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Moca, a 9-year-old Pit mix that's looking for a new home, rests in the home base of Muttville. Muttville is a rescue group that takes in senior dogs, cares for all of their medical needs and either finds a new forever home for them or puts them in a "fospice" home to live out the rest of their days. San Francisco, September 21, 2012. Photo by Deborah Svoboda.

Words: Hassina Obaidy
Photos: Deborah Svoboda

Poor doggie. Poor Max. Just four years old, the black and brown boxer had been diagnosed with stomach cancer a short time ago, and he was slipping away fast-twenty pounds in just two weeks-and now he couldn’t eat, couldn’t even move. Euthanize, the veterinarian at Rancho Santa Margarita Hospital said. That was the best thing to do.

Upset and heartbroken, San Francisco State University student Alyssa Bowdle wanted to stay strong and keep up a positive energy for her dog Max. She knew if she showed her real emotions of grief, Max would be strongly affected.

“My emotions were very much needed to stay strong on Dewey’s [Bowdle’s second boxer] behalf. He didn’t understand [Max] was sick, but needing to stay happy for [Dewey], I didn’t want him to be scared,” she says as she begins to cry. “It wasn’t sad because [Max] wasn’t sad, but I think the entire time I was just trying to stay strong. I was obviously upset, but more so wanting to stay positive.”

The day of the procedure had finally come, and they wanted to make it special. Bowdle and her family stayed home and spent the day with Max as they sat around together, made him a special lunch, and brought his special toys and blanket. When it was time, they took him to the vet. Accompanied by her cousin, a strong Bowdle lay on her side, struggling to control her emotions as she holds Max in her arms.

Her parents, however, stay outside the room and embrace each other as they sob quietly. The vet, a young, brown haired man carefully held Max’s right leg and injects the euthanasia solution into his front leg.
Max began to breathe hard, but stayed calm and fearless. He stared gently at his two supporters when his heart stopped beating.

After Bowdle travelled back to San Francisco, her parents gave her a surprise visit two weeks later and broke the news about Dewey’s death. She was extremely distraught over his death because she wasn’t there when they put him down. Dewey, 13, started throwing up and the vet believed his stomach had turned inside out. Although they were not positive about what happened, they believed he was depressed over his partner’s passing, Max. Dewey suddenly shut down and a week after Max’s passing, he was put to sleep.

The decision making process is always the hardest. As heartbreaking and stressful it may be of a dog’s passing, putting him, or her down is the one procedure that provides relief to the client and to their furry friend.

Euthanasia is a very quick, yet pain-free procedure. Director of Shelter Medicine of San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF SPCA), Kate Kuzminski, euthanizes animals when they are unconscious. First, the sedative is injected in their muscle or leg, then the euthanasia solution, which consists of pentobarbital sodium and phenytoin sodium as the active ingredients, is injected in the vein, which stops the heart within seconds.

As a veterinarian, Kuzminski has performed many euthanasia procedures. Looking back to the years of training, she remembers the first time she had to euthanize one of her surgical animals. Days before the procedure, Kuzminski realized what she had to do and kept thinking about the procedure. When the time came, the animal was already unconscious but it was still challenging as a student. She knew that this was something she had to do multiple times for her career.

Most dogs that are euthanized at SF SPCA have some sort of debilitating health issue like cancer or problems with vital organs.

Sherri Franklin, founder of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, works with SF SPCA to put down their rescued, sick dogs. This is where the “fospice” program comes in.

“We look for homes that are willing to take care of them and give them lots of love until their quality of life is no longer good and then we euthanize,” says Sherri Franklin, founder of Muttville.
Fospice (foster and hospice) is a care program that organizations including Muttville and SF SPCA offer for terminally ill pets. Volunteers take in a pet to provide love and care until their time comes to an end whether it’s a natural death, or planned.
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Shadow, a poodle mix, receives a bath by Sherri Franklin (Muttville founder) and Ann Laborde (volunteer) in the bathyard of Muttville. Shadow was sick and had deficated on herself. Unfortunately two days after this photo was taken Shadow had to be euthanized due to kidney disease. Muttville is a rescue group that takes in senior dogs, cares for all of their medical needs and either finds a new forever home for them or puts them in a "fospice" home to live out the rest of their days. San Francisco, September 21, 2012. Photo by Deborah Svoboda.

