Saying goodbye to a long-time friend is painful. We work with clients to ensure their pet's comfort and dignity. We always allow our clients the option of staying with their friend to hold them and comfort them as they peacefully let them go, or, if you need to say goodbye at home, you can bring them in and we will provide the loving arms for their last moments.
Caring for your pet after their passing is never an easy thing to think about. We offer several options. We can prepare your pet to be taken along home with you for burial. Or, you can choose to have your pet cremated. For cremation services we employ the help of Veterinary Support Services in Turner, ME. Communal or group cremation allows your pet to be cremated with other pets. The service of private cremation allows you to have your pet cremated by themselves and have their remains returned to you in a beautiful wooden box with their name on it. This service typically takes 7-14 days and our staff will call you as soon as your pet's remains are returned to us.
Pet Loss Hotline: 1(508) 839-7966 supported by Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Defining "Quality of Life"
by Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed.
When a pet is suffering from an illness that has no ultimate cure, our first (and lasting) impulse is to do whatever we can to alleviate the symptoms of that illness, so that the pet can continue to joy a happy, pain-free life. Today, thankfully, there are many treatments that can assist and even completely alleviate some of the most serious diseases and conditions that affect pets, including many forms of cancer and heart disease.
Eventually, however, we may reach that point when treatments are no longer helping, and there are simply no further treatments to try. We may be hearing, not, "This will help" or "this will solve the problem," but, instead, "Well, there's one more thing we might do, and it might help, but then again, it might not, and it has a lot of side effects..." We begin to fear that the stress of continued treatment may, in fact, be more damaging to a pet's quality of life than no treatment at all.
That issue of "quality of life" is perhaps the most important factor to examine when considering the painful choice of euthanasia. But what is "quality of life"? How can you determine whether a pet is still experiencing a good quality of life -- or whether its level of suffering is no longer acceptable? When all possible treatments have been exhausted, all avenues explored, when does one say... enough?
That decision is individual to every pet, and every owner. Following, however, are some factors to consider when attempting to assess a pet's quality of life:
Mobility. An older pet often loses mobility. A dog may no longer be able to climb stairs or hop into a car; a cat may lose the ability to jump onto a bed or chair. At this stage, however, your pet may still be healthy and happy, and you can easily make accommodations for its reduced ability.
If, however, your pet can barely move, that's another matter. Can your pet get to its feet without assistance? Can it sit or lie down without collapsing? Can it walk? Can it handle basic functions, such as squatting on a litterbox? Does it whimper or growl if you attempt to move it? I've seen dogs so crippled with hip dysplasia that they literally had to drag their immobilized hindquarters across the floor; this hardly represents the "quality of life" I want for my pets.
Appetite/Eating Ability. Is your pet able to eat? Can it consume enough food (or digest that food) to remain properly nourished? Does it regurgitate immediately after eating? Is it unable to chew, or does it have difficulty swallowing? Does it enjoy eating, or do you have to coax every bite past its lips? A pet that is unable to eat or gain sufficient nourishment from its food is on a slow road to starvation.
Breathing. A number of illnesses, including cancer, can affect the lungs. When a condition causes the lungs to fill with fluid or foreign matter (such as cancer cells), a pet quickly loses its ability to breathe easily or comfortably. You'll notice that your pet may seem to be panting, or that it is laboring to breathe; often, you'll see its stomach or flanks "pumping" as it can no longer breathe with just the chest muscles. It may also experience wheezing attacks. If such symptoms occur, ask for a chest x-ray to determine the condition of the lungs. If the problem is due to an allergy, infection, or asthma, medication may help. Medications are also available that can help if the problem is due to a heart condition and even in the early stages of various kinds of cancer. If treatment has been tried and/or is no longer effective, however, little can be done.
Discomfort. It can be difficult to determine whether a pet is in pain, as animals instinctively mask discomfort as much as possible. You can pick up clues, however, by watching its posture and expression. Does your pet's face appear furrowed or "worried", rather than relaxed and happy? Does it sit hunched or "hunkered" and tense, rather than relaxing and lying down? Lack of mobility can also be a sign of pain.
