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Pets bring so much happiness to our lives, which is why it's so heartbreaking when the end of their life approaches. One of the most difficult things a pet owner will face is caring for a beloved companion in the last stages of life, whether from illness or old age. Terminally ill pets require a great deal of care that can take both an emotional and financial toll. For those caring for pets with a terminal illness, we're here with information and resources to help ease the difficulty for you and your pet.
Pets with Terminal Illness
When your dog or cat is diagnosed with a terminal disease, you'll have some tough decisions to make. It's natural to want to do everything in your power to prolong your companion's life, but you might run into financial limitations or other factors that limit how much you can help your pet. Facing your pet's prognosis can be fraught with emotion, including guilt, helplessness, anger, frustration, and anticipatory grief over the impending need to say goodbye. Here are some steps you can take to help you cope and provide the best possible care for your pet.
- Talk to your veterinarian. It's a good idea to take notes, or to take a friend or family member along who can help you remember what the vet tells you. Don't be afraid to ask questions about the diagnosis, including the diagnostic methods used, as well as the prognosis and treatment options. Ask whether treatment must begin immediately, or whether you have time to consider your options.
- Research your pet's illness. Educating yourself will not only help you communicate more effectively with your vet and arm you with helpful information, but it may also lead to care ideas, treatment options, or support groups. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet, so always make sure that you educate yourself using trusted sources, such as articles from veterinary schools, pet charities (e.g., the RSPCA) or other reputable organisations.
- Be realistic. Consider how much you can actually afford to spend on your pet's care, as well as whether your job or other obligations will allow you to become a full-time nurse to your sick pet. Discuss any limitations with your vet and family.
- Allow yourself to grieve. While you might feel guilty about grieving for your pet while they're still with you, denying or suppressing your feelings won't do you or your pet any favours. Process your emotions in a healthy way by first being honest about them, and by journalling about them or talking them out with someone who will understand. Make sure to take pictures and video memories to reflect on. Then you'll be in a better mental and emotional place to focus on meeting your pet's needs.
- Don't rush to make decisions. Learning about your pet's prognosis can be overwhelming. Allowing yourself time to process the situation and explore all of your options before making any decisions will not only help ensure you do what's best for your pet, but also help to alleviate any guilt you might struggle with later on. And it's important to remember that a prognosis is not an expiration date. Pets often have a way of surprising us by not only surviving, but also enjoying a high quality of life far beyond either the vet's or your own expectations.
What to Expect from Terminally Ill Pets
While the exact nature of symptoms will depend on your pet's particular illness, here are some things you and your pet might face as an illness progresses:
- Side effects. As you explore treatment options, be sure to discuss any potential side effects with your vet. While side effects are often mild or even non-existent, some can interfere with your pet's quality of life or be damaging to other aspects of their health. Whether or not to medicate your pet can be a dilemma, so be sure to explore all available options.
- Incontinence. As your pet weakens, they may lose the ability to control their bladder. Loss of mobility might also make it difficult to keep up their regular bathroom habits. Talk to your vet about how best to help your pet. They may be able to recommend incontinence products made especially for dogs or cats.
- Appetite loss. Your pet may lose interest in their food. While this could be a sign that they’re in pain or nearing the end of their journey, it's important not to jump to conclusions. It could simply be that the food you're giving them no longer tastes good, or they could be dealing with gastrointestinal distress. Talk to your vet if your pet stops eating, as this may be a temporary, fixable condition.
- Pain. While your pet might whimper or cry to let you know they’re in pain, this isn't always the case, says the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Cats, especially, tend to hide their pain. Signs of pain include excessive panting, gasping, hiding, showing a reluctance to move, and being picky about food. If your pet is showing signs of pain, talk to your vet about pain management. Never give your pet over-the-counter pain medications without specific instructions from your vet to do so, as this could harm them or worsen their condition.
- Discomfort. Reduced mobility can also cause soreness and discomfort, as well as pressure sores, says the ASPCA. You can help alleviate discomfort by providing your pet with plenty of soft, cushy bedding. A heated bed can provide added comfort and help to ease soreness.
Making the Most of the Time with Your Pet
Depending on how advanced your pet's illness is, chances are they'll still have the capacity to enjoy life for some time following their prognosis. Take advantage of this time to create special memories and make the remainder of your pet's life as happy as possible. As much as they’re able, take them to visit their favourite places and allow them to take part in their favourite activities. Let them enjoy their favourite foods as well, so long as it doesn't interfere with any food restrictions from their treatment.
Use this time to simply enjoy being with your pet, and take plenty of pictures and video to document the time. This is also a good time to collect any mementos you'd like to keep, such as a lock of fur or an imprint of their paw.
As your pet's illness progresses, it will become necessary to make some decisions about what's best for your pet. This can be difficult, but it helps to know your options.
- Hospice care. Also sometimes called palliative care, veterinarian-supervised hospice programmes are available for pets in some areas. Even if your area doesn't offer such a programme, if you would prefer to provide in-home palliative care for your pet, your vet may be able to work with you to provide what you need at home to manage your pet's pain and keep them comfortable. This is a good option for pets that will likely enjoy a certain measure of quality of life right up until the end, and for pet parents who have time to provide intensive, round-the-clock care.
- Euthanasia. The hardest decision of all is one no pet parent ever wants to face, but sometimes this can be the kindest thing to do for a suffering pet. International Cat Care explains that euthanasia involves giving your pet a large dose of anaesthetic, which will cause them to lose consciousness before passing away peacefully. Rest assured that your pet won’t feel any pain during this process. The ASPCA recommends keeping a daily log of your pet's activities and behaviours so you can accurately tell when, and by how much, they are beginning to decline. If you think it may be time to consider euthanasia for your pet, ask your vet for advice and don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to. The procedure is usually performed in the vet’s office, but it can sometimes be done at home where both you and your pet may be more comfortable. Afterwards, your vet will help you to carry out your wishes for your pet’s body, which may include burial or cremation. This is likely to be a difficult time so be sure to allow yourself to grieve and remind yourself that you have done the best thing for your beloved pet.
Support and Self-Care
While the physical and emotional burden of dealing with a sick pet is hard enough on its own, it's often compounded by a feeling of being alone. Sadly, it can sometimes be difficult to find sympathy from friends or family, who may not understand the attachment you feel for your pet. Although you might feel like your pet should get all of your attention during this time, it's important to make self-care a priority, not only to help manage your stress but also so you'll be in better condition to care for your pet.
Above all, you need to know that you're not in it alone. Organisations such as the Blue Cross offer services to help you cope in this difficult time, such as free and confidential counselling, or opportunities to connect with other people who have been through pet loss. You can contact the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service by phone on 0800 096 6606, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or online via live chat for additional support.
Few things are more painful than caring for terminally ill pets. The prospect of saying goodbye to your best friend is something nobody wants to face. But going into it armed with knowledge and a network of support will make it easier to cope so that you can focus on making the most of the time you have left with your beloved cat or dog.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA