Most dogs spend their whole lives begging for their favorite foods, and we pet owners spend a lot of our time staring into those puppy dog eyes, wondering if we should give in. So when the worst happens, and illness, pain, or age brings a beloved companion to the point when prolonging his life would be cruel, one small consolation of that saddest of days — your dog's last day — is being able to feed him any kind of food his doggy heart desires.
What do people feed their dogs when their only goal is pure, canine joy? I spoke with a handful of animal behavior specialists, dog trainers, and devoted dog owners around the country about the dogs they have had to say goodbye to, and how they fed these special companions on their last day together.
Thor had been my constant companion, running hundreds of miles with me. When I was 40 and training for my first marathon, Thor would run with me — in snow, in below-zero weather, in rain, in fog, at 6 a.m. to avoid the heat. At about age 10, Thor could no longer run with me. I couldn’t even look at him as I walked out of the house each morning. We changed to hiking in the woods, or walks around the neighborhood.
Thor was our family dog, with us while my daughters grew up. When we would go to Dunkin' Donuts, we would always ask for a Munchkin for the dogs. As a family we'd go to the local ice cream shop and always get a small vanilla for the dogs. Vesta, my Boston Terrier, and Thor would share a cone as one of us held it. My daughters were not home for his last day, so they texted things they wanted me to do with him — for them, from a distance — and requested that I get him Munchkins and ice cream.
We also took a hike that Thor had always loved to a place called Goose Pond. It was a bit tough for him that day, but he made it around the pond. I think just having a last day, being able to completely be with him, talk about him, pet him, and walk with him was what made it special to me.
— Denise Mazzola, certified professional dog trainer
Wallace & Hector
Wallace was a shelter dog targeted for euthanasia, but shortly after he went into foster care, it was discovered that he really liked to catch frisbees. In his second year in the sport, Wallace won the 2006 Cynosport World Games, and the next year he won the 2007 Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge National Championship for flying disc.
We feel so lucky that he experienced such an amazing quality of life until the end. He was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, went through surgery to remove his burst spleen, and was given a prognosis of a few months. He lived for another year and completed a heck of a bucket list. Wallace got to ride in a motorcycle sidecar, wade in the ocean, play fetch through the mail with MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle, and even meet Betty White.
When he finally started to show pain from a second cancer that popped up and it was getting harder to manage his pain, we knew we had to let him go. On his last day he went for a short walk, resting along the way. Before the vet came over, we gave him roasted chicken. He hadn't had chicken in at least five years because it was the one thing that flared his skin problems. He lit up and loved every bite.
Hector was one of the 51 pit bulls rescued from the Michael Vick dog fighting case. After the couple of bad years with Vick and his buddies, he enjoyed seven years of love and fun adventures. He became a Certified Therapy Dog to visit nursing homes and hospitals. He also went to schools to help teach kids how to act safely around dogs. Hector was cool with everybody, even though he was treated badly in his younger life .
Thinking about the end of his life makes me sad. He battled some confusing health problems, which we believe stemmed from his former life as a fighter. We tried so hard to bring him back to health, but he slowly declined for a year and a half. It felt so unfair because he was the youngest of our dogs — we had him for the least amount of time, and he was sick for so long.
He didn't eat much of anything for the last month or so. I tried to get creative. He liked homemade treats made at a local coffee shop, so we went there every single day.
I remember with each dog how privileged I felt to be able to do everything we could for them at the end of their lives. We fed them as well as they would let us, gave them as many supplements as were appropriate, and did all of the things they enjoyed. You would think when they were gone that I might feel relieved not having to put so much time and effort into their food and supplements, but the truth is I felt honored to be that caregiver for them and I would have done it forever.
— Clara Yori, founder of the Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation
Sammy was in the shelter at 9 years old. He had crusty eyes; bowed, wobbly back legs; and a quiet demeanor. The manager of the shelter, where I worked at the time, asked me to take him. He had a heart murmur among other issues, and it was a matter of "life and death." And unbeknownst to me, he was my soulmate. He loved rides in the car — we'd go to the Dairy Treat where they'd give him and his brother a doggy dish of vanilla ice cream. My shy dog would be bursting at the seams in anticipation of the ice cream.
After about three or four years, his health really took a turn for the worse. His anxiety increased — especially when I'd leave for work. I was crushed at the thought of him dying alone and scared. After a tear-filled conversation with the vet, I had to make the appointment. Who was I to make this decision? What if he would get better? Was it the right time? The guilt was overwhelming, but his anxiety and my wanting to spend his last moments with him made me follow through.
The worst part was that the vet performed euthanasias in the afternoon, so 3 p.m. was our time. The whole day was ominous and surreal. I kept thinking in my head, "Six more hours, five more hours, four more hours." We packed up the car and spent the day doing everything he loved. I took him and his brother to the park and set up mounds of blankets under a tree, and we had a picnic of sliced hot dogs and hamburgers. I told him everything I loved about him and about what was going to happen.
Once we left the park, we went through the Dairy Treat drive-thru where I asked for an extra doggy dish for Sammy. It seemed a shame that I didn't ask for two doggy dishes for him more often. Why did I have to wait until he was going to die? He was so happy.
— Amy Johnson, director of Oakland University School of Nursing's Animal Assisted Therapy Program
Liberty Sue was the dearest, most loving, forgiving soul. She came to me after some serious abuse, and was the most shut-down dog I had ever met. We worked hard to get her over her fears, and before long it became clear that she was very special. She was love. She loved absolutely everyone, but I was her favorite, which might be the greatest honor of my life. When she died, a friend said to me, “When you go to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter asks what you’ve done with your life, Liberty will bark, and you won’t have to say a word."
A few weeks before she died, Liberty stopped eating. In five years, this had never happened. We did X-rays and ran blood work, and everything was normal, but I kept pushing, and we had an ultrasound done. The tech looked at the monitor, turned it off, and took a deep breath. He said, “This is a really, really great dog. She’s really terrific. So you stop any medication, and you give her absolutely anything she wants for the rest of her life. She’s got days."
For Liberty’s whole last week, we offered her everything we could think she would like. She got lots of bacon (both raw and cooked), chicken, ham, and liverwurst — she didn’t eat much, but we went for every extravagant meat we could think of. She liked the cooked bacon best, so we made sure there was as much of that as she could possibly want.
The day of the ultrasound I came home, called into work, and told them that I wouldn’t be in. Liberty suffered from separation anxiety, and while we’d gotten her mostly through it, I made a promise to her that she would never be alone again. She wasn’t. One week exactly from her ultrasound, I woke up, looked in her eyes, and knew it was time. We carried her into the vet that morning, January 14, 2015. My heart has been broken ever since.
— Amie Glasgow, certified dog trainer & animal behavior consultant
Do you have any stories of special last meals with a beloved pet?
To find an adoptable dog to share a special meal with and learn more about how you can help homeless pets, visit Best Friends Animal Society.
(Image credits: anjajuli/Shutterstock; Denise Mazzola; Clara Yori; Amy Johnson; Amie Glasgow)