure is used - just to put your mind at rest.

Since Milou died, Flavia, my lovely old retired Guide Dog for the Blind, went peacefully and easily on my terrace, thanks to my current vet. She munched carrots, which she adored, as the needle went in and she knew nothing. That’s how it should be done and when it’s like that, you don’t feel terrible. You feel relieved you were able to ease a dog beyond its suffering.

That’s how it’s always been when I’ve had to put a dog to sleep, except with the one dog that meant so much – Milou.

Pearl Drift, Milou's rose - plus his, now, very weathered tennis ball

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