As a veterinarian, I have been doing exclusively in-home pet hospice and euthanasia for over four years now. It’s the most purposeful and fulfilling job I’ve ever had. When I go into a home and empathize with pet owners about how hard it is to say goodbye to our pets, I genuinely join them in their loss every time because I have been there. It is so difficult to navigate the care and decision-making process for a pet nearing the end of life. I haven’t always “gotten it right.” You might think I’d be good at this since it’s my profession, but I am not. When it comes to my pets, I’m a blubbery, indecisive mess, just like all of us.

The following article provides some considerations and tools to help guide your children when caring for a beloved pet nearing life’s end.

Written by Dr. Kellie Littrell, Caring Pathways Veterinarian & Director of Development

How I Got ‘Another Dog’

In the summer of 2012, I was pregnant with my firstborn. As I drove home from work, there stood a brown dog, smack dab in the middle of the road. He had a fancy leather collar on with metal studs on. The expensive kind! And so I thought, he must have an owner and I will happily give them a call. I opened my car door to check for a tag, and this exuberant mutt ran up, jumped over me, and into the passenger seat. What just happened? I took a moment and we just stared at each other. With his gentle eyes and joyful smile, it was as if he was saying “Well, let’s go, Mom!”

I didn’t want another dog. I already had three. And a baby on the way. Wouldn’t you know: there was no tag. There was no microchip. I called every shelter, hung posters all over the place, and made him sleep on our back deck. I set a rule that he wasn’t coming into our house because if he came into our house, he would be our dog. And… I didn’t want another dog. Almost two weeks went by. I had a friend visiting and I distinctly remember her saying “Kellie, I think you have another dog.” What?! No!! I’ve been very clear. But alas, my husband was out on the back deck sleeping with our new dog. So, in they came.

Joining the Family and PJ Slowing Down

Flash forward to 2022 and three kids later. The brown mutt my husband named PJ (for the Georgia Tech head coach, Paul Johnson, at the time) was an integral part of everyday life at the Littrell house. We could all tell he was slowing down, turning gray, and having trouble with the stairs. Nobody talked about it, though.

I decided to start him on some pain meds and that helped for a while, but eventually it didn’t help as much so I added in some more medications. He still seemed happy, played with his toys, and enjoyed trying to escape through the front door. We used to have to chase him for miles on a bike, but over time his escapes only made it a couple of houses down so we just let him have his moments of freedom. All our neighbors knew him- he was sweet and friendly with everyone, as long as you didn’t try to trim his nails.

Discussing the Option for Euthanasia

2023 arrived, and I decided to share with my family that I thought PJ was in pain, despite the care we were providing for him. For us, full hospice care wasn’t a good fit. I lovingly refer to our home as a circus show. Or a revolving door with a petting zoo. We are busy and I didn’t think it was fair to PJ to let him continue progressing without much notice of the events in front of us.

Admittedly, the concept of euthanasia is one that I am very comfortable with. It’s a controlled, peaceful transition for our pets that I’ve experienced thousands of times. That’s what I wanted for our boy. My family struggled. Although I’ve made this decision for my pets many times before, this was the first time I needed five people to all be on the same page and involved in that decision-making process.

Interestingly, my oldest daughter had experienced one euthanasia already. Once I opened up the conversation, she agreed with me. PJ was struggling and euthanasia was a good choice to help relieve his discomfort. My husband and two younger children, who had not experienced euthanasia before, were in adamant disagreement with us. Although they could concede that PJ experienced some struggles, they felt he still had a good quality of life and the cost did not outweigh the benefit. So, we did nothing. Months went by and each time I brought it up, nobody budged.

Making the Decision for Euthanasia

By the Fall of 2023, my youngest daughter agreed that PJ was hurting. And soon after, my husband began sharing “Not now, but soon.” My middle child was having a difficult time, though. In the meantime, I decided to try adding Librela, a new pain medication for the treatment of osteoarthritis, and one of our incredible Caring Pathways veterinary technicians, Becky, began providing massage therapy for PJ.

He had better days and worse days, but over time his mobility continued declining despite the extra support. Euthanasia became a daily conversation with the family, but still, my husband and son did not seem ready. To be honest, I needed everyone to be on board. I knew what was right for PJ at this point, but I had a fear that my children would blame me for PJ’s death.

Nonetheless, I woke up one morning in January 2024, looked at my husband with an unexplainable sense of peace and clarity, and said “Today is the day.” He simply replied “Okay.” And so it was.

Saying Goodbye to Our Dog

That afternoon, we called the kids in from playing outside and let them know it was time to say goodbye to our sweet boy, PJ. Anxiety washed over them. The girls began crying and our son ran off and hid. My heart broke. Letting your kids hurt is so hard. I still knew it was right, though. I asked them if they wanted to do anything special for PJ and they all retrieved goodies from the kitchen. I prepared my medical equipment while he was spoiled with cheese, peanut butter, ice cream, and dog treats. He had been resting in the master bedroom and that’s where he stayed for his final moments.

I explained the procedure to my family, and we all cried as the sedative settled in and PJ drifted off to sleep. My husband was outwardly a little standoff-ish, but present. I think he was uncomfortable but balancing a desire to be with PJ and us. My 11-year-old sat calmly nearby and honored the process. My 9-year-old was overwhelmed with grief. He came and went and had bursts of sadness, anger, and gentle caressing. My 6-year-old loved on PJ the entire time. Each of them was uniquely handling their grief, and the whole thing was tragically bittersweet and beautiful all at once. PJ transitioned peacefully with his family right beside him. Our other dogs were free to come and go and I did not take note of any significant behavioral changes on their part.

Creating Space to Grieve

After some time, I left to retrieve a body transportation bag and we transferred PJ’s body into it. The kids wanted to write notes, which we found to be a very meaningful way to process our feelings and memorialize his significance to us. We also created some PawPal keepsakes, which each kid has since chosen to keep next to their beds.

The rest of that day was somber and difficult for everyone, but moving forward the girls seemed to feel better. However, my son has struggled for months with his grief. We hold space for that and let him feel what he needs to feel. Grief is a hard feeling, and each of us experiences it in our own way, and that’s okay. 

Final Reflections

Kids grieve naturally. It’s hard for us as parents to let them. However, loss is inevitable in life and the loss of a pet can be an important learning experience. As difficult as it was to say goodbye to our PJ, it is a memory that I recount fondly. The love in that room, in that moment, offered indescribable beauty and other-worldly peace amidst pain.

Loss is normal. Grief is a normal response to that loss. Lean into it. Honor it. Move through it. You won’t regret it.

Support Through Every Step

At Caring Pathways, we understand navigating this part of your pet’s life can be painful and difficult. We are committed to helping your family navigate this journey. 

Helpful Caring Pathways Resources:

About the Author: Kellie Littrell, DVM

Dr. Kellie earned her veterinary degree from Texas A&M University in 2010 and practiced small animal medicine in Georgia before moving to Colorado in 2019. Throughout her career, she has always had a deep desire to bring comfort to her geriatric patients and help guide their owners through such a difficult time. Dr. Kellie feels blessed to be part of the Caring Pathways team and honored to serve families in their grieving.

Gina Singleton
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