How Riley Changed My World

Two weeks ago, my fiance and I put Riley, our amazing 11 year old, orange, fluffy, lionesque border collie mix, to sleep.

The word “heartbroken” has never felt so shallow.

Riley was the happiest dog. His previous owners called him “smiley Riley” and a wave of his curvy, fluffy tail drew you magnetically from across the room. He would gently lay his head your lap if you sat beside him. I was teaching him to “give kisses” before he got sick.

I still expect to hear his collar jingling up the stairs when I come home.

Riley reminded me of a pet’s power to change our world.

He reminded me why I’m a vet.

In his memory, I’d like to share 3 lessons Riley taught me.

1. Appreciate Each Moment

Riley was 10 years old when he found his way to us. We knew an older dog was more likely to get sick but Riley went a little overboard. He had a cancerous tumor removed from his arm and a brain tumor scare in the first 3 months.

Luckily, he did *not* have a brain tumor, recovered, and did well for over a year. The scare made us realize whether we got 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years with him, each moment was precious.

Riley LOVED his walks. His arthritis kept them short but the opportunity to sniff something new fascinated and enraptured him.

His joy made me slow down, enjoy the moment, and take in the world around me. I enjoyed so many cool spring mornings and starry winter skies on the other end of his leash.

Riley taught me never to take a moment, the world around you, or the people you love for granted.

2. Teamwork

Mike and I got engaged 1 month before Riley came into our lives. Initially we were “fostering” him, but you know how that goes. I couldn’t refuse Riley’s big black eyes when Mike asked, “Can’t we keep him?”

If your family has a pet, you know the chaos that ensues if you aren’t all on the same page. Having Riley meant working together.

While there were initial hiccups (who was supposed to give Ri his medicine this morning?), seeing Riley’s progress as we created a routine and established ground rules (always at a heel when crossing the street, no pawing at people’s legs, giving neck scratches whenever possible) showed what we could accomplish together.

While dogs aren’t the same as human children, Riley let me see Mike as a “parent” for the first time. Riley brought out the explorer in Mike and they were always finding new walking paths. Mike hadn’t grown up with dogs so he marveled at the little things Riley did. His favorite was seeing Riley sleep belly up. The depth of love Mike found for Riley made me love them both even more.

Mike and I are getting married next week and I wish more than anything we could come home to a tail wag from our Ri-guy.

Even though he’s not physically with us, we know Riley will always be part of who we are as a couple.

3. How to Say Goodbye

A couple weeks ago, Riley’s annual bloodwork showed high liver values. We were investigating the cause and adjusting his arthritis medication. The day of my bridal shower was his second day on a new pain medication and he started acting very drunk, stumbling over his own feet. I thought he was just sensitive to the new mediation, but he became worse instead of better when the medication should have been wearing off.

Even after he saw some of our local specialists, we still can’t piece together exactly what happened, but we discovered a huge tumor in his liver (unrelated to her previous cancer) and think this tumor may have caused a stroke in his spinal cord.

We hoped a course of steroids might buy him some times to recover, but it was a long shot.

Riley could barely walk on his own. Fortunately, he tried to only go to the bathroom when he had grass under his feet, but a couple times he didn’t make it and we had to bathe him laying helplessly on the ground. He was usually sleepy but when he was awake he was happy, smiling, and wagging his tail. His appetite was down, but he was still interested in jars of chicken flavored baby food.

At least every other week I have to help an owner struggle through end of life decisions for their pet, but helping someone is completely different than going through it yourself.

At least 20 times I had the out of body experience of seeing my grieving self through my veterinarian’s eyes. I saw myself doing the same things I had witnessed in so many pet owners before.

I found myself holding onto Riley’s fur desperately and crying, just grasping for a little more happy time with him. I found myself looking for some way to deny what was happening to him. At every little sign of progress I hoped that this was the sign that he would make a full recovery.

I vacillated between exhaustion from how much care he needed, the fear of whether he was comfortable enough, and the despair of losing him.

Making it more challenging, Mike was starting a new job several states away. While I tried to explain, words were inadequate to describe what was happening.

I knew Riley’s chances of getting better were slim, and I struggled between accepting what was likely inevitable and letting him go as soon as possible, or giving him a little more time and a chance for a miracle cure.

I can never thank Mike, Dr. Manley, Dr. Miller at the Life Centre, and the amazing people I work with enough for their support. They were frank with me but also reassured me that I would make the right decision.

They repeatedly said “This is what you would tell a pet owner” and let me know the things I was having trouble telling myself. When it comes to our own pets, vets need help too.

Ultimately we felt Riley was reasonably comfortable and still enjoying life and the people around him. We decided to give him a couple more days to improve. If he started suffering, was uncomfortable, or in any pain, we would let him go.

I promised one of our amazing receptionists that we would give him a cheeseburger as a goodbye for her if things went south.

Mike made it home and all three of us spent some time sitting outside under the starts and a half-moon. Afterward, Riley took a nap. We were going to sleep next to him that night in case anything happened. Around 1:00am Riley started breathing heavily, couldn’t get back to sleep, and seemed very uncomfortable.

Devastated, we realized it was time.

Mike got a cheeseburger from a 24 hours McDonald’s and we went to the local ER. The compassionate Dr. McCoy helped our guy fall asleep and then pass away peacefully. He didn’t feel any pain and his last memories were of his family loving and petting him.

I am sure we made the right decision and picked the right time. Though the pain of losing him is still very raw, it is not because we should have waited longer or acted sooner, only that I wish he were still healthy and whole.

As much as it hurt, being on the other side of all these heart-wrenching decisions taught me a lot.

Making these decisions is easier if you don’t make them alone. Working with vets, their staff, family, and friends helps you see what is going on more clearly. The weight of making these decisions is easier to bear when the weight is shared.

No matter what decision you make, it’s going to hurt like hell. It hurts even when you are 100% sure you did the right thing. The heartbreak doesn’t mean you made a mistake.

Do what feels right. You know your pet and what they can bear best. Right after Riley died, my friend Andy had an excellent article published on how to think about your pet’s quality of life.

If your pet is comfortable enough, consider a “bucket list”. Getting the cheeseburger for Riley helped us feel like his last moments were something special. Some of my patients have enjoyed a last night sleeping on their favorite person’s bed and one indoor cat spent a couple hours romping outside for the first time.

Follow your heart when you go home without them. For us, there were things that were just too heartbreaking to put away and habits that were too sad to stop. We still go out every night for a walk in Riley’s memory. His bed still sits at the foot of ours. Writing this post and memorializing him in other ways has helped. Mike always called Riley our “buddha dog” so we have a statue of a meditating dog wearing his tags in our garden to remember him by.

We know missing him will always hurt, but as time goes by we think more about the joy he brought to our lives than the sadness of his absence.

Ultimately what changes the world is love, its ability to change us, and the sacrifices we make on its behalf.

Riley, we loved you, you changed us and our world. We will love you forever.

How you can change the world for other grieving pet owners:

Veterinarians who give owners the comfort of saying goodbye to their pets in their own homes are currently being persecuted under changing DEA rules that allow veterinarians to transport drugs like euthanasia and certain sedatives.

Please help owners like us who are trying to give their pet the most peacefully goodbye possible by contacting your local representative and asking them to support new legislation that protects these veterinary exceptions. Contact your representatives here:

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