Two years ago, a furry, black and white Shepherd mix was delivered to the home of Marie Rochelle Macaspac.

Collette, a scared and unhappy dog, was curled up in a bed in Macaspac’s home for a week. She seemed lost and displaced, yearning to see someone or something familiar at adoption events. Later, Macaspac learned that this was part of her personality.

After spending some time with Collette, including a hike at Land’s End at the Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco, she felt a strong, more special bond compared to other dogs she’s fostered. However, a visit to the vet’s office caught her completely off guard when the vet told her she has three to six months to live.

When Macaspac brought Collette in, she was a nervous wreck. The veterinarian informed her that the dog might lose the whole leg if her life was threatened. Thankfully, Collette only lost one little toe. But Macaspac’s relief was short lived: just a few days later, the tumor returned.

At that point Collette wasn’t expected to make it, so she joined Muttville Senior Dog Rescue’s hospice program. As she started chemotherapy and steroids, Macaspac committed her time to learn about caring for dogs with cancer and researched on holistic treatments. After a year, Collette was healthy again and was no longer known as the “the saddest face in the world.”

Collette was a healthy and joyful dog that loved and anticipated her weekly hikes with Macaspac. She says Collette began to carry herself with purpose and seem to always stay right by her side as if they were completely connected. But last year, she suddenly became weak and frail and it wasn’t the cancer that took her life away. During the last few nights together, Macaspac cradled Collette in her arms, consuming every last moment with her.

“I wasn’t ready for her to go, and I begged her to stay. I believed Collette would fight it all the way, if only her frail body was as strong as her desire to stay by my side. The night before, I slept beside her, holding her paw. She was looking at me steadily, eyes wide open. It was almost 3:00 a.m. and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell asleep as she watched over me. Perhaps she already knew,” she writes in her blog, What Muttville Means To Me: The Story of Collette.

Collette died from organ failure after fifteen months with Macaspac.

Senior dogs are euthanized only when there is no hope left for them and are suffering from extreme pain no matter how much the client, or Muttville tries to cure.

Scooter, a nine-year-old pug mix, had a disease that wouldn’t allow him to keep food, or water down. Franklin, along with her Muttville team, tried everything they could to keep him alive. They kept him alive for weeks by trying to feed him in various ways and giving him subcutaneous fluids to correct his dehydration. Unfortunately, Scooter would vomit up until there was nothing left in his stomach.

Like many, Scooter was a happy, sweet dog who socialized and engaged with others, but once he became ill, there was a 48-hour period where he was desperate and starving for food. Franklin says this was the only time she waited too long to end a dog’s life and it wasn’t worth the agony and pain he had experienced.

“It was really tough, but I knew that we had tried everything,” Franklin recalls. “We had been to the specialist and there was no surgery that can happen there, there was absolutely nothing that could be done. And I chose to not let him suffer that one extra day, or two extra days, but it was very difficult because he wanted to live so badly.”

Euthanizing a dog, whether it’s fostered, or one’s own best friend, can be the most heart shattering yet peaceful way for their ward.

“Euthanasia when done with the purest of intentions is useful and I hate to the to use that word being ‘useful.’ But [ending a pet’s life can be] the most caring thing you can do, the most loving thing you can do, when done with the right intention,” Franklin concludes.

Collette wasn’t the only death Macaspac had to endure, which prepared her for the next. Frida, a heeler mix, was one of her own, who was adopted from another rescue group. Frida had kidney disease and was in constant pain. However, Macaspac was unaware of what Frida was experiencing.

“I couldn’t sense that, or see it, or feel it. You just keep rooting for your dog and keep seeing the positive side,” she says.

All it took was for Franklin to talk it over with her and make her realize what was happening to Frida. Eventually, Macaspac came to what they both thought was the right decision. She was pleased with the outcome of the conversation and that Franklin was with her when the time came. Frida was given her best and last meal in the most comforting environment surrounded by the people that loved her.

Macaspac says it’s hard to describe and understand how hard it is when making that decision to euthanize their pet until they’ve actually experienced it.

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Marie Macaspac, a Muttville foster home provider, gives some love to Pequena, a 12-13-year-old poodle/maltese mix who has diabetes and is deaf and mostly blind. Russell Ulrey, Marie's boyfriend and owner of Small Club, a dog boarding/walking business, sits in the background. San Francisco, September 23, 2012. Photo by Deborah Svoboda.