It was winter, and I was pregnant with my second child. I was sitting in a quiet waiting room while the ER veterinarians had my beloved Gizmo in the lab testing the cells that were rapidly growing in his mouth. A small cluster of cells had grown, in a matter of weeks, to the size of a quarter. A lump had formed in his throat and within a month was the size of a golf ball.
The vet brought him up in his carrier and walked me into a small and sterile room. I looked through the grates and touched his wet nose as his eyes glazed and blinked at me.
“I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but it is cancer.”
“Excuse me, what?” I asked.
“Our tests show that Gizmo has a metastasized oral tumor that has spread to his lymph nodes.” He pointed to the lump on his neck.
1. Deciding the Care Plan
There are several avenues an animal hospital can take, but it will require (a lot of) extra testing and can be extremely expensive.
For Gizmo, the surgeon explained to me that they could cut the tumor out, but it would severely disfigure his mouth, making it difficult for him to eat. They could also administer treatments thereafter to help kill the cancer cells in his lymph nodes, much like how they do in humans, but the progression of his cancer made a successful outcome unlikely.
The other option is to make your pet comfortable and let him/her live out life. After discussing the options with my husband, this is what we decided to do.
2. Pain Meds
Getting dogs to swallow pills is hard. Very hard. With our Gizmo, smothering them in peanut butter didn’t work, mixing it in with his wet food only made him turn up his nose. Pill pockets worked for a few days until he caught on and rejected them. Eventually I would have to bear hug him and dump the powder onto his tongue while rubbing his neck. I had many breakdowns when he was rejecting his pills.
“This will make you feel better. Eat it. EAT IT, DANG IT!”
It’s normal to feel frustrated and helpless, but remember that they can’t understand what’s going on. All they know is “Mom (or Dad) is shoving this nasty tasting crap in my mouth again!”
3. The Smell
When cancer is inside the body, in an organ, the smell of dying flesh can be somewhat contained, however when a dog has oral cancer, the tissue becomes necrotic and the smell is unbearable. The bigger it gets, the more necrotic the tissue becomes. Snuggle sessions on the couch can turn into your dog whimpering and crying to snuggle and you constantly saying “no.” Even if your dog has an internal cancer, your dog’s odor can begin turning foul.
Keeping smelling salts nearby can help, and put a towel on your lap if your dog has an oral or external cancer to catch any bleeding or pus that might come out. It’s gross, but it’s life with cancer.
4. The Ultimate Decision
Dogs can be successfully treated with surgery and chemotherapy, but prepare yourself in case yours can’t. People will offer opinions, but only you can make the call to put an end to your pup’s suffering. No one knows your dog better than you. Only call when you no longer have any doubts in your heart that it is the right thing to do.
Some opt to have their dog choose the day they pass, on their own time, in their own home. If this is the option you choose, make a warm comfortable space for your dog and make sure they get consistent doses of pain medication. You may need to invest in dog diapers and puppy pads as well. It will get to the point where they can no longer get up to relieve themselves. You should mentally prepare yourself if you are going for the long haul, it will be difficult both physically and mentally.
5. The End
This is the part that hurts the most. There is no preparing you for the day you need to put your pet down, but being with your dog through the end is important. Death is scary, especially for a dog that doesn’t like the vet’s office to begin with. The vet will administer the first shot, which is to calm your pet down if they are frightened. This shot makes them extremely lethargic, and they may even fall asleep at this point. The second shot is what ultimately stops their heart. The process is very quick and ensures there is no pain involved. Sometimes your dog will experience involuntary actions such as tremors or heavy exhaling after passing, but be assured your pet is at peace and no longer suffering.
The day came when we drove Gizmo to his last vet appointment. After his first shot, he laid perfectly still, but his eyes were fixed on me as I pet his head and told him repeatedly that I loved him. After he passed, my husband and I spent some time with him, cuddling him, holding him and crying until we felt we said our proper goodbyes.
6. The Aftermath
There is nothing worse than coming home and seeing your pet’s food bowl on the ground. Sometimes it is easier to cope if you put them in a cupboard before leaving for the appointment. It will be hard to adjust, and sometimes you will find yourself calling out for your pup and realizing he/she is no longer there.
Vet offices will give you the option to cremate your pet individually and take home the ashes.
Losing a dog is losing a member of the family. Having a little funeral with your family and saying a few words can help ease some of the pain. Putting up a little memorial also helps. If you have kids, they can draw pictures, or sing a song that reminds them of their lost pet. Sharing happy memories and reminiscing about their puppy days can help a hurting heart.