Written by Joel Woolfson, DVM, ACVS
Annie is my beautiful Chocolate Labrador who just turned sixteen years old. She entered my life ten years ago when I rescued her from a transient and far from optimal home. Annie is a sensitive and loving dog. She has hundreds of friends and admirers, of both the two and four legged variety. Having found her way deep into my heart and life, she is my most significant other. Annie has enriched my life in a way that is nothing short of magical.
With her advancing age, Annie is physically not the dog she once was. Her heart and spirit are, however, intact and thriving. As we have grown together I find myself constantly adapting and reshaping our lives and activities to suit her changing needs and abilities. My highest priority is to ensure Annie's happiness and well-being. I am always there by her side, assisting her and protecting her from harm. Eight different medications daily, special foods and treats as well as copious amounts of TLC are our norm. And Annie is always by my side at work and at home. She has one very special human friend who we have deemed capable of caring for her in the manner she deserves. Annie is always either with me or with her special friend; she is never without one of us.
True to the nature of a dog, Annie lives in the moment. She does not waste time or energy contemplating the implications of her age or her future; an ability that most humans have not mastered. She is enthralled by attention and special activities like walks in the woods or on the beach. Knowing that she finds joy in every little gesture of kindness, I constantly strive to fill her days with happy moments, even when my days are not so great.
Special assistance with stairs, help to provide safe entrance and exit from the car, protection from adverse weather and providing constant reassurance are second nature to me now. Annie's needs must be fully met before I tend to any of my own. Being a very light sleeper my vigilant observation of Annie's every breath does not waiver during the night.
Her hearing is gone and her eyesight is deteriorating. It is extremely important that I help her to know where I am at all times. Even when we are in the same room there moments when she loses track of my presence and she will wander about, anxiously searching for me. I make every effort to keep those moments of uncertainty to an absolute minimum. Annie's time is far too precious to be spent in anything less than happiness and safety.
For those who have cared for an elderly parent, sibling or other loved one, the importance of compassion, protection, love and respect is well understood. As our beloved pets advance in years these very same principles apply. Annie has given me more than I can ever repay her but I will never stop trying. There is no length to which I would not go to ensure her well-being.
There have been and will be difficult medical decisions regarding Annie's physical state. A critical piece of the puzzle is having access to excellent veterinary care. Like human physicians, it is a sad truth that veterinarians vary greatly in their skill level, compassion and competency. Our aging pet's primary care doctor must be chosen very carefully. Deciding how, when and even if to treat problems as they arise should be a team effort. The first consideration is always "What is best for Annie". Every dog is different in their needs, tolerances and sensitivities. A given medical or surgical treatment may be appropriate or not depending on many factors. No veterinarian can know what treatment is truly appropriate without the critical input of the person who most knows and loves the specific pet. We are our pet's protectors, guardians and advocates.
And there is always the looming apprehension about the end of life issues. It is important for us to remember that our pet does not contemplate or worry about what might be. That is our burden to accept with love and honor. As a critical part of our role as pet owners we must face the reality that we do possess the responsibility and power to make end of life decisions. We must ardently guard against falling into the easy grasp of selfishness when faced with the potential death of our pet. I know that Annie will depend on me and me alone to make that most significant decision. And I accept that role with love and respect for her. No dog could ask for more.
2013.02.12 addendum: Several months after writing this piece, Annie journeyed to the next realm. In the same generosity of spirit that has earned him a loyal following as a veterinarian, surgeon, and human being, Dr. Woolfson has written one more essay about life with Annie during these later stages. He also touches on knowing when her good days were drawing to a close and coordinating a graceful exit. Joel's Tribute to Annie is not just about a dog's passing, it is about the blending of souls, the beauty of two spirits -- one dog and one human -- coping with the bodily forms they were born to and transcending their limits.