There’s a sign on a horse corral in my neighborhood that reads: “Please be Kind and Understanding. I am an old horse. I am 39 years old and that’s 108 in people years. I am retired. My family loves me and is doing their best to take good care of me.”


This horse has had a chronic eye infection for six years, and his legs and feet give him lots of trouble. He lies in the sun most days, but gets up when anyone stops by for a visit, or his family brings him dinner. He lost his companion a few months ago, and he’s probably lonely, but he still stands at the back of the paddock where the shade trees help keep him cool, and he can snooze while he’s waiting for the young ones in the family to come give him treats. It’s not a bad way to spend your final days, but some days are better than others. His family worries about him.


What makes it even more difficult is that non-horse owners sometimes don’t understand that some health problems can’t be fixed. They can only be tended to in hopes of keeping your pet comfortable.


I lost three old horses in two years. They were all over 30 years old, and it about broke my heart to let them go, but I had no choice. Folks passing by would ask me, “What’s wrong with that horse’s eye?” My answer: He was blind because he’d suffered a corneal abscess. Or, “Why is that horse limping?” In one case, the horse had a hoof infection that wouldn’t heal because of his compromised immune system. Bad stuff happens. When I wasn’t there to answer questions, what did people think—that I wasn’t taking good care of my animals?


My neighbors with the old horse had been called by Animal Control because someone made a complaint. When the officer heard the horse’s age, she understood the situation immediately. Another time, they received a nasty unsigned note on the same day a veterinarian was there to check on the horse and give him pain medication. And they’ve endured at least one irate and accusatory phone call. Very soon their old horse will move on to greener pastures, but in the meantime his family is suffering because of a terrible misunderstanding. That’s why they put up the sign.


It’s important not to jump to conclusions. Don’t assume you understand an animal’s dilemma because you see something you don’t like. If you feel you can help in a situation, don’t hesitate, but be respectful and open-minded when you communicate with the animal’s owners. Share your concerns, but please remember that caring intervention helps more than criticism.


What do you do when an animal’s quality of life is diminished? You do the best that you can and hope it is good enough. The responsibility pet owners take on can be a huge burden when animals grow old or become ill. When an animal lingers, you ask yourself what to do next. You hope you’ll know when the time is right to make that fatal decision.


Judy Fitzpatrick has worked as an editor and writing instructor. She is currently writing a novel and putting together a collection of poetry, Looking through the middle of my life.