It’s the hardest decision you’ll ever have to make…
We love our pets. They give to us so much unconditional affection, their presence, their heart and soul. In fact, I find that in many ways, the death of a pet is more deeply affecting for many clients than the death of a human family member (except children). They simply don’t live for long enough!
I often have to counsel people about when to help their old friend to the other side. And it’s never, ever easy. Let alone knowing when the time is right (I’ll get to that in a minute) – then people have to grapple with the guilt of deciding to kill their best friend – even though it’s nearly always crystal clear that this is both merciful and appropriate.
I never push anyone to make the decision – I’ll talk about their pet’s quality of life, and about how they feel about making this wrenching decision, how they feel about euthanasia, and about what actually happens when you decide that the inevitable is confronting you. If people ask me, I’ll nearly always gently invite them to consider what’s going on, to perhaps ask themselves what they’d suggest if this lovely old soul belonged to a friend, or to put themselves in the place of the animal, and consider what they would like to happen.
Very rarely, I’ll arrive, take one look at the pet, and know I’m not going to leave without helping them along – but even then, I’ll gently explain how much pain their pet is experiencing (It’s always with pets in severe pain that I take this approach) – I’ll point out the tension in their pet’s face, and bring into the light how much they are actually suffering. I’ll make it clear that they need to be able to let go of their pet, and not hold on too long because they love them so much.
The trigger points can be
- When your pet stops eating and drinking
- When your pet is in untreatable severe pain
- When your pet can’t get up anymore
- When your pet becomes incontinent, or can’t defecate or urinate
- When your pet’s having more bad days than (relatively) good ones
- When your pet has an inoperable tumour that has ulcerated
- When your pet looks at you, and you simply know
It can be hard to know when it’s time – these old dears can go up and down – they can seem to be at death’s door on one day, and then perk up the next – which is confusing and difficult for the people. I’ve had quite a few clients who’ve gone through this, and then felt awful because they’ve made a judgement that they’ve left it too late. My answer to this is that you only know that it’s time when it’s inevitable, there simply is no other way. I’ve been through this with a few of my pets.
Remember that you will know, even if you don’t want to know. It’s perhaps better to take action a little sooner rather than leave it too late – because an emergency trip to the vet, after-hours, with an old pet in severe distress is an awful experience. And then you get to help your old friend pass on in dignity and peace, too.
At the same time, it’s ok to palliate and allow your old friend to make their own way to the other side. There are good pain relief medications, and they can be a gentle assistance if your beliefs make euthanasia difficult or morally impossible. You’ll have to work closely with your vet if you make this choice. And there are a small number of situations where your old friend is in severe pain that medication cannot relieve when euthanasia will be necessary, no matter what – particularly cancer of the bone, osteosarcoma.
Afterwards, you’ll be faced with a deep, deep well of grief. Sometimes the loss of your old friend will trigger unprocessed grief from the loss of family members from many years before – so remember this if you seem to be losing the plot, and let it flow. You may be confronted with a severe lack of understanding from other humans (“It’s only a pet, get over it!”). Try not to clock them with something hard and knobbly if you can help it. I advise (if possible) to take sick leave for a day, and to make sure you have lots of support from friends and family. Our pets are our family, and their loss is as significant as the loss of any family member.
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