Another indication of pain is "denning." An animal in pain will seek a safe place where it won't be disturbed by other animals. If your pet has forsaken its usual territories or sleeping places for the back of the closet or a spot under the bed, this may be a sign that it is pain or distress and feels vulnerable.
A more obvious indication of pain is a pet's reaction to touch. If your pet responds to touch by flinching away, hissing, snarling, or even snapping, this is a clear indication of pain. Sometimes this can indicate a localized pain; if the pet doesn't want to be touched at all, however, it may indicate a broader discomfort.
Incontinence. Many pet owners feel terribly guilty over the natural annoyance they feel when a pet becomes incontinent. They feel they should be more loving, more patient. Incontinence, however, can also be stressful for the pet. As a basic survival mechanism, animals learn not to "mess where they sleep" (for the smell would draw attention to the location of one's den). When an animal can no longer control when or where it urinates or defecates, you can be sure it is not happy with the situation.
Mental Capacity. Older pets occasionally develop signs of diminished mental capacity. They may seem to "forget" things, such as where a toy is located or what a command means. Such a pet may become confused by its surroundings, and this confusion can develop into fear. (In some cases, this "confusion" may be the result of hearing or vision loss, to which both you and your pet can often adapt.)
Happiness. Determining whether your pet is "enjoying" life is certainly a subjective decision. However, if you have been a keen observer of your pet's behavior and attitude during its lifetime, you are likely to be able to determine when it no longer seems "happy." You'll know when it no longer seems to take any pleasure from its food, its toys, its surroundings -- and most of all, from contact with you and the rest of its family. Most pets are tremendously easy to please; when it no longer becomes possible to raise a purr or a tail-wag, you can be fairly certain that your pet is receiving little joy from life.
Response to Treatment. As I said in the beginning of this article, one's first reaction to a pet's illness is to seek whatever treatments that might be available, even those that have only a slim chance of success. This may mean tests, medications, even surgery. But drugs have side effects, repeated trips to the vet cause emotional distress, and more invasive treatments take a physical toll. Eventually, we may conclude that our efforts to treat a pet's illness are more stressful to the pet than the condition itself -- and that our efforts to save a pet's life are actually diminishing, rather than enhancing, the quality of that life.
Making a Decision
Assessing a pet's quality of life is an ongoing process, not a one-time decision. Initially, we're likely to attempt to compensate for the problems we see. Pain medication may relieve a pet's discomfort and improve its mobility. A change in diet may improve a pet's appetite or provide better nutrition. We may resolve that we're willing to clean up after a pet and carry it wherever it needs to go, for as long as necessary. But eventually such measures will cease to be effective. The process of assessing "quality of life" is really a question of determining (and deciding) when that point has been reached -- and what you intend to do next.
It is often tempting, at this point, to postpone a decision still longer by deciding to "let nature take its course." Before choosing that course of action (or inaction), however, it's important to understand that, as a pet owner, you have been thwarting the "course of nature" from the beginning. By ensuring that your pet has food and shelter and is protected from predators, you have already guaranteed that nature will not take its course. By providing medical treatment, you have prolonged the life of your pet far beyond what it could have expected if left to "nature." In nature, an animal that becomes too ill to obtain food or protect itself will perish quickly, though not necessarily comfortably.
Nor does nature necessarily offer an "easy" death even if you choose to let it "take its course" in the comfort of your home. An animal that cannot breathe easily, cannot eat or digest food properly, cannot control its bodily functions, and can scarcely move or enjoy human contact because of pain, is hardly dying "comfortably."
This is really what the "quality of life" issue is all about. By usurping nature's role throughout the life of our pets, we must sometimes also accept its role in determining (and bringing about) the death of a pet. To accept this, we may also have to accept that, in some cases, the quality of life we're really trying to protect is our own: That we're allowing our pet to suffer out of a desire to avoid the anguish we know that we will experience when it dies. And that, ultimately, is the most unselfish act of love we can offer: To end a pet's suffering, we must choose to accept our own.
Copyright © 2001 by Moira Allen. This column originally appeared on Allpets.com.
