The depth of love people hold for their pets always amazes me, even after 17 years as a vet (including a decade of San Francisco house calls). And most walk the walk, as their companions near the end, with acts of selfless devotion. I’ve had the profound honor to care for countless animals in the later stages of illness or aging, but I recently experienced this process firsthand with my beloved 18-year-old dog Millie.
I adopted her from the shelter when she was 5. Soft and fluffy, this beautiful Sheltie mix loved to snuggle, but had the annoying characteristic of “defending” our home with barrages of barking. Millie remained spry and feisty until her very last month, and people routinely assumed that she was a much younger dog. She was my loving companion through many years of losses and joys, including the birth of my son. Near the end of July, she suddenly became ill with severe pancreatitis, as well as inflammation of the liver and gallbladder.
Pets show us how to love fully—and how to be in the moment without anticipating the future’s uncertainties. These gifts are invaluable to us humans, who often live largely in our heads. Fittingly, we can then bring these principles of presence and unconditional love back to their care.
Over almost two decades of practice, I’ve come to deeply appreciate such mindfulness in end-of-life situations, especially these elements:
• Along with medical treatment, it is crucial to address palliative (quality of life) needs that include the animal’s physical comfort, emotional state, and quality of relationships with family members and other household animals. Caregivers should also pay attention to nutrition and appetite, along with the home’s physical environment. Picking up on the sometimes-subtle cues that animals communicate is vital, and a skilled vet team can assist with this interpretation.
• It is extremely important to have a trusting relationship with a nurturing vet or veterinary team who can support you and your pet as things progress or change.
• Don’t forget to take care of yourself and any other caregivers. Stay present with—and acknowledge—your own emotions or physical symptoms as they arise. A good vet team can provide resources for support, if you feel overwhelmed by grief, anger, denial, depression, or all the other emotions that can surface.
• Provide as much care at home as possible, which will hugely benefit both you and your animal. Naturally, an ailing pet is most comfortable in his or her familiar space, and it can be very stressful for everyone to travel to a clinic and be exposed to all its unusual stimuli. In-home care also allows the medical team to assess the specifics of the environment and provide suggestions, such as nonslip surfaces or bedding that can help with comfort and mobility. It also enables your vet to observe the animal’s behavior in his or her own environment and to provide customized, hands-on instruction specific to your situation.
• While end-of-life decisions are always difficult, trust that you’ll make the best choices for your beloved pet using a mindful approach in conjunction with the loving support and guidance of a compassionate medical team.
• Painless and peaceful euthanasia can be a beautiful and meaningful experience, especially in the warmth of your home. This allows for a more personalized approach to celebrate your pet’s life and bid him or her goodbye.
When Millie became sick, I initially treated her supportively with fluids, anti-nausea meds, acupuncture, and herbs. I was able to have ultrasounds performed in our home, thanks to the wonderful services of Dr. Dan Bucy with NorCal Radiology. I spent as much time as I could petting her and took her to her favorite beach, even though she couldn’t run like she once did. As her condition progressed, I added in antibiotics, steroids, and other medications. Gradually, my sweet girl became weaker until I had to carry her up and down the stairs. Fluid started to distend her belly. Then I made the decision to let Millie go in our home, holding her in my arms, surrounded by the people who loved her most.
As you experience the end-of-life stages with your own beloved animal companion, please remember to hold your own experiences with kind attention—and know that help is available. Your process will be unique and possibly not what you expect. But one thing is certain: The love of your pet will touch your heart and stay with you forever.
Rachael Feigenbaum, D.V.M., owns Lotus Veterinary House Calls (LotusVet.com), serving San Francisco, the Peninsula, and parts of the East Bay since 2008. Lotus combines holistic and integrative treatments with Western veterinary care, providing comprehensive house call veterinary services in the stress-free environment of your home. Lotus was voted Best Mobile Veterinary Practice in Bay Woof’s Beast of the Bay Awards 2017.
Main article photo by: courtesy of Dr. Feigenbaum