My dog needs an operation I can’t afford. Should I try to find the money, or put him down?

The feelings of helplessness towards an animal in pain are difficult, says advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but try not to make this decision in isolation

My father has dementia, and when his cat was run over, he was absolutely distraught. A few months later, he asked for a dog as he couldn’t face having a cat to lose again. So I bought him a Labrador puppy. It took one, maybe two days, and he was done with it. So I took on the responsibility.

The puppy was expensive to begin with; and then his hip went when he was six months old and I had to pay $18k for an operation, of which insurance only paid less than half of it. Now his front leg elbows have gone and the vet says he’s got elbow dysplasia and needs an operation. He’s limping now. I feel so sorry for him as he’s such a beautiful, good-natured dog.

I lost my job just before Christmas and I have no money, no savings. I don’t know what to do – try to raise the money for another operation, or put him down?

This question has been edited for length and clarity.

Eleanor says: It can be very hard to admit when having a pet hasn’t gone the way we’d hoped. Pets can mean so much to us – as your dad knows. They can be a source of joy and companionship, the truest love we have, and wonderful personalities in their own right. All that potential is so sweet when they first arrive in the home – which makes it even more difficult to face up to reality if in fact, it turns out we can’t give them what they need.

A lot of people never do face up to that fact. They persist for a long time with animals in pain, or animals deprived of what they need, because it’s too difficult to acknowledge they can’t give the requisite care. They chuck their pets in a little pen or leave them home alone all day and then shout at them for acting up. So it’s admirable you took on caring for this dog when your dad was no longer able to, and admirable you’ve been able to acknowledge something needs to change.

I’m not a vet, and anything you do should be in consultation with them. But it seems to me your biggest jobs here are to take care of the dog’s pain as quickly as possible, and to do so in a way that doesn’t just feel like your kind gesture to your dad has ended in suffering and sadness.

The two options you’ve mentioned – euthanasia or finding a lot of money out of nowhere – aren’t the only options. There’s also the possibility of rehoming the dog. If you can’t stand the thought of letting him go to a stranger, perhaps you could start with networks of friends and family, or good folks known to your vet?

That might even give you a way to have some contact with him (if you or your dad would like that). You could drop in now and then, offer to walk him, or mind him when his new family is away; some interim connectedness that would let you and your dad have some of the joy – and the feeling of being useful to another living creature – without sole responsibility.

I think, too, it’s important to acknowledge that this might be wrapped up with all kinds of other feelings for you. Your dad’s dementia must be so hard on you both, and the feeling of having been unable to stop the suffering of something innocent and beloved can’t be an especially easy one right now. So go gently with yourself and try not to make this decision in isolation.

A decent vet should let you be candid about your financial situation – if they’re a proper animal person, their priority is caring for the dog, not making you feel worse for the decision you have to make. They might be able to help you come up with interim pain management strategies, or just make you feel less alone in having to make the decision. It can be very hard to face the fact that we can’t care for our animals, but that doesn’t mean nobody else can, either.

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