Breaking the Power of Guilt
by Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed.
If any emotion rules supreme when a pet dies, it is guilt. No matter what the circumstances of our loss, guilt is there, grabbing us by the throat. It haunts our days, ruins our sleep, and tarnishes our memories. Often, guilt goes beyond the loss itself; we may start to feel guilty for just about everything.
Guilt on the Rampage
If a pet dies through an accident or moment of carelessness, guilt is quick to follow. Perhaps someone wasn't careful about opening a door, and the pet ran into the street to be hit by a car. Perhaps someone fed the pet a hazardous treat -- a splintery bone or forbidden bit of chocolate. Perhaps someone overlooked a hazard -- an electric cord, or a bit of string. When something like this happens, guilt closes in quickly. If only I had known... If only I had been more careful... If only I had come home sooner... If only I had been watching... The final memories of the pet become a litany of failure.
If a pet dies of an unexpected illness, the litany is often similar. Why didn't I notice the symptoms sooner? Why didn't I visit the vet immediately? Why didn't I get a second opinion? How could I have let it go so long, been so blind, done so little?
Euthanasia is the grand master of guilt. No matter how certain we are that we are doing what is best for the pet, few pet owners actually feel comfortable with this decision. Very few can walk away from the vet's office without nagging doubts, without wondering what the pet felt or thought in that final moment, without asking whether we should have waited longer or tried harder. Many of us feel guilty of literally murdering a family member.
But even if there is nothing in the pet's final hours to trigger a guilty response, we are not off the hook. If we can't find something in the pet's death to feel guilty about, we'll find it in the pet's life. If only I had spent more time with her... If only I had given him more attention... If only I hadn't pushed her off my lap, if only I hadn't ignored those pleading eyes, if only I hadn't been so busy... Before long, we convince ourselves that we were abominable pet owners who made our companions' lives miserable. And now it's too late. We cannot make amends, redeem ourselves...
Why do we feel this way?
We are believers in cause and effect. When something goes wrong, we want to know why. How did it happen? What went wrong? Could it have been prevented -- and if so, how? Who is responsible? What could/should have been done differently? Rarely can we acknowledge that there are no answers to these questions. Rarely can we say, "no one was at fault; it simply happened." Rarely can we accept that nothing could have been changed or done differently.
This reaction is intensified by the profound sense of responsibility we feel toward our pets. Pets occupy a similar role to very small children: No matter what happens, we are responsible. We can never expect our pets to understand why they shouldn't run into the street, chew on the electric cord, or filch scraps from the trash. We are always their guardians and protectors. And so, when something happens, we view ourselves as responsible for that as well -- and it is only a short step from feeling "responsible" to feeling "guilty."
From Guilt to Redemption
A little bit of guilt, for the right reasons, can be healthy. Next time, we'll vaccinate; next time, we won't feed the pet bones or scraps. Next time, we'll consult the vet immediately about that odd behavior change.
A lot of guilt, however, is not so healthy. Left unchecked, it can prevent us from seeking the joy of a new pet -- and can even ruin our lives. I've spoken with pet owners who have suffered from guilt for years. So if you can't shake the sense of being "to blame" for your loss, you could be in for a long, rough ride -- unless you choose to change direction.
Notice that I said "choose." While we can't always control how we feel, we can control how to respond to those emotions. We can choose whether to control those emotions, or whether to allow them to control us.
Nor is guilt simply an emotion. At its core, guilt is a belief -- a conviction that we have done wrong and must suffer for it. The only way to break that conviction is to change what we choose to believe. Here are some choices that can help you take the upper hand over guilt.
1) Choose not to rehearse guilt. Do you find yourself repeating the same guilty thoughts over and over again? They won't go away by themselves. You must choose to make them stop. First, catch yourself. When you find yourself wandering down that painful mental path, put up a mental stop sign. You might choose a physical action, such as snapping your fingers, to remind yourself to change direction. Then, deliberately focus on something else, such as your plans for tomorrow. Focusing on something positive in the future is a conscious reminder that there is more to your life than negatives from the past.
