One of the most difficult decisions we make as pet owners is the decision to allow our beloved pets to die. The power we have to consent to euthanasia as pet owners makes this decision even more difficult. We wonder if it’s the right time, if we are making the right decision or one we will regret.
We hope for just one more treatment or procedure that can lengthen their lives and postpone our grief and loss. Sometimes, the financial burden of treatment factors into our decision and we struggle with guilt over having to consider this aspect. Unfortunately, many pet owners avoid thinking about the death of their pet until they are forced to make a decision about euthanasia, often with little to no forethought. I have counseled pet owners who made the decision to euthanize a beloved pet under pressure from other life circumstances, only to be consumed with guilt or regret later.
As much as we would like for our pets to have a peaceful, pain-free death in their sleep, the truth is that many of us will be put in a position to consider euthanasia as a choice in a senior pet’s lifetime. While the decision to euthanize or not to euthanize should be made in a personal and individual way by you as an owner, it may help you to consider some things beforehand. Here are some things to reflect on as you consider the needs of your senior pet when life is coming to a close.
1. Quality of life
Put yourself in the place of your pet for one day of his or her life. It’s natural to focus on our own grief and loss, but when we imagine what our pet is experiencing, it can help us realize what life is like for them on a daily basis. Is pain a large part of their existence? Are they able to move independently at times or with assistance only? Can they eat and drink independently? Think back to when they had the power to make choices about where to sleep, when to eat, what to do. Compare that to what life is like for them now.
If you have questions about your pet’s quality of life, talk to your veterinarian and ask them to objectively assess your pet. The decision will still be yours, but another opinion may offer you additional information. Your vet may also be able to give you some guidelines, things to look for as indicators of the loss of quality of life as your pet’s condition declines. This information may help you choose a course of action ahead of time rather than trying to make a decision during a crisis when emotions run high. Talking with another pet owner will also give you a different perspective about how they made their decision regarding euthanasia. Talk to them about the grief they have experienced. They may be able to provide support for you when you need it most.
2. Grief avoidance
When I was in private practice, I remember watching owners make choices about treatments for animals out of their own fear of loss or a need to “do everything possible.” For those of us able to see the situation objectively, the suffering of the pet seemed obvious, but the owner was not emotionally capable of seeing it because of denial. Denial is a normal stage of grief and it is there to protect our hearts and minds from things we are unable to deal with emotionally. Unfortunately, when it is prolonged, or when grief is avoided altogether, pet owners lose the ability to be an advocate for their pet companions and to speak on their behalf. Instead, they are too caught up in their own experience to see the needs of their pet.
While grief can be a difficult and even painful experience, it is also a normal aspect of the bond you share with your pet. If the relationship you have with your pet wasn’t significant and meaningful, you wouldn’t feel anything. Instead, because the loss is real, it is painful, like losing a part of ourselves. Anticipatory grief can happen even before the pet dies and it may actually help us work through the grief process. Talking to others about your sorrow before the actual loss of your pet can help you engage the grief ahead of time. For some people, this helps lessen the overwhelming nature of the loss when the time actually arrives. It’s important to understand that consciously avoiding grief is not healthy and can lead to physical and emotional distress for you. It’s not necessary to “make yourself” grieve, either. Just allow yourself to experience whatever you are feeling as you engage this process of anticipating the loss of your pet. Talk it out with someone you trust who can validate your feelings and is a good listener.
3. Ten years from now
Ask yourself what you want to remember about how you cared for your pet in their final days. Knowing the personality of your pet companion can be helpful here. Would your pet want to die at home surrounded by loved ones and their own belongings? Are you emotionally, physically and financially able to care for your pet’s needs in your home? If so, speak with your veterinarian about this option. Some veterinarians welcome the idea of palliative care for pets at home and will support you in the process. Pet hospices are also becoming more common and offer pain control options and resources for you and your pet whether you are at home or another location. You may be able to hire a veterinary technician to come and visit your pet at home periodically to make medication adjustments (under veterinary supervision) or assist you with care. Check the availability in your area and the cost of services before you need them. Knowing the cost of care ahead of time can help lessen the possibility of making a euthanasia decision because of financial considerations.
