Saying good-bye to the family pet: an alternative to tradition

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On a clear June afternoon, sitting in my backyard with my husband next to me, I put my two dogs to sleep. Life was a heavy soundtrack around us that afternoon. The birds chirped loudly, the peonies were in full pink bloom behind us, the wind rustled up the leaves above us, and the rays of the sun poked through the trees. We sat on the patio waiting for pentobarbital to be administered to our dogs. The juxtaposition was jarring.

If you are a pet person, you have been here: in the awful position where you must make a choice. You visit the vet and pay the thousands they charge for results, only to be in a position where you must make that choice. You know the one. We decided Monday would be the day. We wanted the kids to have a last weekend with their oldest friends, but George deteriorated quickly that morning, and the vet said there was nothing more anyone could do for him.  Dr. Krier, a vet that specializes in end of life care for animals, explained that specialists and vets have a job to do and that job is to save lives, and as pet owners we have to ask the questions about end of life palliative care.

We had contacted Krier’s company, Creature Comforts, about six months ago to discuss end of life care for Montgomery. Montgomery was the lucky recipient of two names and my husband called him Buddy because he was his first buddy when we moved from London. He often walked Buddy through Central Park caring for him as thoughtfully as he would care for his first child two years later.

During COVID, pets were euthanized in a different way. There was no cradling of the pet in the exam room. Pets were dropped off and often died ownerless or you watched behind glass. That was not going to work for us. We sought other options. Through a google search, we found Krier, a licensed veterinarian in both Connecticut and New York with 35 years experience, who now specialized in hospice and palliative care. Dr. Krier shared a Pet Quality of Life Scale. 5 and below on the scale is to consider humane tranquilization and euthanasia. Montgomery was a 6, so we went to his internist who increased his insulin, which meant we were to give 20 units each day rather than the 6. Within 6 months, George’s quality of life would decrease rapidly due to an enlarged heart and heart failure. Tragically, for both dogs, in the same week, their quality of life was below a 5. We had to make a choice quickly.

I have been a two-dog owner for most of my life and because I have been a two-dog owner, I have witnessed the end of a dog’s life multiple times. I have had dog memorials for some of my favorite friends, but the first dog I held while the vet put him down was Billy, named for the Billy Joel concert I went to when I was 13. Once the sedation entered the bloodstream, Billy slumped in my arms and the vet returned to inject pentobarbital. There was empathy from the vet, but there was something overwhelmingly sad about sitting in an exam room. The flyers on the wall reminding me how to care for a pet seemed foreign as I held Billy, but I read them anyway hoping I would not let loose a waterfall of tears. As I walked out of the vet room and through the waiting room, I saw pets and their owners sitting there waiting for their turn to see the vet. My heart felt empty.

Dr. Dale Krier walked into the backyard, carrying a small blue box and a travel box of veterinarian tools, like an old fashioned MD bag, but plastic. She said hello and then started playing music out of that little blue speaker. I felt very uncomfortable, and I worried the music would trigger more in me than I could possibly feel. I had already been crying for hours, and I didn’t need music to amplify any feeling. I learned later, the music was for the dogs. It was specifically chosen to decrease anxiety in pets and it was from a company called Pet Acoustics. If you have nervous pets, you may want to play this music. The music is designed to calm pets naturally.

As the music played, Krier explained the process and we agreed to move forward. Initially Krier administered the sedative, first to George and then to Montgomery. George seemed relieved to be able to sleep finally and Monty’s final snore started to resonate loudly. Trevor and I laughed a little bit at the sound, which Krier refers to as grief humor.

Dr. Krier waited a little bit, and spoke calmly and gently to us and then she crouched down next to me. I was sitting on the stone patio floor. She asked me if I was ready and when I nodded she shaved the hair from George’s front leg. He was lying on me, his erratic heartbeat thudding under my fingers. Then she did the same for Montgomery while my husband cradled Montgomery in his lap.

At this point Krier says she is searching for the pet’s response to stimuli. Do the pets respond when the owner pets them or when the sound of the electric razor roars next to them? If not, she starts the pentobarbital. It is an injection, just like the sedative before it, but more deliberate. More final.

Krier has been putting pets down for 35 years and during COVID, she put many different types of animals down from goats to guinea pigs, rabbits, cats, and dogs. Krier says that she placed an order for pentobarbital and is still waiting two months later for a shipment. There is a worldwide shortage of this drug. Since COVID, her business has doubled and on some weekends tripled. 80% of her business comes from word of mouth referral with a mere 20% coming from people like us who simply google. Krier has honed this end of life process for  pets for over 35 years.

