A Dog’s Life

We had our dog killed today. That was about as much fun as you’d think. Sadie was old and infirm; it was time. Killing her sucked anyway.

I’m not one of those people who doesn’t know the difference between people and animals. I don’t think of pets as “fur babies;” in fact, I’m a little repelled by that term. To anthropomorphize an animal is to deny its true nature and, thus, to demean it. I don’t need to pretend that an animal is a human baby when I’ve raised two human babies. I’d rather give the animal the respect it deserves and see it for what it is.

But still. Killing your pet is hard.

It’s a strange thing to watch a dog get old. Perhaps because their life cycles are so much shorter than ours, the degenerative process happens quickly. A dog is mature for several years, and then it is a little less energetic, and then decrepitude sets in quickly. Her hindquarters don’t work so well anymore. She goes from bringing her leash to you for a walk to barely being able to get up to go pee in the yard. Cataracts develop, and the dog that used to bound through the neighborhood is bumping into table legs. She loses interest in food; you can feel her ribs when you pet her. And then all she wants to do is sleep, and you know the end is near.

It’s hard to know when it’s time. Vets can do almost as much for animals as they can for humans now, and if you want to spend the money you can keep your dog alive for a long, long time. For the last year or so, Linda and I have grimly joked that we wished Sadie would develop something really expensive and make this easier for us. Instead, it was one infection after the next as she became incontinent and slept in her urine. Every infection was treatable, but as soon as she fought off one she’d develop another, because she was still incontinent. So she was always in pain and always being administered meds, and what kind of life is that?

It’s unnatural to watch a dog become debilitated. In the wild, Sadie would have been eaten by something bigger before she became a medical case. That may sound harsh, but isn’t the vestigial wildness of dogs part of what we love about them? They may be many steps removed from wolves, but they always retain the spirit of the wolf in our imagination. Take them away from our suburban comforts, and even the tiniest chihuahua could become Buck, answering the Call of the Wild.

They’re different from cats in that respect. Don’t get me wrong; I grew up with cats, and my wife calls me the Cat Whisperer. I love ‘em. But there are cats who are mousers, and cats who want to be the lord of the manor, fed with a silver spoon while they lounge on the cushion no one else may use. By contrast, all dogs—even the tiniest teacup breeds—are energetic outdoorsmen and -women. (You can’t hike with a cat.) To see a dog become enfeebled is to watch it become a shadow of its former, real self. Nature had the good sense to not let that happen. But we sentimental humans are too reluctant to let go; we are content to deal in shadows and memory if it helps us avoid saying goodbye. So we nurse along our dogs until they are like the professional athlete who tarnishes his/her legacy by grasping for glory after the talent for it has dissipated. I wonder: if our dogs could talk, when would they say to us, “Please, let me go”?

Sadie was a frivolous little princess. She was an AKC-registered Papillon—a ridiculous breed to begin with. Regardless, she was descended from the first wolf that decided it was not afraid of the campfire; the first to venture close enough to men to be petted. So now I sit and mourn the loss of a wild thing that was not wild except in my imagination, but that retained and displayed the primal, survivalist instincts of familial affection and unquestioning loyalty to her adopted pack (us). If you’ll excuse me, I have to go howl my death-song at the moon.

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