It’s hard getting old.  It’s even harder watching a beloved friend and companion get old.  To watch as he struggles just to stand up after lying on the floor.  To have to buy a dog ramp to help him get into the car.  To watch him get tired after a short walk.  After 12 years of constant companionship, walks in the woods, hikes up the highest peaks, and days spent guarding the house, our dog Simon has definitely reached his golden years and is no doubt in the final stretch.

To be sure, he’d slowed down a lot the last year, but still only two weeks ago, he managed to accompany us to his favorite neighborhood hike down to Boulder Creek.  His spirit is still as young as a pup’s, but his body isn’t.  Filled with lumpy fatty tumors and undoubtedly arthritis in his hips and back, life is more of a struggle.  He still has his good days, like last week when I took him for a walk around our neighborhood and he summoned the energy to jog along the straightaway on Cougar Run.

But as a friend said, if Simon’s life was a football game, he’s not only in the fourth quarter, but perhaps even at the two minute warning, and I’m saddened by thoughts of losing my best friend.

His appetite has waxed and waned over the past month.  Our vet has called it Senior Dog finickiness.  Some days, he eat, and some days nothing interests him.  He sniffs his dog food and walks away without taking a bite.  So unlike Simon.

Simon has always been a food monger from the day I adopted him.  If there was food in the house — people food, dog food, — heck, even cat food, he’d wolf it down.  Then suddenly, three weeks ago, he didn’t wolf his food down like he normally does.  The last month has been a roller coaster ride.  Just as I despair that perhaps this is it, he perks up and eats again, not quite ready to give up.

This it the time every pet owner rues.  You know, that in all likelihood, you will outlive your pets.  It’s been sort of a triple whammy for me, because I adopted my two cats and Simon all within a couple of years of each other, which inevitably meant they would die around the same time.  First Maya went, unexpectedly passing away during the night three years ago.  Then last June, Zuni cat.

Last year, a friend of mine lost her long-time dog.  After a grieving period, she wanted to adopt another one, but her husband said no.  He’d taken the death particularly hard, and said he just couldn’t possibly go through that pain again.  And yes, grieving a pet is probably one of the worst losses I’ve ever gone through, every bit as hard as a human family member.  People who are not pet owners find this odd. “It’s only a dog!” they proclaim.  But other than your spouse or children, these family members are the living things that you will see each day as you come home from work.  They will wag their tails, curl up on your laps and love you unconditionally all for the price of daily feeding, a walk now and then, and a pat on the head.  How many people can you say that about?

After losing two cats in two years, we adopted a new kitten last summer, Simba.  Simba doesn’t replace either Maya or Zuni — his personality is quite different.  But he reminds me of how loved a pet can make you feel, and reminds me I am still capable of love even after suffering a great loss.

When I took him for his first check-up, our vet congratulated me, much like friends congratulating parents on the birth of a baby.

“I’m so happy for you Leslie!  He’s a confident, healthy kitten, good for you!”

She’d known of the loss of our previous cats, and had even sent sympathy cards.

“You know, I can’t imagine ever living in a house without pets, despite how hard it is when you lose them.  I think a house without pets would feel sterile, and dead.  No matter what, I’ll always have animals” I proclaimed to her.

And it’s so true.  I think especially so living in a rural area, where there can be days, I don’t have any human interaction.  The comfort of having pets to remind you that you do matter, and are worthy of love, no matter how good or bad your day, is irreplaceable.  On top of it, our dogs force me to get my butt outside even on the worst of days, and I always feel better for it.

Years ago, our dog-sitter had to put down their long-time Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  She was heartbroken.  We had planned on leaving Simon and Shawnee with her during the long holiday weekend coming up.  When I received her email asking “Are you still leaving the dogs here?” I thought perhaps she’d changed her mind after losing her dog.  In fact, it was just the opposite, she was desperate to have canine companionship that weekend.

When I picked up the dogs, she told me her mother had shared a little maxim about dogs.

“Don’t you know dogs are like tires, you always need a spare.”

No matter the trials and tribulations and the grief I go through, be assured I will always have plenty of spares.  As the saying goes, “Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”