Saying goodbye to your pet is one of the most difficult decisions you may ever make in your life. Whether your furry friend is approaching his golden years or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, making the actual decision to say goodbye is the hardest part of the experience. You will wonder how will I know when it’s time? Is there hospice care for my pet? What will I expect when it’s time? Largo Veterinary Hospital is committed to making the process as easy as it can be. We can tell you from decades of experience that it's a decision that never gets any easier and we will offer you advice and support because we know and understand what you are going through.
How Do You Know When it’s Time?
There is not one perfect moment in time in which to make that ultimate choice (unless the pet is truly suffering, something we are trying to prevent in the first place). Rather, there is a subjective time period in which euthanasia is an appropriate decision to make. This time period could be hours, days, weeks, or even months. Euthanasia is a gift, something that, when used appropriately and timely, prevents further physical suffering for the pet and emotional suffering of the family. Below is a list of some of the most common factors that are taken into consideration when determining quality of life and what roles they play in the difficult decision for euthanasia:
Pain: Carnivores like cats and dogs do not have a reason to hide their pain like prey animals do. Instead, they simply lack the emotional attachment to their pain like humans. Yes, they feel discomfort… they simply don’t care about it like we do. With this understanding, it’s important to realize that when pets DO show us outward displays of pain they are suffering. Common signs of pain in cats and dogs: Pacing, excessive panting, hiding in unique areas, not seeking interaction with family, growling, snarling, snapping, immobility, whining, not eating, flinching when touched.
Appetite: Pets can physiologically survive for many days without food and water, although the lack of appetite or thirst can be a sign that the body has begun shutting down. Also keep in mind that some pets may never lose their desire to eat. In many cases appetite can be a good indication of the internal function (or dysfunction) of the pet.
Incontinence: Many pet owners feel terribly guilty over the natural annoyance they feel when their pet becomes incontinent. This is normal; keep in mind pets do not like to “soil their den” and as a result may experience anxiety which may be visible by increased panting or appearing uncomfortable. If left unkempt incontinence can lead to bed sores and eventually systemic infection in severe cases.
Mobility: Arthritis and mobility issues are common as our pets’ age. Usually, these signs first become evident at night when the pet begins to pace around the house. It may progress to falling, inability to stand, inability to urinate/defecate, and panting heavily. During the later stages you may find your pet very anxious. As they (usually dogs) begin to understand that they cannot get up and down on their own accord, their natural anxiety level rises as they start to feel like “prey” instead of being the predator. They can no longer protect their family as they once did. When anti-inflammatories and other medications cease to work, quality of life should be a concern.
Happiness: If you have been an earnest observer of your pet's behavior and attitude during his or her lifetime, you will be the best at determining when they no longer seem "happy." You'll know when they no longer enjoy food, toys, or the environment around them. Most of all, they no longer enjoy or seek out contact with you and the rest of its family. Most pets are tremendously easy to please, so when it no longer becomes possible to raise a purr or a tail-wag, you should be considering what kind of quality of life your pet is experiencing.
Hearing those dreaded words “nothing else can be done” does not mean that euthanasia is the only option you have left. Veterinary hospice care is a unique approach to your pet’s end-of-life needs and is focused on the comfort of your pet if your pet has been diagnosed with an incurable illness or if further therapy options have been declined in lieu of comfort-oriented care. Our goal is to maintain comfort and quality of life for the terminally ill or geriatric pet until natural death occurs or the family elect's peaceful euthanasia. There are many things that can be done at home to help your pet be more comfortable in the end-of-life stages. Hospice care revolves around the client-patient-doctor relationship. Education about your pet’s medical condition is the most important aspect of hospice care and is what Dr. Daniels spends the most time on. We have informational handouts as well on many common diseases our companion animals suffer from.
You need to know what to expect in those last few weeks, days, and hours in order to make the best decision for you, your pet, and your family. Although we cannot know for sure, we use our medical knowledge to help you make those decisions. We assist you in implementing a plan that will meet your pet’s needs and respect your family’s wishes.
But first consider your pet's happiness. As your pet’s guardian, you are the most important person to judge your pet’s happiness. You know him the best and know what he loves to do. Think about the things that make him special to you. When in doubt, simply sit quietly with him and ask him if he’s ready. You’d be surprised at how loudly they can speak to us when we try to listen.
