Guinness had the “beautiful death” that most Americans say they want: He died at home, in no pain, in the arms of his family.
Guinness was 14, a malamute albino shepherd mix.
It took six hours for him to die.
“He knew something was happening to him, but he didn’t know what,” said Alan Cuenca, Guinness’s lifelong human companion from birth to deathbed.
“He was scared. He would relax when I lay next to him, and start to fall, then get fired up and start to fight it. For hours, I begged him to let go. We were lying muzzle to muzzle. He started to tear up; I started crying. Then, he left.”
Cuenca sobbed over Guinness’s loss for days.
“But his death was beautiful. Do people want to die in hospital beds attached to machines or go restfully at home with their family?” he said.
To pet psychologist Marti Miller, losing a pet is “probably the most challenging kind of loss that we ever experience.” Miller said euthanizing her dog, Sadie, five years ago was “worse than my mom dying. Even now, I cry.”
In her work, Miller focuses on helping people accept, mourn and heal from the death of their pets.
Her work raises a philosophical and practical question of interest to many people in dog-crazy Durango: For dying dogs and the humans who love them, what constitutes a good death?
Riverview Animal Hospital’s office manager Karyn Ekola knows all the rules for keeping dogs healthy: for instance, no ice cream. But when her Australian cattle dog Chica’s arthritis became crippling, Ekola threw out the rules.
“The day I scheduled her for euthanasia, we shared a breakfast burrito, and I got her an ice cream from Sonic. Then, we went down to the river and just hung out, watching people. Afterwards, I took her to the hospital, to say our goodbyes,” Ekola said.
Even dogs blessed with an indomitable, death-defying spirit become vulnerable at life’s end. When Jackie Patterson adopted Calista, a 10-year-old black-furred mutt from the Navajo reservation, she figured she “only had a few years left. Lo and behold, she had eight years in her!”
Calista was “so fun to be around, such an alpha. She knew what she wanted her whole life, and that was being in charge. She wanted to go outside and roam.”
Eventually, “she became more physically frail,” developing the canine equivalent of Sundown syndrome, which affects Alzheimer’s patients.
“When the sun started going down, she would bark to go outside. Then, once she was outside, she’d bark to come in. In a 30-minute period, I’d take her in and out five times.”
Even when Calista struggled to walk, Patterson diligently indulged her volatile desire to go out and come in until the day Calista died, three months shy of her 18th birthday.
“It’s as tender as it gets,” she said.
Veterinarian Catherine Rottinghaus of Durango Animal Hospital said on dogs’ final days alive, “they get spoiled – certainly,” with treats, favorite toys and special activities. Rottinghaus has even euthanized dogs at home, in cars and in public parks to spare them the stress of coming into the clinic. “I do whatever people want to do, within reason,” she said.
Veterinarian Dan Parkinson, who runs Tenderheart, a pet hospice in Durango, said he typically deals with animals in the final two weeks of their life, when human heartache can be immense.
Choosing to euthanize a dog is painfully hard. But the gut-wrenching finality of death-by-appointment can also be liberating for grieving humans, imbuing the process of saying goodbye to a beloved pet with profound soulfulness and mercy.
“Everybody’s relationship with their pet is different,” Parkinson said. “People will take them for a ride in the car or on their favorite walk to their favorite spot – even carrying them, if they can’t walk or stop at Dairy Queen for their favorite ice cream.”
“I am amazed by the loving things people do to make their pets as comfortable as possible. The heartache there – some people describe it as deep as losing a loved one,” he said.
Miller, the pet psychologist, said, left to their own devices, when the time comes, most animals “go out and die – some wild creature gets them.”