There’s a thousand-pound gorilla asleep in the corner of our living room. His name is Bertie, and he’s a Cairn Terrier. Bertie is 11 years old, suffers from severe allergies and annoys just about everyone — even those of us who love him. His behavior problems are legendary in the neighborhood: incessant barking at anyone who comes near (or far, for that matter), attacking other dogs on his walk, stealing food out of peoples’ hands, nipping at anyone (person or animal) who comes near his food. And did I mention how he now gets us up at 4:30 or 5 every morning because he wants to eat? Or that we have to leave town the week of the 4th of July because if there are fireworks he can’t stop barking until they stop? We can’t take much more of this, but what is a pet owner do to? Nobody wants to adopt this dog, but nobody wants to talk about putting him to sleep, either.
What’s hardest to bear about this, to me at least, is that when we got Bertie more than a decade ago now, he was the cutest, smartest puppy ever. Oh, was he funny! Hopping around the yard, so eager to do his job hunting vermin. He made us so happy after the untimely death of our previous dog to cancer. But it all started to come apart when he was about three years old. For some unknown reason, Bertie got severe skin allergies. He actually tested positive for 48 of 52 substances. Grasses, wool, feathers. You name it. Without some kind of treatment, he was a mass of itchy, smelly yeast infections and scabs. The only time he wasn’t scratching was when he was eating or sleeping. After a couple of thousand dollars worth of naturopathic experiments, including homeopathic remedies and raw food, we resorted to a mild steroid and allergy shots, administered once a week by yours truly. This was accompanied by yearly liver tests at the specialty vet clinic. Ka-ching, ka-ching.
Fast forward a few years. By the time Bert was middle-aged (in dog years) he had become ravenously hungry all the time and pretty cranky. He started getting in fights with other dogs. He started biting the hands that fed him. He became increasingly difficult to handle. We felt bad for him, so we put up with it. After all, he was still our handsome, smart terrier, and it wasn’t his fault he had allergies. People still stop us on the street to admire him. He looks like Toto, for God’s sake! I find myself answering with the words “Handsome is as handsome does.” They laugh. We don’t.
So here we are. My husband has retired and I work part-time. We’re home a lot more these days, and spend much of our time dealing with Bertie. All his bad behaviors seem to have escalated. The neighbors are tired of the barking. People avoid walking by our house. We can’t trust him around kids. As painful as this prospect is, it is time to do something about Bert. But what? This has proved more difficult than I ever imagined. For a few years now, I’ve asked around whether any of our more animal-focused friends at the vet or groomer might want to take him. Nobody does. I made an appointment at the vet to talk about whether it was time to put him to sleep. She wouldn’t even discuss it with me. I finally made the dreaded call to the Humane Society. I just wanted to talk about this problem, get an idea of the options. I wanted somebody to understand. I figured these guys were the last resort, that they dealt with this sort of thing often. Boy was I wrong! I was transfered to a dog trainer. When I tried to tell her about our problems with Bertie, she interrupted me repeatedly, telling me we were handling him all wrong. When I described his biting us and our friends, she dismissed it, saying if it didn’t break the skin it was no big deal. She suggested that we just shouldn’t walk him if he doesn’t like other dogs. You get the picture: Bert’s behavior was our fault, pure and simple. She said he probably wasn’t adoptable, and when I tearfully asked about the euthanasia policy, she told me we should “Just give him what he needs. He probably won’t live too much longer.” That was helpful. Dogs like Bertie can live to be 18 years old.
So my question is this: What does a pet owner who can no longer care for an animal do if the pet is not adoptable, actively dying, or very, very old?
This is the time that I assure people who don’t know me that I am a dog person. I’ve had dogs all my life, and nobody loves their dog more than me. I cry at dog movies. I can’t watch or read about any animal abuse or neglect without getting upset. I have the utmost respect for those who dedicate themselves to animal welfare, I really do. So how can I make peace with the fact that I no longer have the bandwidth to deal with a dog who makes our lives miserable? How can I not feel terrible when every professional I talk to shames me? One thing is abundantly clear, though. No matter what we do about Bertie, we’ll feel like crap.
As I write this, he’s lying on the rug looking adorable. He isn’t barking. He isn’t biting anyone. Anybody want to adopt him?
I didn’t think so.