By Dr. Mercola
For many people, the most difficult part of pet ownership is knowing that at some point they’re going to have to say goodbye to their beloved friend. While death is a natural part of life, that doesn’t make it any easier when you are in the midst of your pet’s last chapter.
Above, you can watch Dr. Karen Becker’s two-part webinar on aging and dying pets and how to best care for them. If you’ve visited our pet site, HealthyPets.Mercola.com, you’re already familiar with Dr. Becker — and the intense passion she has for animal care.
If not, you’ll quickly understand why Dr. Becker has become well known in the Chicago area for people looking for help and guidance at the end of their pet’s life.
Many veterinarians actually refer their euthanasia patients to Dr. Becker, because she believes helping animals to die well — when they are ready and the time is right — is the last gift she can give.
Most people would rather not think about the topic of their pet’s dying, but the purpose of Dr. Becker’s webinar is to help you approach this time of your pet’s life, when it does come, with a spirit of peace and thankfulness instead of fear.
Aging Is Progressive
Aging is the progression of life with the absence of disease. The aging process is typically gradual and can be difficult to notice in animals, in particular, because they are so good at hiding symptoms.
Many older pets show no overt signs of disease such as cancer or infection, but degeneration is still happening. Proactively checking your pet’s organ function every six months is one of the best ways to monitor aging organ systems and take steps to address values that are out of range.
Eventually, you may notice your pet’s hearing, vision and other senses, including taste, begin to change or fade. Your pet’s digestive system may also be affected, as may his nervous system, leading to symptoms such as tremors, weakness in the rear limbs, falling or slipping and incontinence.
As your pet gets older, his immune system will age as will his brain. Your pet may start sleeping more, and sleeping very deeply.
If your senior pet is sleeping, don’t startle him awake — if you must wake him up, try blowing on him gently, as it will be far less stressful. Personality changes, increased irritability and less patience for instance, are also common in aging pets.
Modify Your Home Environment to Cater to Your Aging Pet’s Needs
When you notice signs of aging in your pet, or even before you do, there are many steps you can take to help slow the process or reduce symptoms, such as the use of therapeutic supplements, exercise, acupuncture, massage, hydrotherapy and more.
You’ll want to keep your older pet’s body moving while making adjustments to avoid injury (such as rolling the ball to him instead of making him leap into the air for it).
You can also make adjustments to your home to make it more comfortable and safer for your aging pet (such as adding gates to stairways). You should actively modify your environment to suit the needs of your aging pet and make behavior modifications on your part to reduce stress in your pet’s life.
Some pets may even stop wanting to be touched, and if that happens you should respect their wishes. As Dr. Becker says:
"This is what we do in this last chapter to honor our pets. It can be heart-wrenching for us, but I’m going to encourage you to do it because it’s going to decrease stress on the animal, which in turn will reduce stress for you."
Transitioning From Proactive Care to Comfort Care
One of the most difficult decisions regarding your aging pet is deciding when to stop proactively treating disease and degeneration and instead switch to comfort care. Dr. Becker discusses how to know when it’s time, and often your pet will let you know.
If your pet obviously hates getting blood drawn for monitoring or stops eating his food because you’re putting pills in it, it may be time to stop the blood draws or the medication. It’s more important, at this point, for your pet to eat and enjoy his food.
Unfortunately, the brain and the body don’t always age at the same rate. So your pet may be doing well physically but showing signs of dementia, or may be mentally sharp but having difficulty walking.
You’ll need to be your pet’s advocate in deciding how aggressive or conservative to be in his treatment and realize that sometimes the best choice is to do nothing. Dr. Becker recommends thinking about these scenarios ahead of time and writing down how far you’re willing to push your dog (pet).
Creating an ‘Autumn File’ for Your Pet
It can be much more difficult to make these choices when you’re in the midst of the situation, so being prepared ahead of time can be invaluable.
Dr. Becker recommends creating an autumn file for your senior pet, so when the time comes you can open it up for reference and support. Here’s what to put in your autumn file:
✓ Ideas, thoughts and concerns relating to your pet’s care
✓ Phone numbers of emergency veterinary clinics
✓ Phone numbers of people on your accountability team (friends and family who know you and your pet well and can help you make decisions)
✓ Write down what you’ve committed to
✓ Write down how far you’re willing to go
✓ Write down how much you’re willing to pay or what you can afford
✓ Write down what you won’t stand for
✓ Write down your idea of the most peaceful transition
✓ Write down your thoughts on cremation vs. burial and autopsy
✓ Write down plans B, C and D
Keep in mind that pets typically go through a “slow fade” or what Dr. Becker calls a “Mac Truck moment.” In the latter case, your pet lives a happy, healthy life until a sudden catastrophic illness occurs. You’ll need to decide if treatment will cause more trauma than relief, and understand that if your pet is very sick he could die while undergoing emergency care.
In the slow fade, your pet gradually has a decrease in vitality and quality of life. You should think about both scenarios ahead of time and decide how far to let your pet go in either case. According to Dr. Becker, the biggest regret her clients have when their pet is in a slow fade is letting their pet suffer for too long.
You may also be faced with a choice of letting your pet die on his own versus using euthanasia. If you let your pet die on his own, you’ll still need to be sure he is kept comfortable and pain-free via hospice care.
In nature, animals often go off on their own to die, and pets will often choose to die when their owners leave their sides. In the case of euthanasia, which Dr. Becker refers to as transition assistance, begin thinking about this before your pet’s quality of life dips too low.
According to Dr. Becker, dying well is the best last gift you can give your pet. Things to consider when thinking about euthanasia include the following (keep a log if necessary):
✓ Terminal illness
✓ Pain level and tolerance
✓ Appetite, digestion and hydration
✓ Mental state and cognition
✓ Vet and loved one’s opinions
✓ Is just existing enough?
✓ Is it ok to exist with constant discomfort and restlessness?
You’ll also want to discuss the procedure with the veterinarian ahead of time, including your wishes regarding your pet’s body. In some cases, home euthanasia may also be an option, and this gives other pets in your home the opportunity to understand that the animal has died.
Help With Your Grieving Process
After your pet is gone, you may want to consider grief counseling to help you move through your emotions. You may want to memorialize your pet by making a photo album, journaling, planting a tree or doing something meaningful with their belongings or ashes.
It’s important that you allow yourself time to grieve and heal. There is no right or wrong way to feel, and recognize that it may take you weeks or many months to feel even close to yourself again. At the end of Dr. Becker’s webinar, you can watch her interview with pet grief therapists Joe Dwyer and Sandra Grossman, Ph.D., to help you deal with overwhelming emotions following the loss of your pet.
Dr. Becker also recommends the book “From Empty to Empowered,” by Marybeth Haines, which is especially helpful for dealing with the sudden loss of a pet. In addition, in the video below EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to help heal from a pet loss.