Knowing When and How to Say Goodbye

By Dr. Laura Hady

I have been procrastinating writing this article because talking about death can be depressing, and I am still dealing with the raw emotions of losing four elderly pets in a span of seven months. We all have had to make the difficult decision of euthanizing our pets in the face of their suffering or a long-term illness. The following are the basic questions that can guide you in determining quality of life for both you and your pet, as well as some ideas on how to memorialize their lives.

  • Is your pet eating and drinking normally? If your pet is not eating well, your family veterinarian can prescribe an appetite stimulant. If your pet is on an appetite stimulant but still not eating even tasteful food like skinless roasted chicken, then quality of life can decline dramatically. End-stage disease may cause animals to have sores in their mouths or abscessed teeth that make it difficult to chew. Also, if your pet is drinking excessively, and therefore urinating at all times of the day and night, the quality of life for both you and your pet may be decreased.
  • Can your pet urinate and defecate (pass stool) on their own and on a regular schedule? Painful urination can cause a pet to urinate small amounts in abnormal places. Some older pets with cognitive disorder may start to urinate and/or defecate in the house with increasing frequency. Others may have problems assuming the position to completely urinate and comfortably defecate. Chronic diarrhea or constipation can greatly reduce your pet’s quality of life especially if the pet is house trained and having an excessive amount of urine or diarrhea in the wrong places.
  • Does your pet have uncontrollable vomiting? Certain diseases like chronic kidney disease, cancer, and immune diseases can cause nausea, regurgitation of food, and projectile vomiting. Even with newer medications that decrease nausea and vomiting, some animals will continue to vomit, contributing to a cycle of not eating.
  • Does your pet have unrelenting pain? As a physical rehabilitation practitioner for animals, I see a lot of animals in chronic and acute pain. My experience has taught me that it is so much easier to make a pet more comfortable in the beginning of painful conditions, such as arthritis, back pain and cancer. If we wait until they can barely walk or are afraid for us to touch them, it is more difficult to calm the pre-existing pain in their bodies. With newer non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), opioids, and drugs to block the perception of pain, we can begin to decrease it. However, if a proper combination of drugs, nutritional products, acupuncture and physical rehabilitation products cannot control the pain in our pet, then their quality of life is greatly reduced.
  • Does your pet know who you are? Our pets’ cognitive function can decrease with age. Some dogs may stand in corners for hours, bark, experience sleepless nights, and/or have increased anxiety. While a few of those factors can be helped with anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatories, there may be a day when your pet doesn’t realize where they are and who you are.
  • How to make that final decision. If our pets have just one of the issues listed above for a limited time, we can handle the situation. However, if our pets have difficulties with two or more of those issues for an extended period, both their quality of life and ours decreases dramatically. To help alleviate a crisis in an end-of-life decision for our pets, it is a good idea to have a family meeting without the animal present to decide what factors you can handle and for what period of time. Write that list down and refer back to it, especially in a crisis situation where emotions can overtake perspective of what may help the animal the most. Veterinary euthanasia businesses such as Peaceful Passing and Laps of Love can perform at-home euthanasia to allow for a more comfortable and familiar environment during your last minutes with your pet.
  • How to commemorate a cherished friend. Have a ceremony celebrating your pet’s life. Best Friends and Lasting Paws are two services in the Albuquerque area that can provide respectful cremation services for your pet’s body after death. Other options include burials (Please check your local regulations.), making a paw print, saving a hair clipping, planting memorial trees or flowers, or even writing a biography about their lives. These tributes can provide closure for the tough end-of-life situations.

On a personal note, today was the first time in two weeks that I felt capable of talking with co-workers and friends about euthanizing my dogs Figgy and Cubby, who had disabilities due to prior neglect and cruelty. I finally was able to mark their headstones and plant some blooming cacti to beautify their graves. This evening after writing this, the sun will set, and my husband and I will once again sit in our yard and share stories about how they touched our lives and those of so many others.


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