Last year around this time, I had to decide whether to call 911 when my dad had a major medical event. He is generally opposed to modern medicine and has some very strong philosophical beliefs about what aging and dying with dignity meant to him. Ultimately, I called 911 and admitted him to the hospital, and not necessarily for the right reasons. You can read more about it in my post Care and Feeding, if you are interested.
But I learned from that experience that despite the fact that we have completely altered our lives to become more self-sufficient, many of the ideas and influences we have attempted to turn our backs on are still very much present and shaping the choices I make. The culture you grow up in, the norms that dictate the choices you make, are very hard to turn away from, particularly in emotionally difficult situations.
This week I came up against a lesser version of the same challenge again. I have an almost 15 year old Golden Retriever, named Honey, who has been my constant side-kick since he was 8 weeks old. I didn’t mean to get him. I stopped in a pet store while waiting to meet someone. He crawled into my lap and fell asleep, and that was it. He was mine. It was just one of those things. Even though I was opposed to buying pure bred dogs and particularly those that clearly came from a puppy mill, I simply fell in love with him. And love, doesn’t really follow rules.
Honey started limping about two weeks ago. He had some arthritis last year and had a rough patch, but he came back from it with Glucosamine Chrondroitin supplements, bone stock, and leg massages. I thought it was the same thing this time, and treated it the same way. Then last weekend, his hock joint swelled up like a baseball. A day later, he stopped getting up.
I am a homesteader for many reasons. Avoiding a life of superfluous excess is a big one. Back when I lived a city life, before I had evolved my present ideas about sustainable living, I had a dog named Mustard who got lymphoma. And I put him through almost two years of cancer treatment because I didn’t want to lose him (Honey and Mustard were best buds). When he finally succumbed, I swore to myself that I would never do that to another animal. I was in a tough place when he got sick and just couldn’t handle the idea of losing him too. I didn’t mean for it to go on so long, but once you start down the road, it is hard to know when to get off it.
Conflicted, I decided to make an appointment for Honey with my vet, who is also a friend. I trust my vet and he knows me and how we live and why we do it. If Honey hadn’t improved, I planned to say goodbye during that appointment. I can kill other animals on our homestead if the need arises, but I don’t have it in me to do it for Honey. However, between Tuesday when I made the appointment and today when I took him, Honey started to seem a bit better. He wasn’t walking, but he kept trying to get up. He was also eating and drinking regularly and going to the bathroom with help (wheelbarrow style – with me being his back wheel and his legs my handle).
Honey is terribly afraid of vets and groomers. Since we moved here, I haven’t made him see either. When I told my vet friend this, he came out to my car to look at Honey instead of making me take him inside. He and his assistant hunched over Honey in my Honda fit and did an examination and took his temperature. There was no fever and the swelling was so abnormal that it seemed likely to my vet-friend that Honey probably had a site specific infection rather than a systemic problem. We talked for a while about options and decided to give him some antibiotics and steroids. We also agreed that if he wasn’t showing improvement in the next few days that a swift end would be a more humane decision that putting him through more treatment.
Is it right to give a 15 year old antibiotics and steroids that may or may not work? Is it right to try to save a dog that has already outlived his natural life. If he were a wild dog, he would have succumbed to something a few years ago when he started to have muscle atrophy in his hind legs.
The problem with this kind of thinking is there is absolutely nothing natural in the idea of keeping pets. Livestock, animals that serve a purpose, that’s different. But Honey is not a work dog. The sole reason he has a place in my life is because he makes me happy.
Pets are an absolute luxury. There is nothing sustainable about them. And in fact, by tolerating and even encouraging the idea of pets in our civilization, we subject countless animals to inhumane cruelty. How many pets end up in shelters, euthanized because they weren’t lovable enough or just had dumb luck? How many poor animals are subjected to torture and negligence by awful pet owners?
This blog isn’t really a rant about the problems of pet keeping. I just bring it up to illustrate the point that there really is no ethical decision in this situation. Keeping Honey is a luxury decision I made almost 15 years ago and haven’t regretted once since. I know our time together is limited. And there are limits to what I will do to extend his life. I learned today that I am willing to use strong, commercial medicine in exchange for a chance to keep him a little longer.
There is no easy way to navigate these kind of challenges. I think the best you can do is follow your heart.