A Good End: Gratitude and That One Last Gift

Renee DiPietro, CVT, Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator
Veterinary Information Specialist

Puppy waggles and muddy noses bring joy, laughter, and immense fulfillment, igniting love in ways that can be unexpected. These moments evolve into to raucous games of fetch, miles of partnered runs,  hikes in dappled forests, races  down the beach, and long car rides with your steady friend.  The years that follow bring quiet walks, a faithful head in your lap, and a foot warmer at your feet on winter nights as the woodstove works its quiet magic nearby.

One day you notice those lively brown eyes shining a little less brightly and you see that clouds have formed there. The dark  face is now snowy. The familiar, fluid, gait seems choppy, and the days are punctuated by frequent naps.  A thumping tail, from somewhere on the floor replaces a once explosive race to the door when you arrive home. Snoring has become a thing and your friend is now lumpy, with little masses dotting the land scape of his once glossy coat. Things are more smelly  than they used to be. Occasionally  a puddle appears  where it should not. You forgive. We are not all young and lovely  forever.

This is all still beautiful to you. You know you can never repay your friend for the many gifts you have received. You cannot imagine life without him. A little bit of sadness and a little bit of dread begin to tinge those happy moments you share. You know that a  good-bye lurks somewhere on the horizon and this is heart breaking . Not only are you sad, but you are frightened. You are afraid you will not know how to care for your friend, how to keep him comfortable, how to know when it’s time to say good-bye.

Take heart.  Just as it is a very real concept in human medicine, hospice is a growing movement in the veterinary  field. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care defines animal hospice as “ care for animals, focused on the patient’s and family’s needs; on living life as fully as possible until the time of death [with or without intervention]; and on attaining a degree of preparation for death.”

You can advocate for your pet’s end of life care and learn how to provide for his special needs. There is help and guidance available to help you navigate this final chapter and to make it a really good one…..for both of you.

The goal of hospice is to support your pets comfort and quality of life. Happiness  for you and your pet are the tenants of this time. This last chapter can be as sweet as all that have come before. This is not about extending life, but rather about making these last days happy and comfortable.

Being able to support your old friend down the end of the trail is a gift….for him…and for you.

Start by taking simple steps to make your home more comfortable and easier to navigate as his daily challenges become greater. Some ideas include:

  • Installing carpets or throw rugs over slippery surfaces
  • Keeping his favorite room a little warmer if you like the rest of the house cool, or cooler if that is what makes your pet more comfortable.
  • Provide extra cushioning where he sleeps and absorbent pads if incontinence is an issue.
  • Play soft music for your pet when you are not home
  • Keep the food and water bowls closer to his comfy space.
  • You can hand feed your pet if he has trouble getting to his bowls
  • Eliminate the need to climb steps. If this causes stressful separation for your pet, consider moving into the room where your pet is most comfortable temporarily.
  • Keep other pets from bothering  him, unless their company is comforting and not stressful.
  • Discuss pain control and nutritional support with your veterinary team.

There are many gentle modes of alternative therapies offered by veterinary professionals to keep your pet comfortable and happy through this last journey. These may include acupuncture, massage, laser therapy and many other options.

Talk to your veterinarian about their hospice philosophy.  Are they interested in this and receptive to your inquiries?  There are veterinary clinics that specialize in hospice and will come to your home to assist you with any critical care you may need to provide. Do a little research to see if there is such a clinic in your area.  Many general practice clinics will also support you during this time. Figure out how you want this to go for you and your pet. Make a plan and most importantly, find a veterinary team that you feel supports your hospice goals. This does not have to be scary and stressful. It can be peaceful. It can even be beautiful.  Honor your pet and the bond that you two have shared.  Ask questions, seek guidance.  Advocate for your friend.

Although some choose to allow their pets a natural death, this can at times be wrought with stress and suffering. Euthanasia is a gift of peaceful passing that you give to your faithful companion. It is compassionate and is meant to ease or prevent suffering.

How will you know when it’s time?  It all comes down to quality of life. When there are more bad days then good, it’s time to consider Euthanasia. There are tools to help guide you. One helpful resource is a “Quality of Life Chart”. This can actually help you quantify what you are seeing in your pet each day,  positive and negative. Sometimes being able “grade” your pet’s quality of life can be very helpful in supporting end of life decisions. Some people feel immense guilt and this tool can help them look realistically at their pet’s current experience.  Others cannot bear the thought of losing their beloved friend. Remember this time is about your pet’s comfort and that should be your top priority.

Talk to your veterinarian and agree on parameters to help you decide when it will be time. When he stops eating, or if breathing becomes difficult, if he can’t walk, if he seems stressed, are some examples.  If you make these decisions ahead of time it can be easier when you see these signs, to take that final step.

Plan how and where you want your pet to pass. Will it be just you, the veterinarian , and your pet? Is there someone else you want to be there to support you? Will you take your pet to a favorite place or stay at home to reduce stress? Will you make a last favorite meal or enjoy a favorite low key activity together?

It is also very important to take care of yourself at this time. Ask a friend to sit with your pet if you need while you take a walk or run errands. Plan for your own support and what you will need once your pet has passed. There are pet loss grief support groups and helplines widely available. Let a close friend know what you are going through. Being able to orchestrate your pet’s hospice can be a useful coping mechanism in itself.

Another important step to reduce stress and help you through this time is to plan ahead how you will honor your pet. It can give you great comfort to know how you will sustain an enduring bond between you and your best friend. A special ceremony? A memorial tattoo? A hike to your favorite peak to spread ashes? A head stone? Take time to consider this and make it be whatever is most meaningful to you.

Most of all….try to be grateful for the wonderful years you shared. Let this gratitude infuse and support these last days. Make it a sweet time….in any small way you can.