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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Was There Anything Else I Could Have Done?

Updated: March 2nd, 2020


Was there anything else I could have done? This is an inevitable question we all face. And the answer is always the same.

As editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I’ve read thousands of emails like the one below. And they break my heart, each time. Over the last decade, I’ve done some deep thinking about the guilt that comes (Inevitably! For all of us!) when our dog passes away. So if you’re asking “was there anything I could have done for my dog?” … here’s my best answer. (Details have been changed for privacy and this has been edited for clarity.)

Molly Jacobson, Editor

Letter to the Editor: Was There Anything Else I could Have Done?

I am struggling to come to terms with this right now as I wonder if there was more that could be done for her.

Belle was diagnosed with metastatic tumors in the brain and spine. Specialists gave her approx 3 months to live and I committed to try anything and everything for her so long as she remained pain-free and happy. I really believed I could help save her for a little while longer than the 3 months.

What did I do wrong?

She was treated with conventional medicine and also natural medicine too … My family and I remained so positive. Initially, she did really well, surprising the vets. She was given all our love and I took her outside as much as possible. We played games and told her all the time how much I adored her and so on.

It seems that all this was not enough. Was anything else I could have done? I would appreciate any comments you might have as I desperately want to know that I did do the right thing by her. I felt I was given a little window to make a difference and I missed something or did something wrong by her.

I kept my promise to her and put her to sleep the day after she was really uncomfortable, she had lost her mobility again and cried throughout the night she seemed in pain and I could not ease it…

The vets told me they could give nothing to ease this pressure pain and that they felt the time had come for her. The worst words but I could not see her in pain.

Would be nice to hear any feedback. I will keep your book and recommend to others – really well written and helpful.

It doesn’t matter what type of your cancer your dog has: this book is a must-read.

Molly’s Reply:

Thank you for writing, and I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Belle sounds like a wonderful, brave, warrior of a dog!

Now, to your question, and I’m going to put this as gently as I can without coming across as preachy. In fact, imagine that I am giving you a big hug, and are looking at you with big, earnest eyes that are brimming with tears — because we’ve all been exactly where you are, and I really understand the urge to go over everything, over and over, wondering if there was more you could have done.

We all understand second-guessing everything about our dog’s cancer, treatments, and ultimate outcome.

Here’s my answer: There was nothing more you could have done.

Cancer is clever and crazy, and a mighty foe, and no matter what we wish, there is NO MAGIC BULLET for it.

We can manage some health issues, such as a broken leg, or an ear infection.

But cancer isn’t straightforward. It doesn’t happen in a linear fashion.

Cancer zigs and zags, and it darts around corners and hides in dark places.

Sometimes, we can manage it for so long that it feels like we WIN, which is probably what you were hoping for.

And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can cut it out and be DONE with it, that’s what I’m hoping for now, with my Kanga.

But too often, particularly for harder to treat cancers, or for cancers that have metastasized, we do the best we can.

And then we worry the universal worry: did I do everything I could?

Everyone asks if they did everything they could. All of us!

There are always things that can help, as you found out, but does using any of those treatments, supplements, or lifestyle choices guarantee that cancer won’t win?


No One Has a Crystal Ball 🙁

Even if you HAD found the book sooner, or done every single little thing that Dr. Dressler recommends, there is no way to know you would have a different outcome or had more time.

You will never get an answer to that question, because, as my grandfather once told me, asking yourself questions that only God can answer is a sure way to drive yourself crazy.

Stop asking questions that have no answers. That will drive you mad!

So stop asking that question. It will drive you crazy, because you will never, ever get a satisfying and definitive answer.

No one has a crystal ball. No one can tell you for sure if there was something else you could have done.

Here’s the Truth

You did the best you could, and that is enough and perfect and loving and excellent. Your dog would tell you this!

You cared and made changes, and when it was time, you helped her to rest. I have no doubt that you did right by her.

There’s a truth I find difficult to face but helpful:

Our dogs experience pain, like we do, but also not like we do.

When a dog is in pain, that’s all they are — in pain.

As far as we can tell, they don’t have the thought “This will get better.”

So when dogs fill ill, they just feel ill.

It’s hard to accept that you did the best you could and your dog died anyway. But that’s the truth.

If they feel ill for a long, long time, or if they are in chronic pain, they may actually feel more miserable than we would in their place.

