By Maureen Blaney Flietner
Years ago, I brought my dog to see a specialist. He told me that tests showed it was cancer, with little to be done. I burst into tears. The man handed me a box of tissues and left, and I took my dog home. My local veterinarian suggested that I try weekly chemotherapy injections. I paid for one, but quickly realized my income could not stretch that far.
I was told to call when I was ready to have him euthanized. Soon after, my dog got picky about eating. When I brought home a steak and he turned up his nose, I presumed it was time to make the call. I couldn’t let him starve. He was gone in seconds as I petted him on the exam room floor. But I was left with grief and haunting doubts.
Fortunately, today you can make your precious time with an old or ailing pet have a better conclusion.
More veterinarians and other professionals, organizations and educational institutions are responding to those who want the depth of their feelings about their animals recognized. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care began offering a series of webinars (iaahpc.org/index.php/education/iaahpc-webinars) for pet parents in 2012. Palliative and hospice care services, grief education counseling, books and guides to when it may be time to euthanize have now become available.
Palliative care focuses on managing the pain, lack of appetite, fatigue, nausea or other symptoms your pet may be experiencing from a chronic disease or its treatment. Hospice care, too, looks first to the comfort of the pet—those with a terminal diagnosis and for whom a cure is no longer possible.
Pain management, in particular, is a science that is rapidly evolving. Sometimes just a few small changes in medication can return a pet to being more like its old self. It is still an animal with a fatal disease—but that extra time can be very meaningful.
Hospice care also supports the pet’s family as it they adjusts to the impending loss, through education and information. Planning one special last day together, preparing for an in-home euthanasia, deciding on a memorial—these can make a difference.
Knowing how to prepare can ease the challenge. Have a plan A and a plan B, suggests Gail A. Bishop, BS, clinical coordinator of the Argus Institute at Colorado State University.
"Plan A is when all goes well. There is time to make decisions. You can decide who is going to be administering the medication, such as the pet’s favorite veterinarian; who will be present; the location; the music, poems or readings you prefer," says Bishop.
"Plan B is the backup plan in case there is a crisis. Where do you go? Who can help you if you need to get the animal in the car or down a flight of stairs? Not everything happens the way we plan, so have two plans."
A pet loss hotline has been offered since 1999 at Washington State University (WSU) and brings in calls from around the world. "People calling are often those who didn’t get any grief education or preparation when they lost their companions," says Kathleen L. Ruby, PhD, faculty member at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Pet Loss Hotline program.
Callers often seem astonished at their grief. They often aren’t prepared for the power of the experience or their incapacitation. They also don’t know where else to go to get support.
Ruby says some find that the loss of a beloved pet was more difficult than the loss of a human family member and wonder: What’s wrong with me? "Of course there is nothing wrong with them, but they do need to better understand their own grief," she says. "We grieve according to the amount of current attachment we have with the being we lose.
"Often, our pets are much more woven into the daily fabric of our lives than are relatives or friends. Although we are truly not grieving more, the quality and quantity of the grief that we experience reflects the loss of the close daily bond we have with our companions. With all of the reminders that we experience—the empty pet bed or the quiet homecoming—the loss hits us especially hard every minute of the day."
Maureen Blaney Flietner is a freelance writer (www.mbfcommunications.com) and longtime pet parent living in rural Wisconsin.