2) Choose to accept what cannot be changed. A self-imposed "penance" for past mistakes accomplishes nothing. It doesn't change, or make up for, the past; it simply ruins your future. Chances are that you've already changed anything that needed to be changed (such as vaccinating your other pets). Can you change anything else? Can you undo what was done? Can you change the outcome of your actions? If the answer is "no," choose to accept that answer. Accept that the only thing you can change now is your future.
3) Choose balance. Guilt keeps us focused on the times we imagine we failed -- the times we were "too busy" to take a pet for a walk, or play with it, or cuddle it. It blinds us to all the other times when we weren't too busy. So the next time your mind drifts into those unhappy thoughts, choose to refocus. Actively remind yourself of the good times, the times when you were, indeed a responsible and caring pet owner. (Chances are, that was most of the time.) Flip through your photo albums. Write down a list of the things you did for and with your pet. Force yourself to remember what went right. Recognize that there is, and always has been, a balance between your failures and your successes. No, you weren't 100% perfect. But neither were you 100% flawed.
4) Choose forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some abstract religious concept. It is a rock-bottom necessity in any relationship. Think about it. Could you have had a relationship with your pet, if you couldn't "forgive" the puddles, the torn drapes, the gnawed belongings, the broken heirlooms? Pet owners who can't forgive don't remain pet owners for very long. And it worked the other way as well: How often did your pet "forgive" you for coming home late, or ignoring it, or yelling at it? Forgiveness has always been at the foundation of your relationship with your pet, and now you need to make it the foundation of your healing. Each time guilt tries to remind you of some past mistake, acknowledge that mistake -- and forgive it. If you did wrong, fine. It's done, it's over, and it's time to move forward. Treat yourself with the same degree of love and acceptance that your pet gave you. Only then will you be able to heal and love again.
Pet owners who "don't care" will never experience the pangs of guilt. Only caring, responsible pet owners go through this agony. The trouble is, too much guilt can prevent you from becoming a caring, responsible pet owner again.
The world has enough people who don't care what mistakes they make. It doesn't have enough pet owners who do care -- who choose to learn from their mistakes and move on to make a difference in yet another pet's life. Don't let guilt keep you locked in a lifetime of misery. Choose to forgive, to love, and to move forward. The world needs you!
Copyright © 2000 by Moira Allen. This article originally appeared on Allpets.com.
Euthanasia: The Most Painful Decision
by Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed.
Many think of bereavement as beginning after loss. For many, however, grief can begin much earlier. Often, it begins the day you realize that your pet is approaching the end of its life -- even though the final loss of that pet may still be many months distant.
This stage of grief is especially difficult, because it is without closure. You can't make an effort to "get over it" or "feel better," because the loss itself has not occurred. Thus, no matter how bad you feel, you know that things are just going to get worse. It can be difficult to find comfort during this stage, for even people who understand the pain of bereavement may wonder why you are grieving before your cat has actually died.
Grief for impending loss is complicated by the need to make difficult, painful decisions. How much treatment should you pursue? At what point will treatment cause more trauma than relief? Can you provide the care needed to keep your pet comfortable -- and will your cat reach a point where no amount of care can do this? At what point, if any, should you consider euthanasia?
Sometimes circumstances don't give you time to ask such questions. An unexpected illness might give you days (or at most, weeks) to consider these issues; an accident or injury might leave you with hours, or even minutes. Whenever possible, however, it's best to develop a plan, taking into consideration three basic issues:
1) When should you consider euthanasia? When your pet is ill, this may be the last question you want to think about. Yet it is the most important question you may need to answer.
Start by asking your veterinarian what types of symptoms to expect as your pet's illness progresses. What stages will the disease take? How long before kidney disease produces incontinence or renal failure? How long before tumor cells invade the lungs or other organs? How long before symptoms become medically unmanageable, before pain becomes severe and untreatable? At what point will your pet become unable to function normally; at what point will its suffering become extreme?
This information can help you form your plan. For example, you may decide to seriously consider euthanasia when your pet can no longer breathe easily, or eat or drink, or find a comfortable position in which to sleep, or when it seems to find your touch painful. By defining a "decision point" in advance, you place boundaries on the suffering your pet is likely to endure.