Because they don’t have a sense that the pain will end (as far as we know). In their world, pain may seem endless.

One minute of pain for a dog might feel as bad as a month would to us. They might be constantly thinking “when will this end?”

A human with brain cancer could take comfort from knowing that something — some treatment, some drug — might help reduce the pain, at some point.

It’s a little easier to bear pain when you can look forward to and imagine a time it ceases.

Looking for support? Our private Facebook group just for readers of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide is amazing. Thousands of people just like you, dealing with dog cancer and leaning on each other for comfort and advice. Join us!

But dogs just can’t do that. Their world is NOW.

So sometimes, if we can’t hold out hope for a future without pain, we choose, as dog lovers, to ease their pain. That’s the loving choice you made for your Belle.

Guilty Feelings are Biological, Not Logical

We tend to assume that if we feel guilty, it’s because we could have done more or better.

Not true!

Those guilty feelings are not necessarily there because we didn’t do enough for our dogs. Those feelings come up even if we did “everything right.”

That’s because dogs trigger parental patterns in our primate brain.

Primates, and particularly humans, give birth to helpless infants that we MUST protect at all costs. Our dogs and other pets depend upon us so heavily that they remind our primate brains of our own babies!

That’s why we start to feel that same fierce protection toward them, the feeling of “I must keep this creature alive.”

These feelings are biological and evolutionary in origin, and there is nothing we can do about them.

Of course, our dogs are not human babies. They live far shorter lives than we do. When our dog is ten, our brains may think of him as a ten-year-old child, but he’s not. At that point, he’s a senior citizen!

Think about it: the death of a ten-year-old is unthinkable. Just the thought makes us queasy and upset and panicked. It is unnatural for our children to die so young.

But it’s not unnatural for our dogs to die “young.” If we are really lucky, we get a couple of decades with them.

And yet when they die, we can often grieve as if for a child. That’s because those evolutionary and biological feelings are triggered.

Extreme Emotional Pain Is Normal 🙁 and Not a Sign You Did Too Little

Be Gentle, Be Loving, Be Kind

This extreme pain you’re in, and the second-guessing your doing, is completely normal and natural when you look at it from this evolutionary mindset. Belle triggered these parental feelings, now she’s gone, and you are beating your head against a wall trying to figure out if it’s your fault … because your child is NOT supposed to die so young.

Dr. Dressler’s advice on grieving the loss of dog cancer is profound and loving.

Your job now is to be patient with yourself. It will take a while for your primate brain to unwind the events, traumas, and facts. It will go over this territory again and again until it finally figures out that you did nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, try to relax and observe this happening. Watch your brain as it tries to make what’s wrong, right. This is normal and natural. … for a while. After a bit, you MUST stop this cycle of wondering.

For your own sanity, please, don’t beat yourself up. Get the support you need to grieve and talk this through, and then let it go as one of the great mysteries of life. Was there something more you could have done? No. Why? Because even if there WERE something you could have done different, you didn’t know about it. So … you couldn’t have done it!

You are off the hook, free and clear of blame.

You are off the hook and free and clear of blame. You were Belle’s best friend, and she knew it, but I guarantee she would NOT want you to feel this bad and beat yourself up.

She wants you happy and content and comforted.

Grieving is terrible, and it comes in waves. Get yourself the support you need, so the next wave doesn’t roll you over.

You did not hurt Belle.

She loved every minute of her life with you.

Many, many blessings.

Molly Jacobson
The Dog Cancer Survival Guide


Leave a Comment

  1. pam blaco on September 23, 2022 at 3:26 am

    That you for reprinting this article. I lost my 10 year old Golden 2 months ago to Hemagiosarcoma cancer. After they remove his spleen I had him for only 7 more weeks. We enjoy him every minute we had him with us. I thought he would be with us longer. It is a comfort to me to know that I had the choice to let him go and remove his pain.

  2. Mollie Jayne on July 6, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    I feel guilty that maybe I didn’t do all I could to prevent Duncan’s nasal cancer, and I think it’s part of the reason I’ve been stuck in grief too much to adopt another dog as I have in the past.

    He died on May 16, 2020. Logically I know the circumstances were largely beyond my control, but still. He had severe thunder phobia and separation anxiety. The SA improved over time. Thunder caused him to run through the house barking wildly and sometimes forget his bladder manners. Every calming remedy I tried only slightly took the edge off. I still felt there were more things I should have tried, meant to try, and worried that the cortisol from years of panic attacks would wear down his immune system and age him too rapidly.

