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So Hard to Say Goodbye

A senior dog rests in the sunshine.

Pet ownership comes with many gifts and many challenges. One of the hardest things we may encounter is watching our beloved pet age and worrying whether we are doing everything we can for them. There may even come a time when we wonder if we are extending their suffering too far. Making end-of-life decisions is often a difficult and emotional process that many describe as heartbreaking or the hardest thing they have ever had to do. Others may feel tremendous guilt, procrastinate, or avoid making the decision altogether. Although it may be difficult, thinking ahead and making a plan for your ailing pet allows for the best chance of a humane and dignified end to their too-short life. I took the opportunity to talk with some colleagues in the veterinary community about this very issue, and have assembled some of their thoughts on the subject.

Quality of life is the standard of health, comfort and happiness experienced by an individual. However, this can be difficult to objectively qualify in animals. As our pets age, we may see subtle personality changes as our animal friends become less tolerant of things they were fine with as a youngster. They may avoid people or other pets, and choose to spend more time on their own. It is easy to chalk this up to simply becoming “grumpy” with old age, when in reality it may indicate that our pet is physically not feeling well. This is a great time to start talking with your veterinarian about interventions (such as pain management) that can help Fido or Mr. Kitty feel more like themselves. Significant personality changes should always be evaluated by veterinarian, where blood tests and possibly even imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, etc.) may help the doctor determine the source of our pet’s suffering.

As our elderly pets get closer to end-of-life, frequently the first concrete thing owners notice is a change in eating or bathroom habits. Your dog may begin leaving part of his meal in the bowl, drinking more water, or begin having accidents in the house. Your cat may skip meals all together, or stop using the litter box. Again, contact your vet immediately for an evaluation. It can be tempting to “wait it out”, but the longer our elderly pets go without food or water, the more difficult veterinary diagnosis and treatment may become.

When we notice our pet’s quality of life beginning to decline, Dr. Green at Southkent Veterinary Hospital in Byron Center suggests keeping track of good and bad days on a calendar. This visual can really help an owner objectively evaluate the current quality of their pet’s life.

A good day is my dog got up, ate his food, went outside, did what he needed to do and didn’t seem to be struggling at all,” Green said. “A bad day is we skipped a meal, fell down some steps, slipped and splayed-out on the floor. Then we can start objectively visualizing what is going on. We can look at the calendar and see that in the last month there have been 15 bad days, or 18 bad days— that is more than half of the month.

Additionally, this calendar visual can help us see trends that indicate a sudden decline in our pet’s quality of life, necessitating a more immediate intervention.

Because we live with our pets every day, it can be easy to disregard the subtle changes in our pet’s health that accumulate over time to significantly impact their quality of life. We hang on to each and every “good day”, and try to put the bad ones out of mind. Dr. Dehlinger at Southkent suggests that it may be helpful to invite a family member who hasn’t seen your pet in some time to come over to visit.

Sometimes an outside perspective from a family member who knows your pet makes a huge difference,” Dehlinger expressed.

A trusted second-opinion may be extremely eye-opening when we’ve become blind to our pet’s suffering, or help us get beyond our need to hold on until summer is over, the kids come home for the holidays, etc.

Once you and your family have identified that your pet’s quality of life is suffering, it is time to discuss the options of palliative care, pet hospice and/or euthanasia. This can be an incredibly difficult discussion to have, and the emotional weight of dealing with this decision on a “bad day” when you have had to carry your pet into the vet’s office can be debilitating. If at all possible, talk through the options with your vet care team before your pet’s eleventh-hour. Your pet’s comfort and well-being, future quality of life, impact on your family’s well-being and your finances are all points to consider when evaluating options. If euthanasia is being considered, your veterinarian can talk through that process with you and help you to understand what to expect when bringing your pet in for the appointment. Dr. Dehlinger understands the inner-conflict that is commonly part of this decision.

Euthanasia may be the last good thing you get to do for your pet — to relieve his suffering,” Dehlinger said. “As a veterinarian, it’s a privilege to have the ability to end life, and we don’t take that lightly.

Confronting that end-of-life is near for our pet is never going to be easy, and no amount of time is going to make the idea of losing them any easier on us. Before Fido or Mr. Kitty is too sick or weak to enjoy it, make a point to embrace the time you have left with a few of these suggestions:

  • Spoil your pet with his favorite foods, but be careful not to overdo it. Too many treats can cause an upset stomach.

  • Make time for your pet and his favorite toys, people, or pet friends.

  • Spend some time with your pet at his favorite spot, whether it be a dog park, your back deck, or the drive-through for a burger.

  • Capture some photos or video of your pet. Take selfies with him, have a close friend take photos, or hire a pet photographer.

  • Family members may want to share favorite stories, say prayers, or each spend their own special time with the pet.

  • Put together a special memory book or scrapbook of photos and all the wonderful and challenging stories you can remember.

  • Allow your children to be part of your pet’s final day(s) so they can say goodbye and participate in celebrating the time you have had with your beloved pet.

An owner holds their dog's paw during euthanasia.

When the time comes for euthanasia, do your best to plan ahead and make the necessary arrangements before it’s time. Final decisions such as whether to choose cremation, burial at home, or burial at a pet cemetery are best arranged in advance. It is helpful to prepay for your veterinary services to avoid having to pull out your checkbook while grieving.

The phrase “putting to sleep” can be a difficult concept for children younger than 10 to understand, so do use concrete language to help them comprehend what is going on. “I am helping our pet to die because he is suffering and we can’t control his pain any longer. This is a really hard and sad thing for us, but it is a good and brave thing to do for our pet. It is OK to be sad.” Children will look to their parents to learn how to grieve, so don’t hold back.

The emotional aftermath of losing a loved pet, whether planned or not, can be intense. Take advantage of the Michigan State University Pet Loss Support Hotline, which is staffed by veterinary student volunteers, by calling (517) 432-2696. Additionally, West Michigan has a free support group for anyone who is grieving the loss (or the impending loss) of a companion animal.

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