2) Will you be there? Many people feel it is important to be present during euthanasia. Many others feel unable to handle this traumatic event. And make no mistake: Witnessing the euthanasia of your beloved companion IS traumatic (though it can also help allay fears that your companion suffered). This is not a decision to be made lightly, or based on someone else's choices.
Most feel that the pet's well-being is the most important consideration. If you believe your pet will feel more comfortable or secure in your presence, you'll probably want to stay, no matter how difficult it will be. On the other hand, if you're concerned that your own reaction and grief may disturb the pet more than the process itself, you may prefer to stay away.
If you choose not to be present, don't simply leave your pet with the veterinarian. Some clinics hold "to-be-euthanized" pets until after clinic hours, which simply adds to an animal's trauma. Make sure that your pet is going to be euthanized immediately, while you wait in the waiting room or car.
3) What will you do next? The worst time to decide what to do with your pet's remains is at the last minute. It's far better to begin discussing options weeks in advance. Indeed, even the owner of a perfectly healthy pet can begin considering the answer to this question at any time, particularly if you want to make special funeral or private cremation arrangements, or want a particular type of funerary product (such as a special urn or casket).
For many, this decision involves both physical and spiritual issues. How do you (and your family) distinguish between body and soul? Do you feel that your pet will be "closer" to you spiritually if its remains are close to you physically (e.g., in a cremation urn)? Do you feel that your pet's spirit will be happier if it is interred in a familiar, beloved location? Or do you feel that your pet's soul and personality are not associated with its physical remains, which you're quite happy to leave with the veterinarian? There's nothing foolish about such considerations. For many, the certainty that they have provided for their cat's spiritual needs can go a long way toward healing the spiritual wounds of the owner.
Myths About Euthanasia
Many people have mixed feelings about euthanasia, for good reason. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, this act feels like murder to many of us, and guilt may often haunt us long after the act.
Even when we know intellectually that euthanasia may be the "best" or "most merciful" choice, that means little when we face the decision itself. Many pet owners cling to misperceptions that provide apparent justification for postponing this decision -- often at the expense of the pet itself. Three common misperceptions include:
1) Euthanasia isn't nature's way. Some pet owners reject euthanasia as "unnatural." Nature, some say, has a timetable for every life, and by artificially ending a life, we're disrupting nature's plan. While charming, this belief overlooks the fact that by providing treatment, surgery, medication, or any other form of care for a sick (or injured) pet, we are already extending that pet's life far beyond what would occur if matters were left in the not-so-tender hands of "nature." Euthanasia is often not so much a question of "artificially ending" a life, but of determining when to cease artificially extending that life.
2) Euthanasia is selfish. One of the most common sources of guilt is the belief that one has euthanized a pet "too soon" or for "selfish" reasons. "I should have tried harder," many tell themselves. "I should have been willing to do more, spend more, get a second opinion, stay up all night to take care of her." Yet the person who worries most about not having "done enough" is often a person who has already gone to superhuman efforts to care for that pet. A far more dangerous form of selfishness is to prolong a pet's suffering simply to postpone one's own.
3) My pet will tell me when it's "time." Many of us have heard of pets who allegedly offered some indication of acceptance of death, of being "ready to move on." And who among us would not welcome that sense of being granted "permission" to end a pet's life? Such a "signal" would remove the dreadful burden of having to make that decision on our own. Unfortunately, for many that signal never comes. By convincing ourselves that our pets will "tell us" when it is time to die, we risk two hazards: Prolonging a pet's suffering by waiting for a sign that never comes, or torturing ourselves with guilt for acting "too soon."
The painful truth is that if your pet is terminally ill, and especially if it is suffering and unable to function, it will die; the decision you must make is not whether its life will end, but how, and how much discomfort you are willing to allow it to endure. Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, sums up the issue in one vital question in her book, Canine and Feline Behavior Problems: "Which choice will bring you the least cause for regret after the pet is gone?" Unfortunately, "no regret" is often not an option.
Copyright © 2001 by Moira Allen. This article originally appeared on Allpets.com.