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Grieving the death of my old furry friend

The Doubts

I set up a bed next to Siwa so that I could be with her through the night. I also sketched her to try to calm my mind and remain as emotionally stable as I could for her.

I set up a bed next to Siwa so that I could be with her through the night. I also sketched her to try to calm my mind and remain as emotionally stable as I could for her.

It’s been three days since Siwa passed away and the feelings are still very raw. I find myself thinking about the 35-hours prior to her passing, second-guessing my decision, wondering “What if I had________”, insert the appropriate word to fit the action/non-action I should have/could have taken. That is what makes the decision to euthanize a pet so difficult…when the doubts creep in once the decision has been made.

I spent the last 35 hours of Siwa’s life by her side, never leaving her once. I set up a bed next to hers, not really sleeping at all that night, trying to listen to her, for any movement that she might try to make.  I would move her occasionally so that she would not be in one position for too long, to help keep her blood circulating. I constantly cleaned her fur of the blood that would occasionally trickle from her mouth and I would keep changing the towel under her so she would not have to sleep in her own bloody drool.

Sketch therapy

Sketch therapy

[Here’s some advice for people with pets: have at least 5 towels designated specifically for your pet. Cut one big towel into several pieces that can be soaked in hot water when needed. This is what I did to clean the blood from her face. As the towels got soiled, I’d just grab another clean one, and as we used the towels, Jon would throw them in the washing machine so that we would have a constant supply of fresh towels.]

To keep my mind calm and my emotions stable, I decided to do some sketches of her. I believe animals are quite perceptive and can sense stress in their humans, and because of my emotional bond to this dog, I knew she could sense my immense grief. They are not the best drawings of her, but in the effort to draw, I like to think that I lessened her stress by trying to remain calm and focused.

Another Siwa sketch

Another Siwa sketch

I somehow slept several hours that night and it was during those hours that she managed to move herself. When I awoke, she had shifted on her bed, flipping herself completely around so that her head and her torso were on the bed, her bottom half on the ground. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully but when she heard my movements, she lifted her head and looked at me. And the thought that she MIGHT make it through this crept back into my mind. She even managed a tail wag.

It was very clear though that she was in pain. She still could not get up on her own and everytime I offered her water or chicken broth, she would turn her head away. I gave her the last injection of the painkiller her oncologist prescribed the day before. It was hard to determine if the blank look in her eyes was a result of the painkiller or if it was really the sign that she was ready to go.

Trying to remain calm & focused by sketching.

Trying to remain calm & focused by sketching.

Making the Preparations

Once I knew her vet’s office was open, I gave them a call to try to schedule at-home euthanasia.  I had spoken to them months prior to see if they could do this and they had responded with a possible yes, pending  the day’s schedule.  But because it was Monday, the receptionist could not give me an answer right away. I had to wait a couple of hours to hear back from them.

It’s the waiting that is the hardest. After having made a decision, seeing a dog suffer anymore than she has to, even with the painkillers, is very difficult. It also leaves opportunities for doubts, for wavering and indecision to occur.

My emotional state was obvious in the lines I drew. I was trying to focus but her proportions were clearly off.

My emotional state was obvious in the lines I drew. I was trying to focus but her proportions were clearly off.

I knew that she loved being outside so I managed to move her to her favorite morning spot. I grabbed my journal for more sketch therapy. Sketching is a wonderful way to remain present in the moment and even though I had not practiced much zazen in the past week, I like to think that the sketching served the same purpose.

At that point, my vet called back to say that she would not be able to come to the house because Monday always proved to be a very busy day for them. She could come by on Tuesday.  I was devastated. Fortunately, Jon decided to take the day off from work. He called other vets who made house calls, and found one who could come by that afternoon. She was expensive, and although I did not want to factor this into my decision process, I knew I had no choice. We made alternative plans.

Siwas favorite morning spot.

Siwa's favorite morning spot.

Jon made all the phone calls because I knew I would just break down and cry. He called her oncologist’s office to see if they would euthanize her in the car. This was the next best choice. The car was a second home to her; it meant adventure; it meant hiking, camping, traveling to forests, deserts, the SNOW! It meant FUN! He also called the crematorium to see if they could cremate her and have her ashes return to us that day.

I had been planning for this day from the time she was diagnosed with cancer and had researched options. I found the crematorium and drove there in the months before so that I would know how to get there. I did not want to be running around when the day came, trying to figure out what to do while in an emotional frenzy. And although it had not exactly turned out the way I had hoped, we had enough options to make informed decisions to make her death as respectable as we could.

About an hour prior to her passing. I moved her into the shade to keep her cool - she was a snow dog after all.

Photo taken about an hour prior to her passing. We moved her into the shade to keep her cool - she was a snow dog after all.

The Final Goodbye

When the time came, Jon and I put her bed into the car and drove to her oncologist’s clinic. We had the back windows of the car partially opened. I could see her occasionally trying to lift her head, as though she was sniffing at the passing scents. It seemed like she was trying to get up, but couldn’t.  When we got to the clinic, I climbed into the back of the car and laid down next to her, while Jon informed the clinic of our arrival.

