The last act

The last act

I rescued my dachshund Toby from euthanasia 15 years ago. Would I have the strength to say goodbye today?
Feb 01, 2009

Big heart: Toby made lots of memories during his lifetime with Dr. Melody Heath and family.
Today I severed the bond. This is nothing new. As a veterinarian, I've euthanized animals for years. I've grown accustomed to performing this final medical act, but it never gets any easier. And some euthanasias are more difficult than others: the poodle of an elderly man who lives alone, the golden retriever surrounded by the children she adores, the diabetic schnauzer I've been managing for years. And then there was the most difficult of all: my own dog Toby.

I met Toby in 1993 when his owner brought him to the clinic. Toby was an 18-month-old red dachshund, emaciated and timid. The presenting complaint was vomiting and diarrhea that had lasted for more than a year. I palpated a tender, tubular mass in the little dog's abdomen; radiographs confirmed my suspicion of an intussusception. Toby's owner requested euthanasia but reluctantly agreed to relinquishment.

Spending the time, effort, and money to save this debilitated dog may not seem like a smart use of resources, but I have a soft spot for red dachshunds. My first one, Jenny, was rescued from a shelter. She lived 14 years, after which Cleo, my second, entered my life when her owner suffered a stroke. Cleo died not long before I met Toby.

There I was, a new graduate looking for challenging cases, living alone, and dachshund-less for the first time in years. And there was Toby—scared, neglected, and left for dead. I had the skills to try to save him. After the miserable start he'd had in life, I owed him that much.

Late that evening I performed my first intestinal resection and anastomosis. Four days later I brought an even more timid, emaciated dog into my home. As time passed, Toby transformed into an outgoing, obedient, handsome companion, and we became inseparable. Toby went to work with me every day for nine years before retiring and spending his days in a sunny spot in the backyard. When the phone rang in the middle of the night, Toby ran for the door. He was always eager for emergency duty, even when my enthusiasm waned.

He loved to chase squirrels, go for long hikes, and curl up on the couch beside me to have his ears scratched. He liked children, unlike many dachshunds, and he stayed trim his entire life. He also performed a variety of tricks, such as sneezing on command. He would lie perfectly still while I trimmed his nails, scaled his teeth, or drew blood. He traveled with me, slept with me, and comforted me through major life changes. Toby was a cherished member of my family.

In his early years after the surgery, Toby was the picture of health. More recently, however, he'd developed a heart murmur, arthritis, and chronic ulcerative stomatitis. He was deaf and partially blind. At age 16, he became fecal and urinary incontinent. While any combination of these problems might have been reason enough to consider euthanasia, Toby adapted well and seemed comfortable living within his limitations. The increased demand for nursing care seemed a small price to pay in return for the endless joy and unconditional love Toby had given me for so long.

Then, seemingly overnight, Toby started to show his age more rapidly. Friends and family commented on how pitiful Toby looked. He didn't seem to enjoy life the way he used to. For the first time I began to contemplate euthanasia. I set a date, but backed out when my physician sister protested, saying it wasn't time yet.