On a typical day, Krier will start with one or two scheduled appointments. In 80% of cases, her visit to a home is in response to an emergency and in the latter 20% of those cases, 18% will become an emergency as the day progresses. On a typical day she will euthanize one or two pets, but can do as many as six - it depends on where people are geographically. In the heat wave that we are currently experiencing, big dogs, dogs with heart failure, overweight dogs, and dogs with breathing difficulties have more challenges. Krier is very passionate about this work, and her biggest worry is when she can’t see people that want this ending for their pet. She does not like to tell people she can’t be there, but her clients are spread out across NY and CT and this can make it difficult to see more than six pets a day.

I jokingly say that George was the best therapist I could have ever had. Raising four children can be challenging, and George was always there to provide me with the kind of calm that animal enthusiasts find when they are around pets. Dr. Dale Krier has developed a small following with families that have autistic children and may use pets as therapy dogs. In families where the pets are used as a form of therapy, parents are profoundly worried about the kids dropping off into a deep depression when the dog passes. Dr. Krier has found great success helping these families with autistic children say good-bye to their beloved pets and make sense of this ending. She has found music to be an important part of this closing.

Christiane Stamp, a North Salem mom, had a similar experience when she had to make the harrowing decision to put down Zephyr in September of 2020, a dog her family had had for 15 years. Stamp knew she couldn’t put Zephyr down alone with a vet, and she sought out alternatives. Through a google search, she discovered Comforting Care Veterinary Services and met with Dr. Walling, who also specializes in end of life care for pets. Dr. Walling helped Stamp and her husband Joe identify the right time, and the process.

Dr. Krier often puts pets to sleep with children present, and Stamp chose to have her young son present for this final passing for Zephyr. My husband and I, because we were in an emergency situation, did not, and Krier gave us some advice for helping children cope with loss. She said that when children are dealing with death, they need to be empowered. For Krier, the death of a family pet is often a child’s first introduction to death and when it is done in a nurtured environment, the children can ask questions and hug each other. She says “That’s what family is about.” Krier prides herself on being able to communicate with children and believes they are curious and they want to learn and understand. She feels she can teach them. Krier suggested I empower my children by having them organize a drive in honor of Montgomery and George which could benefit the local humane society.

Dr. Krier also left us with bubbles: 4 small containers of bubbles, the ones you might see at a wedding. Krier calls this a Bubble Release and it is a symbolic release of the pet. They were inconsolable when we told them and once the shock wore off, we tried to have our version of the Bubble Release. For my younger boys, ages 5 and 8, after things had calmed down and the sun was setting, we sat down and blew bubbles in memory of Montgomery and George.

For all children who are losing their pets, Dr. Krier recommends different books, but says her favorite is Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. On one of the pages of the book, there is a beautiful image of the dogs scratching and circling the clouds as they look for a comfortable spot to lay. That night, Oliver and Harry blew their bubbles and searched the sky for a spot where Montgomery and George might be hiding in the horizon.

If you are grieving the loss of a pet, Dr. Krier recommends participating in an international candle lighting celebration at 9PM on a Monday night. Every Monday night around the world, people light a candle in memory of pets that they lost. You can do a virtual meet up or just do your own thing. Krier thinks it is pretty profound that around the entire world people are lighting a candle in memory of their pets. She says that she has clients that have been doing it every Monday night for years.

A few days after Zephyr was cremated, Stamp received a card from Dr. Walling that said: “Please take comfort in knowing that Zephyr passed away peacefully at home surrounded by love.” She also received Zephyr’s ashes and a ceramic paw print that was taken by Dr. Walling of Zephyr’s step. In a beautiful cycle of events, Dr. Walling wrote it on plantable paper that would reshape into flowers in memory of Zephyr when the Stamp family planted it. She even took a piece of Zephyr’s hair and put it in a bottle. Stamp and I both agree that for our dogs, this was the best death for our long time beloved family pets. It was peaceful and took some of the sting out of grief, making this a much more natural process. Stamp said, “I would never do this any other way. It was so nice to have him not be scared. He was always scared of going to the vet. No matter what treats you gave him. When Dr. Walling arrived, he just saw her as another person visiting the house. It felt so much better.” For me, the process with Krier made it a natural process, a chosen end for pets we loved.

If you want to contribute to the “Montgomery and George Fundraising Drive” for the Putnam Valley Humane Society, the Havard children will be collecting at the Purdys triangle on the corner of First Street and Mills Road in North Salem on June 19 from 9am to noon. Please view the Putnam Humane Society Wish List to discover what they are most in need of and drop it off with us on the 19th.

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