“Nothing bad will happen to me, she seemed to be saying, now that Mum and Dad are here.” Warning: concerns the death of a dog.
It is the nature of life – and death – that we don’t always know when we are doing something for the last time: sitting your daughter on your lap, taking the kids to the swings, swimming in the sea, having lunch with your father. Or throwing a toy for your dog…
One cold day in December, we tried taking Betty for a walk. Her progress, never rapid, was glacial. We thought perhaps she just didn’t like walking in the snow – although she had managed her normal pace in snow the day before. It turned out to be the sign of a bigger problem.
Nevertheless, a week later Betty seemed her normal self. She gobbled down her food, went for her usual slow walk, and energetically chased her favourite toy, Piggy, through the house as we flung it for her. But then she was hesitant about jumping up to her favourite spot on the sofa, and when Debbie went to lift her up, she let out a yelp of pain.
Something was clearly wrong, so Debbie took her to the vet the next morning, and left her there for tests. A few hours later the vet phoned with the news: Betty had large internal growth affecting her spleen, and her liver, very likely cancerous: she was also suffering from anaemia, probably caused by internal bleeding. Any surgery would be extremely difficult, with a modest chance of success, and would be unlikely to prolong her life for long. It was clear that Betty was in a very bad way, and we felt that we had no choice but to have her put down.
So that evening we drove to the vet’s practice to say our goodbyes. I expected to feel sad, but I had no idea how hard this was going to hit me. We waited for her in the small examination room, and when she came out, she seemed in surprisingly good spirits: she wagged her tail and – no doubt buoyed by painkillers – gave us quite a lively welcome. But she was anxious when she was placed on the table: that was where bad things happened. So we brought her down to the floor, and sat with her, and fed her a few treats.
Her relative normality and good spirits were heartbreaking. She looked at us with love and trust in her eyes, and gave me some kisses, which felt like an accusation in view of the decision we had taken. Nothing bad will happen to me, she seemed to be saying, now that Mum and Dad are here. She even managed her trademark wiggle, scratching her back on the floor – something she would only do when she was relaxed and happy.
Soon the vet came in with her paraphernalia, and gently explained what would happen. Betty still had a cannula attached to her leg, which would make the injection easier. Feisty to the last, Betty squirmed as the vet approached to attach the syringe, causing the vet to say that Betty seemed quite suspicious. Well she’s not entirely wrong, we thought. Finally the pink liquid went in, and Debbie felt Betty go limp on her lap.
I don’t cry easily, but this did it. Every pet owner who has been faced with a similar decision will recognise the extra pain and guilt caused by their unwanted agency in the event.
But why did I find this so much more upsetting than saying goodbye to Cracker, objectively a better behaved, more likeable dog? Probably because we had known for many months that Cracker was not well, so we were better prepared, whereas Betty’s diagnosis, and its severity, came very suddenly. Perhaps Betty’s arrival as a rescue was also a factor. We don’t know what hardship she might have gone through before we met her, but I felt – although I might have imagined it – that her affection was especially heartfelt as she slowly learned to trust us in her new home, after we brought her here from Dogs Trust three years ago.
There is also guilt at the occasional resentment I had felt at the chores and restraints she brought into our lives. Most of these would apply to any dog we owned: early morning and late night trips into the garden in all weathers, walks on cold or wet days, making arrangements to park her when we took a trip into London or a holiday abroad, having to take turns while exploring a church or museum, being limited to dog-friendly pubs or tea shops, not lunching in restaurants, eating our meals in the car when we made a motorway service station stop in bad weather…
Some of the restraints, however, were specific to Betty. She was often aggressive with other dogs, so we couldn’t let her off the lead when walking unless we were pretty sure there were none around. She also walked very slowly, especially when we chose to walk from our back door – which made a mockery of one reason for getting a dog, getting exercise for ourselves. This might have been due to her age, if she was in fact old, but she could manage a respectable speed if we were exploring new territory, or if she was charging around after her Piggy.
But we knew much of this when we adopted her, so I had no right to resent the commitments which dog ownership entails, and now I feel a pang of emptiness when she no longer pesters me for her dinner, or when I go straight to make the coffee in the morning without first taking her out, or when I no longer leave the bedroom door ajar so she can nuzzle her way in to say good morning to her mum. How I would love to do those little chores again for her.
I’m embarrassed to be making so much of this. She was, after all, “just” a dog. Much worse things happen in every life. But animal lovers know that losing a pet is not trivial. She died just four days before Christmas, and for a week or so the practicalities of hosting the family and the rituals of the season provided welcome distractions.
But when the house went quiet, there were poignant reminders everywhere: a Betty-shaped hole in our lives. The Christmas presents she never received, like a squeaky burger she would have loved. Her favourite spot on the sofa, now empty, where I instinctively look as I go up to bed. Surplus gravy from our dinner, now poured down the sink. Crumbs dropped from the table, no longer magically cleared up. No little head watching from the window as we head out in the car for a couple of hours, or resting on my thigh as we sit together on the sofa.
It might have helped had we known Betty’s age. It was estimated as five years by Dogs Trust when we picked her up, although on our introductory visit the vet thought she was probably older: indeed, Betty often seemed to have the demeanour of a confused old lady. At the time of her diagnosis I gained some comfort when the vet said it would be very unusual to find such an aggressive growth in an eight year old dog. If I could somehow hear that she was sixteen, not eight when she died, I would feel much better, to know that she had lived to a ripe old age, and that we had provided her with a happy retirement home for her final three years.
As she wiggled on her back for the last time, on the surgery floor, she could not know that she would not wiggle again. Betty, we’re sorry for what we had to do. We miss you.