Veterinary hospice care usually includes, but is not limited to:
Pain: Dr Daniels will talk to you about signs of pain that are particular to the disease process or geriatric aging your pet is suffering from and what pain management options we have to keep your pet comfortable. Some of the most common signs of pain are heavy panting, pacing, whining, growling, lying in an abnormal posture or abnormal place, or decreased appetite.
Anxiety: We should be just as concerned about anxiety in our pet as we are about pain. Frankly, anxiety is worse than pain in animals. Many end-stage patients begin panting, pacing, whining, and/or crying, but many of these symptoms are due to anxiety, usually arising secondarily from the pain. Due to hormonal fluctuations and other factors, these signs of anxiety usually appear worse at night. Anti-anxiety medications can sometimes work for but for pets that are at this stage, the end is usually near.
Appetite: Medical appetite stimulants may help your pet become more interested in food. During hospice care though, remember that many pets may become uninterested in food altogether; this is normal. Nutrition at this point is not about a balanced diet but rather about maintaining energy. Trying novel foods may help. Feed your pet different things in different areas of your home at different times of the day. Baby food, ground beef, chicken, and puréed meat have found some success with some patients. Never force-feed your pet, this may cause unnecessary anxiety.
Hydration: Just as with food, many pets will become uninterested in drinking. You may try low-sodium chicken broth or use a syringe to gently wet the tongue; sometimes this will stimulate a few licks. You may continue to wet the mouth even in the later stages of the dying process, but never force water down your pet’s throat. Hydration of the eye is something easily over-looked; eye lubricants are also available.
Mobility: There are many medications and treatments that can help reduce pain and inflammation when mobility becomes an issue. Reliable footing is probably the most important and easiest thing to change in your pet’s immediate surroundings. Non-slip carpets or yoga mats can dramatically decrease slipping. As the problems progress, you may find your pet pacing and panting, particularly at nighttime. Anti-anxiety and/or pain medication may help him or her sleep more soundly. At some point, medical and external treatments will cease to work, and your pet will not be able to stand. This is usually a very difficult thing for pets to experience and you will see signs of anxiety (whining, heavy panting).
Without intervention, animals will develop bed sores, urine scalding, infections, and eventually may have difficulty breathing.
Hygiene: Uncontrolled urination and defecation is normal as our pets age or diseases worsen. Maintaining hygiene is important to prevent sores, urine scalding, and eventually infections. Shaving the hair from these problem areas will keep the skin dry and aid in cleaning. Baby powder and diaper cream can also prevent problems from arising. Choose bedding that is easily cleaned and changed like mattress covers and other water-proof bedding.
What to Expect When it’s Time
Once you have made the decision to euthanize your pet, the next step is making the appointment. The timing is often critical, and you may need to act quickly. If you do have the time to plan ahead, some people prefer to spend a few final days with their pet. Consider the time of day and the day of the week. You will need time before and after to deal with your emotions. You may need to take a day or two off from work. Do not hesitate to care for yourself. You are important. You are making this very critical decision based on what is best for your pet. Make some decisions that are the best for you, as well.
At the time of the euthanasia appointment the procedure will be explained to you according to your interest level and comfort. Feel free to ask questions if needed. Everything will be done at the pace you and your pet dictate. The actual procedure is quite peaceful. Once you and your pet are ready, the final drug is given. It works very rapidly, only seconds in most cases. Dr Daniels will then confirm that your pet has passed on. After, you may continue to spend as much time as you need with your pet.
The care for your pet’s remains is a very personal decision. Every family will be different, and the choice is yours alone to make. Three options are available when considering aftercare of your pet's remains.
Private Cremation: With this option, your pet is cremated privately by Pet Angels Crematory. Pet Angels Crematory will pick your pet up from Largo Veterinary Hospital. The cremation process takes a few days and once completed Pet Angels will deliver your pets’ ashes to Largo Veterinary Hospital at which time, we will notify you.
Communal Cremation: Pets are cremated with other pets and ashes are scattered together.
Home Burial: You may elect to bury your pet at your home.