Palliative care for our furry friends

My dog Tanner was diagnosed with bone cancer a few days ago. I knew it was bad as soon as I felt the swelling above his knee a few weeks prior, but was in avoidance mode. Now I, like many of the clients I see day in and day out, have to get down to the business of assisting in healing, hoping for cure, and preparing to let go, sooner than I would like.

In my heart I deeply believe that homeopathy has the power to heal in a way that is unknown by conventional methods. I’ve seen animals outlive their grave conventional diagnoses by years, good quality years. Yet, there comes a point when the body wears out, and all beings have to make that transition from the furry form that we are deeply attached to, to something unknown. We know that no one lives forever, but we kind of like that little delusion.

I wish we had a course in Vet school on treating the dying animal, but instead, what I experienced, and what I believe most veterinarians have in their minds, is that when there’s no further treatment plan that promises some hope, or even control, we reach for the euthanyl. Better to end suffering than to witness it, and especially to witness it without a plan, without any control, and with knowing that death could come at any moment.

I have clients who come to me with a story of cancelled euthanasia appointments, with friends and families telling them that they should end their friend’s suffering (sometimes with the added thoughtless comment of “just get another dog/cat”), but something prevents them from doing it. Their friend is still eating, still enjoying petting, maybe even still enjoying a fairly good quality of life despite the grave prognosis.

More and more I believe there is a time to help an animal transition and that often animals can die at home, peacefully, with good palliative support, surrounded by love and care, and when they’re ready. I see that the suffering and grief around this loss seems to be less, or somehow easier, than when the euthanasia is premature, when all parties are not ready. And yet, the job of palliative care is not for the weak of heart. Although I believe we can do a good job of pain management and keeping animals comfortable through the stages of terminal disease, it can be difficult to witness. It’s painful to see our friend stop eating, stop grooming, not be able to go for long walks anymore, maybe not be able to get up. There may be messes to clean and smells to deal with. How do we know when it’s time to let go?

It’s so individual. But there are some guidelines that I’ve found over the years, to help us through.
We can ask ourselves these questions:
– is there any indication that my friend still wants to be around, even when I’ve told him that I’m ready to let him go? Is he still eating, drinking, showing interest in the activities of the household?
– has his behavior radically changed? Elizabeth Severino, author of The Animals’ Viewpoint on Dying, Death and Euthanasia, says that when there’s a sudden and radical change in a terminal pet, like going off to hide in the closet, that can be a message of readiness to transition.
– is there a physical symptom that is causing too much distress and can not be adequately addressed such as pain, difficulty breathing, incontinence or immobility to a degree that it is causing great stress?

The decision to let go and help an animal pass on is such an important and difficult one. We feel the burden of a great responsibility, and we shouldn’t have to do this alone. I hope that working with my clients and in communication with the animal through non verbal cues and our best heart intentions, we can make this process as meaningful and filled with love and compassion as possible.

Elizabeth also says that animals appreciate a ritual for their passing. Many of my clients find meaning in playing music or chants, lighting candles or incense, or just in the process of letting an animal pass outdoors in her favorite spot in the garden, where perhaps later some ashes can be scattered or a pawprint placed.

In the end, we will all have to say goodbye and it’s not something we really want to think about, but it will stretch our hearts and help us to love and grow. Our animal friends will always live on in our hearts and in the spirits in which they touched our lives so deeply.

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