By Sarah Liu & Cindy McGovern
Dealing with end of life decisions
If a basic principle of medicine is “First, do no harm,” then a basic principle of pet ownership may be, “First, don’t let them suffer.” Knowing if and when to consider euthanasia for an ill or elderly pet is one of the most difficult decisions you will make as a pet owner. However, your pet is depending on you to make that decision for them because they can’t. No animal should suffer unnecessarily and responsible pet owners know that better than anyone.
Just like humans, all animals react differently to pain, old age and illness. Senior cats can develop arthritis and hyperthyroidism, which causes weight loss and increased appetite. They are notoriously good at hiding pain until an injury or illness is so advanced it’s too late to do anything. Dogs can be equally stoic and hide their pain and suffering because it is a life-preserving instinct. With dogs, know your breed, as some are prone to have specific health problems. Golden Retrievers and large breeds, for example, often develop arthritis in their back and hips as they age.
Even a pet that enjoys overall good health will eventually show signs of aging. The following are some signs to look for that indicate age or illness is catching up to your pet:
- Is your pet irritable, restless or confused?
- Do they drink water excessively?
- Have they lost their appetite?
- Do they avoid favorite activities?
- Is your pet picked on by other animals in the home? This can happen when a sick or elderly dog becomes the weakest member of the “pack.”
- Do they seek out unusual places to sleep or hide?
- Do they want to be alone?
- Do they turn their back on you?
- Most importantly, are they in pain?
If you’re unsure if your pet is suffering, keep a daily record of good days and bad days. It’s also important to ask your vet for the exact signs of suffering or behavior associated with your pet’s condition or disease.
When your pet’s quality of life begins to deteriorate, it’s time to have that difficult conversation with your vet about next steps. What, if any, extraordinary measures are you willing and financially able to take to keep your pet alive? If your pet is in pain, focus on options that minimize their suffering. At what point does the animal’s suffering become untenable and euthanasia appropriate?
Euthanasia provides a peaceful and humane end for a pet who would otherwise continue to suffer. Your veterinarian has special training to provide that death. During the procedure, your vet will inject your pet with a sedative, followed by a special medication. The animal experiences no awareness of the end of their life and the procedure only takes a few minutes.
Ideally, such a visit should be planned in advance, but there are local emergency practices that are there to help such as the Regional Veterinary Referral Center in Springfield. Learn more about the care they provide to both pets and their owners, (vetreferralcenter.com/emergency-critical-care.htm)
Some pet owners prefer to have the procedure done at home to allow the pet to be in familiar and comfortable surroundings. Many mobile vet practices perform this service and one local resource is the NOVA mobile vet: novamobilevet.com/
Not every veterinarian that performs euthanasia performs on-site cremations. Most vets outsource this role to an independent crematory which handles the cremation and makes arrangements for the body. The crematory could be either located nearby, or up to several hundred miles away.
If you choose home euthanasia, you may also have to make arrangements for the cremation or disposal of your pet’s remains. In any event, you may prefer to research and make your own decision on which pet cremation service you want to use.
One local resource is Sunset Pet Services: sunsetpetservices.com/
The following site provides more options as well as a national registry of cremation services: cremation.com/pet-cremation-search/pet-cremation-directory/
Once you’ve made the difficult end of life decision or experienced the pet’s death, then what? The loss of a beloved pet can be one of life’s most difficult experiences. Further complicating the grieving process is the stigma associated with grieving for a pet. After all, it’s just a dog, cat, etc. – just get another one. This type of thinking minimizes the bond formed between the pet and their owner making it even harder to come to terms with the loss.
For almost 35 years, Kathy Reiter has helped pet owners cope with their loss through Pet Loss Support Group meetings at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. (alexandriaanimals.org/)
Reiter is a psychiatric social worker with a specialty in grief and bereavement. After dealing with the illness of a valued pet, she realized there were no groups or places to go to share her concerns and grief, so she started a support group. The group meets at 7:00 pm on the first Wednesday of the month in the shelter’s Community Room. There is no charge to attend and the meeting is open to anyone anticipating or dealing with the loss of a companion animal.
Reiter said attendees tend to be people who have lost their soulmate, that one companion animal who held a special place in the owner’s life. “Many of the attendees think there is something wrong with them,” said Reiter. “While they may have the support of family and loved ones, they still lost a loved one and may feel alone.”
The meetings may have only two or three individuals or as many as 10-15. Reiter said attendance can pick up seasonally as the pet’s absence may be felt the most around the winter holidays. Others return to the group on the anniversary of the pet’s death, and many return to share their experience with others.
Reiter said it helps the grieving process to have some event to mark the animal’s passing, a funeral or memorial of some sort. It may be as simple as sharing happy memories about the pet or a formal acknowledgement that includes the pet’s remains. This event is particularly important with children. “It helps bring closure and can help the caregiver get through the grieving process. And, it shows the children that it’s okay to grieve,” said Reiter.
Death is an inevitable part of owning a pet. Preparing yourself for when the time comes will help make the process easier for both you and your pet. Finding support and closure can also help let you know that it’s okay, when you’re ready, to open your home to another pet in need.