It is also possible to view euthanasia as a gift to your pet, a way of alleviating their suffering by speaking and acting on their behalf. Again, knowing your pet’s personality can help here. Would your pet want to stay in the condition they are in if they could tell you their preference?
One of the unspoken benefits of euthanasia is that you can choose to be with your pet at the time of their death (something you may or may not be able to manage if they die naturally) or make certain your pet is with others you trust who will keep them comfortable and pain-free during the process. Some veterinary hospitals are very conscious of the impact of euthanasia on owners and offer special support services for their clients during this time. Did you and your pet trust the veterinarian and his or her staff? Would you like them to be a part of the time of the end of your pet’s life? Think of a trusted friend or relative who could go with you for additional support and ask them to be a part of the process. There are also some clergy members or pet-loss counselors who can offer support during this time. Another option may be having a veterinarian come to your home. Many vets are willing to participate in home visits for this purpose. Talk to your vet about your wishes ahead of time so they will be prepared. Have a backup plan in case your vet is out of town or unavailable.
Another thing to consider as we reflect on the death of a pet is what happens afterward. For many pet owners, it is important to know the disposition of a pet’s body. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about the available options or check in your area for pet cremation or burial services. There are some city regulations that prohibit the burial of pet remains on personal property. If this aspect of the death of your pet is important to you, it’s better to know your options ahead of time and plan accordingly. I have counseled several pet owners who were too emotional to remember to ask about this at the time of their pet’s death and struggled with wondering what had happened to the body after death.
4. The reality of death
As much as we would like to avoid thinking about it, death comes to all of us, including our pet companions. The truth is, we will outlive most, if not all of our pets over the course of our lifetimes. We can deal with this reality by dreading or avoiding the thought of death and loss, or we can try to accept it as a part of life. I choose to believe that our pets have something to teach us about living and about dying. Pets tend to live in the moment, enjoying and engaging whatever surrounds them, whether it’s eating a meal, relishing the attention of their owner or delighting in the companionship of another in play. At the same time, they deal with hardship by adjusting their expectations to what is, rather than what could have been. Ask any vet or owner who has witnessed a dog adjusting to having three legs instead of four. They do what they have to do and go on living their lives to the best of their ability.
When it comes to dying, our senior pets depend on us more than any other time in their lives. They have lived many years now, trusting us for their daily needs, for companionship, for love. They have lived as shining and silent examples of unconditional love, of faithfulness and acceptance. As they approach death, they do so fearlessly, adjusting to old age, to loss of function, to loss of hearing and sight. They don’t complain or grumble about what they’ve lost, they just go on living each day as it comes. They mirror the acceptance of death, yet, like us, they are powerless to prevent it. If we are willing to receive this lesson ahead of our own sorrow, we too, can learn how to die. They trust us to speak for them now in ways they never have before, to give back when they are unable to care for themselves, to keep them safe and comfortable. It behooves us to take that time and to reward their trust by examining all possibilities and choosing well.
Here is a question I answered on another website as a “featured expert.”
Q: Will getting my aging dog or cat a young playmate keep them alive longer?
A: First of all, you need to ask yourself if you have room in your heart for a new pet. Are you willing to make the same lifetime commitment you made to your senior dog or cat? Be careful not to underestimate the time you will need to invest in the younger animal as they adjust to life in a new home. Consider the stresses associated with housebreaking and training a younger dog. Other growing “pains”, such as chewing, barking or digging can be part of adjusting to adulthood or new surroundings for dogs. Cats, on the other hand, can be destructive, aggressive, or stop using their litter box if they feel threatened. The next question to ask is whether or not your senior pet is sociable with other pets you encounter together. Do they play or otherwise seem to enjoy the companionship of other dogs or cats? If the answer is yes, then they might experience a better quality of life with another pet in your home. As both you and your pet adjust to having another companion, it’s important to have the time and patience to spend with both pets as they sort out their differences and learn the rules of the household. There are usually a few “disagreements” between parties as all three of you learn the order of this new “pack”, and you will want to make sure that your senior animal is safe during this adjustment period.