5 Tips for Pet Owners Exploring End-of-Life Care for Their Loyal Companions
Published: March 17, 2023
By: Dr. Sara Hopkins
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Caring for a pet nearing the end of their life or recently diagnosed with a terminal condition is filled with emotion and confusion. There are many factors to consider, and it can be hard to know where to begin. The bond you share with your companion is special, and as their caretaker, you want their remaining days to be the best days possible. And when the time comes to say good-bye, it can be done with love, respect, and dignity. Here are five ways pet owners can navigate end of life care for pets.
Consider your Pet’s Quality of Life
When I ask owners what their goal is in having a hospice/palliative care consultation, their answer is inevitably: “I don’t want my pet to suffer” or “I don’t want my pet to be in pain.” What exactly does this mean? And, how do you know if your pet is suffering or in pain?
An animal’s quality of life is not only about pain management or physical health, but their mental health as well. Are they able to do the things they love, or do they seem anxious and stressed? Do they still engage with you or are they spending more time by themselves? Are they frustrated because they need help with basic tasks such as standing up, eating and drinking?
It is also important to think about your own emotional well-being and quality of life. Caring for a sick or elderly pet can be demanding, both physically and emotionally. “Caregiver fatigue” can affect those looking after their 4-legged companions as much as their 2-legged family members. If you are struggling, it is important to seek help.
Making the decision to euthanize your pet is incredibly difficult under any circumstance. Even when the brain tells you the time is ‘right,’ the heart never wants to let go. Having compassionate support and guidance surrounding this decision can make it a little less awful.
Consult with a Veterinarian
As you face end-of-life decisions for your pet, it is helpful to consult with your regular veterinary team. They have the benefit of an established relationship with you and your pet and can offer guidance based the medical history, their medical knowledge, and your personal relationship.
In some situations, it may be helpful to find a veterinarian who has a specific focus on end-of-life care. Many of these practitioners are mobile and will provide an extended hospice/palliative care consultation within the comfort of your home. These consultations are tailored to the specific pet and disease process – it may involve pain management, environmental modification or other ways to improve your pet’s quality of life. There are often “when is it time” and “how will I know” conversations. It is important the pet owner ends the consultation with a feeling of relief in knowing that they are supported and have the tools to make the best possible decisions moving forward.
This is also the best time to discuss euthanasia and aftercare. Families have options and may need time to process and decide what is best for their situation.
Understanding the Euthanasia Process
In having helped thousands of families with euthanasia, one of the most common comments I hear afterwards is, “I had no idea it would be so peaceful.”
While losing a pet is undeniably heart wrenching, the actual good-bye is gentle, loving and beautiful.
The actual process involves an initial injection (under the skin) of a heavy sedative or anesthetic plus pain medication. Once the pet is completely unaware (heavily sedated or anesthetized) the final euthanasia injection is given, and the pet will pass quickly. The final good-bye can take place wherever the pet and the family are the most comfortable in the home and should never be rushed. From the pet’s perspective, they are drifting off to sleep in their home, surrounded by the people who love them the most.
Knowing and deciding aftercare options prior to the euthanasia appointment is very helpful. There are different types of cremation – communal (several animals cremated together, with no ashes returned to the family), individual (several animals in the crematorium, separated by dividers so only those pet’s ashes are returned to the family), or private (only one pet cremated in the crematorium, with the ashes returned to the family). If the euthanasia is performed in the home, the mobile veterinarian will often take the pet into their care and arrange for cremation if this is wanted. Some families choose to keep their pet’s body for a time and then transport directly to the crematory. And some families choose to bury their pet, either on their private property or in a pet cemetery. Regardless, it is important to choose the service that feels right for you and your family.
When it comes to cremation, owners now have a choice between traditional flame-based cremation, or a newer aftercare, water-based cremation. Water-based cremation, or aquamation, is a gentle process involving warm water and alkali salts and has fewer environmental impacts than does flame-based cremation. Less energy is used, and no fossil fuels are burned. Because there are no emissions as in flame-based cremation, owners receive approximately 20 percent more ‘ash’ with aquamation (yes, owners choosing private cremation still receive the cremated ‘ash’ of their companion).
There are also memorial items such as ink prints or clay prints that can be made prior to cremation. Some of these may be offered by the veterinarian who helped with the good-bye, and some may be offered by the crematorium. These options should ideally be discussed early in the end-of-life planning discussion. There are now many memorial items available that can incorporate ashes into items such as jewelry, glass art, planters and more.
The most important thing to realize when it comes to aftercare is that there is no right or wrong path, but an owner should know all their options. Aftercare is an extremely personal choice and should be respected.
Take the Time You Need
There is no roadmap through grief. Everyone will process their loss differently and everyone will grieve in their own way. There is no right or wrong way! Speaking from my personal experience in losing my own pets, I have found the days after to almost be harder that the actual euthanasia. All the “firsts” are horrible… the “first feeding time without her” or the “first time not being greeted at the door.” I have also found a sense of relief – a relief that there is no suffering, that there won’t be an emergency and even that I won’t have to make that decision on her behalf again!
Some people focus inward on their grief, while others feel that outside support may be helpful. Aside from talking with friends or family who have experienced pet loss, there are now many options for online support groups. Some of these may be structured with licensed therapists, while others may be more informal discussions on social media. It is important to seek what you feel will best serve you. There is also in-person pet-loss groups in many areas. And of course, please seek professional help when needed… losing a pet is hard, and grief can be very complicated. A licensed mental health professional in an individual session can be invaluable.
For some people, crafts or activities can be cathartic in honoring their pet. Creating a scrapbook or photo book with funny stories of their life can often bring smiles among tears. Plant a tree in their honor. Go for a walk on their favorite trail. Donate to an animal rescue group in memory of your companion. The list is endless. If you want to do something, do what speaks to your heart.
Anticipating and preparing for your pet’s end-of-life journey is not easy. And it isn’t supposed to be! But it is the price we pay for having these amazing companions in our lives. Years ago, I helped a long-time client say good-bye to her beloved chocolate lab, and afterwards she said, “the pain now is worth the happiness then.” We are so lucky to spend time with our pets, despite our inevitable heartache.
Dr. Sara Hopkins is the founder of Compassion 4 Paws, a premier in-home end-of-life care for pets service in the Northwest. She is a renowned veterinary professional with over two decades of experience in the field. In 2020, she was honored to join the IAAHPC Board of Directors and became President of the nonprofit in 2023.
With a passion for working with animals, Sara completed her veterinary education at Washington State University and went on to obtain her Certification in Veterinary Acupuncture through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2013. In 2013, she started Compassion 4 Paws to help pets and their parents through the end-of-life journey. In 2017, Sara became one of the first veterinarians in the world to achieve certification in Animal Hospice and Palliative Care through the IAAHPC, furthering her knowledge and ability to support pets and their families.
Sara lives in Edmonds, Washington with her husband Dennis, their son, and their furry friends, including dogs George and Roy, and cats Sushi and Freddie Purr-cury. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, camping, reading, crafting, and spending time with friends. With her passion and commitment to providing compassionate care to pets, Sara Hopkins is a true advocate for animal welfare.