    We also lived a mile away from two major highways and an entertainment district, in a house under power lines and a pole in a neighbor’s yard with all sorts of sinister looking things attached to it. Exhaust fumes plus radiation plus cortisol, yay. Sounds like a great recipe for cancer soup. Our cancer crock pot was the only house available at the time I needed to move. Nice neighborhood, but maybe not so healthy.

    I’d like to adopt another brother for Missy, my 9 year old border collie and Duncan’s buddy for 5 years. I’ve always had a boy and girl to keep each other company for over 20 years. In the past when a much loved dog died, I was devastated but adopted a friend for the remaining dog about 2-3 months later. This time it’s over 2 years. I’ve looked at adoption sites, seen a few dogs I really wanted to meet, but haven’t been able to push through the giant load of grief. I shrink back from the pain of trying to imagine another dog where Duncan used to be; it just doesn’t seem right somehow. For what it’s worth, recently Missy and I moved to a larger house and yard in a somewhat less congested area and I retired. Both were unplanned and rather traumatic but ultimately better for us. I hope to find a “work at home dog mom job” soon.

    My sweet golden shepherd was admitted to ICU with extreme lethargy. His normal personality was much like Dug from the movie Up. He was the most loving, enthusiastically goofy velcro dog ever. Suddenly the cannonball canine disappeared and a subdued stranger took his place. Initial tests showed a raging infection, elevated white cell count and erosion of bone in the right nasal passage. His vet said it could be tooth root abscess, fungal infection or cancer, more tests were needed for a definite diagnosis. He didn’t live long enough. He came home but went into drastic decline the next day. We went back to the vet that night for the last time.

    To pass sleepless nights during his ICU stay, this research nerd read scary internet sites hoping it wasn’t cancer, but he fit the profile perfectly. Most common age at diagnosis, 10. Long nosed dog living in a large city. Male golden mix (for some reason males get this slightly more than females, and half of goldies die of cancer). No symptoms except random sneezes or snorts about 3 months before the end. His doctor said any vet would haved treated for allergy or mild infection at the time. Later the sudden bloody nose, rapid weight loss, incontinence, and finally a bulge above his right eye a few hours before he died. Still puppyish at 10 until his last brutal days, he died 3 days before his 8th “adoptiversary”. Previous dogs Scout and Meg lived to 14 and 16 respectively, enjoying mostly healthy, gradually aging senior years.

    Golden lab mix Scout died of lung cancer 3 weeks from his diagnosis after limping badly during a walk. Meg, Rhodesian whippet princess, got a checkup every 3 months for mild arthritis, liver and kidney issues her last year or so. Three years after Scout died, she suddenly went “down dog” one day, unable to stand or walk on her own or sleep through the night without pain. Darn dogs hiding their problems until the last minute!

    They were inseparable BFFs for most of their lives. They saw me through the best of times amd the worst of times. I knew all along I had something very rare and special in those two. They were so chill, they were practically self training after their puppy/new rescue days. I was a mess after each of them died but knew they had long healthy lives, and was able to resolve the normal grief/guilt feelings after their passing.

    I don’t love Duncan more than Meg, Scout or Missy, but they were/are all Zen pups and he was my wild child. First dog with SA or thunder phobia. By far the most fearful and destructive dog I’ve ever known. We went through several cycles of progress and setbacks before going to school for help. He loved it, learned quickly, wrapped his trainers around his paw and earned his CGC. From brat to gentleman. Still had thunder phobia though. And, I know what it’s like to have fears and panic attacks, so once it finally got through my thick skull what was going on with him, I would have taken his suffering on myself to spare him that misery. I think we trauma bonded a bit during the early “ruff” times when he ate or peed on everything in sight. Maybe that’s another reason it’s so hard to let go and let another dog near my heart. Then there’s the ongoing stress of coping with his loss during this extended Twilight Zone episode we now live in. Spent a whole day searching for Missy’s kibble due to an apparent nationwide shortage. I suppose I have yet to embrace the suck.

    I had no idea this would be so long. Never really written it all out before, such a drama llama. I just want to feel I did the best I could for Duncan, come to some kind of peace about it all, and adopt a bro for Missy. Kinda miss having a cuddly goofy retriever dude around the house after being owned and loved by them for 23 years.

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