I brought a warm wet towel to keep her face and fur clean from the blood coming from her mouth.  I tried to remain calm and whispered in her ear how much I loved her, that we would go for a walk,  and make the trip to Tahoe where she could roll in the snow (she LOVED snow), and that she would have chicken for dinner. I could hear my husband sobbing outside the car (there was no room for him in the car). This was the first time he had ever witnessed an animal euthanized, and even though this wasn’t my first, it NEVER gets easier.

I whispered a Tibetan Buddhist chant in her ear. I repeated this over and over, even as the vet and technician placed the final injection in her vein.  I laid next to her trying to remain calm and present, grooming her with the wet towel, telling her I loved her and wishing her a favorite rebirth.

Some People to Thank

This whole process was much harder than I thought it would be but it was made easier by the compassion and kindness of people, some of whom were strangers, and some who knew and cared for Siwa.

  • First and foremost, I need to thank Jon my husband, who was with me throughout the whole process. Siwa was his first dog after all, and she was the perfect dog for him to get introduced to. He was more of a cat person, and Siwa was part cat so that worked out well.
  • The Bay Area Veterinary Specialists: they had been treating Siwa for her cancer since early 2008 and knew her well. I especially want to thank Dr. Chiarello and Josue, the vet technician, who both responded with compassion when I made my emergency call on Sunday. I was comforted to know that she would pass on in the hands of people who had known and cared for her. They also gave me the gift of another two years with my dog. I had talked directly with Josue (pronounced Hosway) on Sunday and when he heard that it was Siwa I was calling about, he responded with “Oh, I know Siwa.” It didn’t take much but his response got me bawling on the phone. He was the technician present at Siwa’s passing.
  • Groveway Veterinary Hospital: especially Nicole and David who managed to rearrange the day’s schedule to accommodate our desire to have her cremated and returned to us that same afternoon.
  • Friends and Family: their kind and supportive words have really helped. Many of them had adventures with her in the Sierras, Tahoe, and the deserts, lakes and mountains of California and New Mexico.

Final remembrances of Siwa:

Siwa & Me, then in 1996 (she was ~3-4 mos. old; I was 23 YO); and in January 2009

Siwa & Me, then in 1996 (she was ~3-4 mos. old; I was 23 YO); and in January 2009

In Tahoe, Jan. 2009; Siwa absolutely loved snow if you couldnt tell by the big smile on her face. Photo taken by Tom Holub.

In Tahoe, Jan. 2009; Siwa absolutely loved snow if you couldn't tell by the big smile on her face. Photo taken by Tom Holub.


Buddhist prayer for a dying beloved pet

Oh Buddhas & Bodhisattvas of the 10 directions and the three times,
Please protect and guide Siwa on her journey.
May she be free from fear and from clinging to this life.
May she have a favored rebirth.

-Tibetan chant

Siwa, about an hour before she passed away

Siwa, 2/14/1996 – 11/16/2009; photo taken about an hour before she passed away


Preparing for the compassionate death of a furry companion

Siwa, just yesterday afternoon

Siwa, just yesterday afternoon

My dog has been living with canine melanoma for the past two years so I’ve had some time to prepare for her death.  She successfully fought off the cancer for 1 1/2 years and only since July did she start losing the fight. Since then, I’ve been preparing myself emotionally and mentally.

For instance,  I found a local place that individually cremates animals;  they even allow for private viewing if you want to be certain that they do what they say they will do. I’ve also contacted my vet about at-home euthanasia and whether or not this was a service they could provide.  It turns out that they may, depending on how busy they are that day. They also offered the names of other vets who performed this service. These are the questions I did not want to deal with in an emotional frenzy.

So this morning, when my dog’s breathing became labored, and she was unable to get up on her own, and when she did not eat her food, I knew the time had come. What I did not anticipate was that day would be today, Sunday, a day when neither my vet’s office, nor the animal crematorium, would be open.  My only option would have been to take her to the emergency vet, where I knew they would just tell me that she needed to be put to sleep. I did not want her last memory to be that of a cold emergency vet’s office.

The dogs beds are in my messy studio.

Siwa & Sam inside my messy studio, where their beds are located. I've set up camp next to Siwa on the floor of my studio.

My dog’s mouth was also bleeding quite a lot, with bits of the tumors in her mouth dislodging. Amidst my tears, I tried to keep her as comfortable and pain-free, and as clean as I could. But because she did not eat her food, she also did not ingest any of the meds and painkillers that she normally would have eaten with her food. I was concerned that she was in a lot of pain.

I contacted her oncologist’s office to get some guidance. Fortunately, this same office also operates one of only two 24-hour emergency facilities in the Bay Area so I knew as a last resort I could at least take her to a familiar place.

Her oncologist was not in, because of course, it was Sunday.  Instead, I talked with one of the technicians, who upon hearing Siwa’s name, proclaimed, “Oh, I know Siwa.”  They had after all, been treating her for cancer for close to 2 years. When he said that though, I was once again in tears. They did prescribe painkillers, which Jon picked up, that I could inject to her that would last until tomorrow, when I could contact her regular vet.

