Dogs are Not Disposable

From a column by Cary Tennis at Salon. If I had any ambivalent feelings about the guy’s approach to giving advice, they would be gone now, because this is a wonderful letter. Here is part of his response to a woman who is mightily unhappy about her husband’s aging dog.

[…] Age in our loved ones often takes us by surprise. Someone can no longer see very well, can’t hear what we’re saying, can’t walk so well, can’t remember anything. At first we don’t get what it means. It’s just an annoyance. Then slowly it comes to us: She’s going away. This is the sound of her departure.

The dog is losing control, one of the signs of impending death, one of the messy, stinky, unpleasant things that happen as life nears its end.

Let’s tell the story again from the dog’s point of view — a little doggy flashback told with a handheld camera. Before you came along, she had her master — your husband — all to herself. He took her on long walks. They had many fine times together, just the two of them. Then you came along. But though you were a rival and superseded her in the pack, she welcomed your arrival, because she is such a social animal.

Then you became pregnant. You became the center. You acquired a heightened sense of smell. Your concern with cleanliness increased. You battled doggy odors. You erased the olfactory narratives that the dog was used to reading. She began to feel physically lost in the house. She needed, more than ever, a room of her own. She needed a purpose. She tried to claim one, but was punished and shunned. When the first child was born, the dog sensed her rightful role would be to protect and nurture the infant. But she was shunned.[….]

Is euthanasia right? Ask yourself: Is it for you, or for the dog? While it might not be ethical to put the dog to sleep merely for your own convenience, it might be ethical to release the dog from an increasingly difficult and painful life.

If you choose euthanasia, you might want to first try to bring some happiness to the dog’s life. Maybe she could have a week or two where nobody scolds her for things she can’t control. That would make a nice ending to the story. At the end, you could say, she was happy.

If you’re considering a dog, you might want to think about adopting an older one. Here are the people who will tell you all about the benefits.

I love my dogs for their personalities and for the role they play in our family. I love the way they greet me when I come home, and the joy they take in everything. One day they will be old. I dread that day, but I hope to meet their needs with all the warmth and caring that they bring to me now, day by day.

2013 edited to restore missing comments:


The husband needs to grow a pair and tell the wife exactly where to go. I’d get rid of her before I got rid of my dog.

I had an elderly dog I had to euthanize. She would fall down or get knocked down by the younger dogs, and sometimes she was not able to pick herself up, so she laid there in her own waste until I got home to help her up and clean her up. I felt so bad for her. I didn’t know what else to do. I just couldn’t stand the thought of her laying there like that for who knows how many hours. My sweet baby girl.
Posted by: Norma at December 21, 2005 06:56 AM

Norma– that’s very sad. I’m sorry about your girl, and hope the younger dogs are some comfort to you.

Posted by: rosina  at December 21, 2005 08:17 AM

Sorry. Kind of went off there in my own little world of woe.

I just wanted to make the point that incontintence is no reason to have a dog euthanized. And sometimes medication works. It did for my other old dog.

I didn’t have Heidi euthanized because she was incontinent. I had her euthanized because of the falling down and not being able to get up and laying there in it for hours. My heart broke for her. It was a hard decision to make.

Posted by: Norma at December 21, 2005 10:10 AM

No need to apologize. I understand why you made the decision, and the courage it must have required.

Posted by: rosina at December 21, 2005 11:56 AM

One of the reasons I dont have a dog is because of childhood heartbreaks, having to say goodbye to puppies that my parents grew out of. I hope not, but I think I may have that same impathience somewhere within me, so knowing that I dont trust myself to have a dog of my own. I just enjoy the dogs my friends have instead. Maybe I will feel differntly when I am a little older and have children and a partner to share the care. I hope so, because i do love dogs.

Posted by: Deborah at December 21, 2005 12:31 PM

We had to put our family dog to sleep last weekend; she was thirteen years old and I had had her for almost half my life. She’d been incontinent for a while, but we controlled it with medication and for the most part, that worked. The odd accident, well, it happens. Happens when you’re toilet training kids, too. It never once occurred to us that we might do it merely because of that; as a family, we agreed (once we could see it coming) that as soon she was visibly distressed or in pain that could not be managed, we’d let her go.

So yeah, my point – our dog was very much a part of our family. As she aged, her needs in the household were respected: kids were told not to touch her or follow if she retreated to her basket for a bit of time out, we carried her down the stairs at the back when her legs weren’t too steady (she was an Irish Setter!) and basically fed her whatever she felt like eating when ever she wanted to eat it. Carey Tennis has hit the nail squarely on the head; that’s why I like his article so much.

Posted by: Meredith at December 21, 2005 01:32 PM

Crickey, how sad. I dread the day, I really do.

Posted by: rosina at December 21, 2005 01:47 PM

What made it bearable is that we all knew (my parents and brother and I) that it was the right thing to do.

Posted by: Meredith at December 21, 2005 02:52 PM

This touched me. It brings back memories of our family dog as he got older. My mom had to deal with the hardest of it while my sister and I were in graduate school and college respectively. She struggled with the idea of whether or not he needed to be euthanized and the vet told her that when the time was right, she’d know.

The amazing thing, was that he held on while I was away at college. When I came home for the summer, my mom, dad, our dog, and I traveled by car to my sister’s for vacation. He perked up and seemed to get better. I guess he was just waiting to see her one last time, because within a day he stopped eating and drinking and appeared to be ready to die. It was one of the saddest times of my life.

I really yearn for a dog, but I know it wouldn’t be fair to our cat who is used to having our undivided attention. She is 10 years old now. I try not to think about her age too much, because when I do, the thought of having to say goodbye makes me cry.

Posted by: Danielle at December 21, 2005 02:57 PM

And Meridith, please accept my heartfelt condolences.

Posted by: Danielle at December 21, 2005 02:59 PM

Thanks, Danielle. And I know exactly what you mean about your dog; we had a similar experience.

Posted by: Meredith at December 21, 2005 03:08 PM

Our family dog was sixteen when we had to put her to sleep. I’d come home to go with my parents to my brother’s college graduation, and the night before we were to leave, she had a seizure. She could do no more than lay on her side, and I remember just stroking her fur. We all knew that the next day, something would have to be done. I cried all night.

The next morning, my mother and I headed for graduation while my father took the dog to the vet. My mom and I cried for the entire four hour drive, and when my father slipped quietly into the darkened auditorium an hour late, we knew what he’d had to do.

I’ve always thought of my father as a hero for handeling that. I dread the day I have to sit with my dog at the end. Remembering Missy brings tears to my eyes even now, nearly twenty years later.

Posted by: Lynn M at December 22, 2005 03:19 PM