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Gus: a good dog


It’s been a month since Gus got sick with bone cancer. The lump on the left side of his face has gotten a lot bigger; it looks like he has half a walnut shell under his jowl. When the vet gave me the diagnosis—we were in a little examining room—she gave him “a few weeks to a few months” to live. It’s been four weeks now. Nothing much has changed; Gus is more or less in a holding pattern. But the vet used the word “aggressive” several times to describe the nature of the cancer, the implication being that when things go south, he’ll deteriorate rapidly.

The skull is, of course, a bad place to get an aggressive cancer. If it had struck a limb, the limb could have been amputated. Where the tumor goes next is anyone’s guess. His respiratory system is vulnerable. So are his eyes, teeth and olfactory system. (I can’t imagine Gus not being able to sniff anymore.) The hardest thing from a managerial point of view is deciding when to have him euthanized. Although I have bouts of magical thinking in which the tumor miraculously starts shrinking, I know that’s not going to happen. Gus is going to die. But it’s extremely unlikely he’ll die a natural death, “in his sleep,” as it were. His death will be caused by an injection of pentobarbital, and it is I who will give the order to the vet to do the deed.

I’m reconciled to that. The question is “when.” I’ve had advice from literally hundreds of people about this question of timing. Many advise putting Gus down sooner than I’d like to, that is, while he still has a good quality of life, which he does. He’s always hungry, loves to go outside and sniff and pee, is interested in every person whom we pass on the sidewalk, observes squirrels with the canis intensity bred into his genes, greets me when I come home, loves to lick my hands and face, and enjoys finding a nice spot in the sun to nap. In other words, a good life (or should I say, “a dog’s life”?). The sooner-rather-than-later people say that it’s pointless and cruel to wait until he starts to suffer. It’s hard to argue with that.

Then there’s the other side, which includes people very close to me. They take one look at Gus and say, “How could you possibly even consider ending it now? He’s happy.” Instead, they advise waiting until something bad happens—he stops eating, say, or becomes unusually lethargic, or begins to constantly cry. That makes sense to me, too, but there are practical considerations that make me worry. I’ve spoken to a number of vets who could put him down, and they all warn me it’s liable to be two or three days before they can find the time to do it. My worst fear is having Gus be in insufferable pain and having to wait days for a vet appointment.

This is the horn of the dilemma. It consumes me every day, all day, the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night. I’m probably getting too much advice. All those opinions churning around in my brain, clashing with each other, don’t make it any easier to have clarity. But it helps me to talk to others, to listen to what they say, and besides, a lot of the people offering me advice have their own pet-euthanasia tales that are touching and often tear-jerking. It’s amazing this bond humans can have with their animals. I’ve never had kids, and I wouldn’t for a minute pretend that losing a dog is worse than losing a child. But even parents who have lost children share with me the inordinate pain of losing a beloved dog or cat. You can love your child but your child will still hurt you plenty over the course of your lives, whereas a good dog will never hurt you. And Gus is (as I tell him all the time) a good dog.

I really lucked out with him. We just hit it off from the first minute we met. He’s not only sweet, he doesn’t even bark. I know that, physically, he’s able to, because he’s barked maybe half a dozen times in our 11 years together. But he doesn’t, for some reason, and that’s a good thing, because I don’t like barky dogs. The other thing that’s on my mind is whether to get another dog when Gus dies. One fear is that no dog could possibly compare to Gus, and I don’t want to resent a new animal in my life because he or she isn’t as sweet, loving and well-behaved as Gus. Along those lines, an old friend told me that he’s had six dogs sequentially over the years, and he always worried about the same thing–the new one wouldn’t live up to the old one–only to find that his fears were groundless. He always found himself loving his new dog as much as the previous one.

But I’m making plans for the post-Gus period, which I guess is a sign of mental health. I’m going to remodel my condo. And I’m going to go someplace while the contractor is doing it—probably Palm Springs, where I’ve never been. I’ve begun researching that desert community, and it sounds like a nice place to stay, even during the pandemic. I think it will be healthy for me to get out of my condo and out of Oakland when Gus is no longer here. I can distract myself with other things during the grieving process. Then I can decide if I want to get another dog.

Anyhow, I’m looking at Gus now, in his little bed beside my desk with the computer I’m writing this on. The day is cool, windless and very foggy, with a ground fog that makes the big trees across the street barely discernible. I think aromas carry further on such a day; maybe the water particles in the air transmit them more efficiently. Gus certainly had a good time sniffing on our walk. One never knows what he’s smelling, of course, but he’s so intense about it. I like that in him, and I like the fact that he stops and looks up at every person who walks by, with his big, brown, trusting eyes; and usually, the people look back at him and smile.

  1. Iris Sluter says:

    Dearest Steve, As you probably know we too have been where you are now… just love that little guy… and you will know when the time is right.. blessings on this journey… we do love you and our prayers are with you..

  2. Thanks Iris. I think tomorrow is the day we put him down. I truly appreciate your concern and kindness.

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