Siwa is still on her bed, where she’s been since early this afternoon. She’s sleeping, occasionally waking to look at me, then goes back to sleep. I haven’t left her side; I plan to spend the night next to her, in my sleeping bag. It’s the least I can do for someone who has been with me for the last 14 years of my life.

Siwa, today - she has not moved from her bed in over 8 hours. I know shes ready to go.

Siwa, today - she has not moved from her bed in over 8 hours; when she tried, she stumbled, and it was all I could do to help her back on her bed. I know she's ready to go.

A little journal therapy. When I wrote this, I had made peace with the fact that Siwa was ready to go.

A little journal therapy. When I wrote this, I had made peace with the fact that Siwa was ready to go.


Another Siwa update on her fight against canine melanoma

Siwas face became asymmetrical from the tumor that grew very quickly within a matter of days.

Siwa's face became asymmetrical from the tumor that grew very quickly within a matter of days.

A couple of weeks after my June post on Siwa’s progress, I noticed a lump in her mouth that grew very quickly ~ within a week, the lump had grown from marble size to a lump so large that it gave her face an asymmetrical look.  I already had a pre-scheduled visit to the vet which I immediately re-scheduled to be sooner than later.

The news was not good.  She was no longer responding to the vaccine that she had been on since January 2008.  My choices were now radiation which would require a visit every 2-3 weeks at a cost that was prohibitive to me, or chemo and antibiotics, which seemed less invasive and less stressful to Siwa, not to mention kinder to my wallet.

I took into consideration Siwa’s age, which at 13 1/2 is not young for a dog her size.  She is a golden retriever/chow mix weighing about 65 lbs. I did not want to put her under any stress nor diminish the quality of the days she had left.

It’s now been 3 months of chemo, taken in pill form once a day.  The drug is Leukaren and although this will not make the tumor disappear, it will slow down the growth of the tumor. I was actually amazed as to how quickly the lump decreased after the first few days on chemo. Her asymmetrical face returned to normal within days of being on Leukaren.

Siwas tumor has grown to the point of bulging out of her mouth when shes breathing.

Siwa's tumor has grown to the point of bulging out of her mouth when she's breathing.

Jump to today.  Siwa and I take life day by day. I watch her closely monitoring her breathing to see if she is having difficulties. I make her homemade dog food consisting of boiled chicken, rice, peas & carrots, and cottage cheese. It’s a mixture that she can slurp and swallow without having to chew too much.  This keeps her from accidentally biting down on her tumor causing her to bleed and get infections.  She is also on antibiotics 2x/day to keep the infections down, and Rimadyl 2x/day for her arthritis.  And of course, chemo once a day.

I have to admit I’ve been lately concerned that her tumor has grown so large that she is no longer comfortable. She is such a happy go lucky dog that even her tail wags at the vet so sometimes this indicator is not the best gauge for quality of life. She did not want to go outside this morning but she happily ate her food.

I know I will have to face a very tough day at some point but it won’t be today. She and I will go for a nice walk, stopping many times to smell the roses (or the bush or the rock or the tree). Her eyes will brighten and her tail will wag and she will want to play with another hiking dog who will be way more active and playful than she.

She will remind me that all the stress, all the noise, all the little things in life that I tend to worry about are not worth the wasted energy. She will say to me with her big beautiful brown eyes that life is too short. Enjoy it. Every minute of it.

Siwa and I on a recent moon-filled walk in the Oakland hills.

Siwa and me on a recent moon-filled walk in the Oakland hills.


An update on Siwa & her fight against canine melanoma

Siwa was first diagnosed with canine melanoma in early 2008.  I first wrote about her deteriorating health in this blog post, when we took her in to the vet to have her teeth cleaned.  A google search for canine melanoma takes one to several websites that do not leave one with much hope after reading the information. One site states:

Melanoma is the most malignant of all the skin cancers and therefore has the poorest prognosis. If found in the mouth, the prognosis is even more grim. Approximately 25% of dogs diagnosed with oral melanoma will survive for one year; 75% will not survive even this long.

Siwa at 13.5 YO, image taken June 2009

Siwa at 13.5 YO, image taken June 2009

Fortunately, my vet referred me to the Bay Area Veterinary Specialists, where they recommended an experimental (at the time) treatment.  The USDA has apparently given the Canine Melanoma Vaccine a conditional ok.

I’m here to state that for anyone considering this treatmet for their dog with canine melanoma, DO IT!  It is not the cheapest treatment in the world, but neither is radiation and chemo, and those treatments often leave the dog with a not so good quality of life. She was diagnosed in January of 2008. It’s been a year and 6  months and she shows no outward signs of illness from cancer.

Siwa continues to behave like a normal, arthritic, 13.5 year-old dog who continues to love her walks,  her treats,  her naps – life in general.  She continues to hike with me and Sam everyday (though we’ve had to slow down our hikes for her).

Her age is certainly showing – more white in her fur, and her muzzle is practically all silver now. But I would rather she pass away from old age than from cancer.