How to Care for Terminally Ill Pets

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Pets bring so much joy to our lives, which is why it's so heartbreaking when the end of their lives 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 terminal illness, we're here with information and resources to help ease the difficulty for you and your pet.

Pets with Terminal Illness

Cat resting cat on a sofa in blur background cute funny cat close up domestic cat relaxing cat cat resting cat playing at home elegant catWhen 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, says Day by Day Pet Caregiver Support. 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.
  • 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 fur baby any favors. Process your emotions in a healthy way by first being honest about them, and by journaling 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 diagnosis 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 his 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, he may lose the ability to control his bladder. Loss of mobility might also make it difficult to keep up his regular bathroom habits. Talk to your vet about how best to help your pet. You may be able to use a sling or diapers specially made for dogs or cats.
  • Appetite loss. Your pet may lose interest in his food. While this could be a sign that he's in pain or nearing the end of his journey, it's important not to jump to conclusions. It could simply be that the food you're giving him no longer tastes good, or he 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 he's 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 him or worsen his 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

Senior woman walking her beagle dog in countryside** Note: Slight graininess, best at smaller sizesDepending on how advanced your pet's illness is, chances are he'll still have the capacity to enjoy life for some time following his 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 he's able, take him to visit his favorite places and allow him to take part in his favorite activities. Let him enjoy his favorite foods as well, so long as it doesn't interfere with any food restrictions from his 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 his paw.

End of Life Care

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 programs are available for pets in some areas. Even if your state doesn't offer such a program, if you would prefer to provide in-home palliative care for your pet, your vet can work with you to provide what you need at home to manage your pet's pain and keep him 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. The ASPCA recommends keeping a daily log of your pet's activities and behaviors so you can accurately tell when, and by how much, he's beginning to decline. Keep your vet appraised of his condition and discuss when it will be time to consider euthanizing your pet. Keep in mind that the process involves first sedating your pet so that he has no awareness or pain. While it might be easier to have this done at your vet's office, some feel it's more comforting for their pets to pass away in the familiar surroundings of home. Ask if your vet is willing to make a house call in this instance. If not, a mobile vet might be available in your area who can come to your home or a location of your choosing.

Support and Self-Care

One study publishing by the British Veterinary Association found that caring for terminally ill pets is almost as stressful as being a human caregiver. 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 either sympathy from friends or family who don't understand the attachment you feel for your pet. Although you might feel like your pet should get all of your time and 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. Organizations, like Day by Day, provide online communities that can connect you with other pet parents going through the same thing, as well as with grief counseling and other resources, including financial aid to help you provide the best treatment for your pet. You can also contact the ASPCA Pet Loss Hotline at (877) GRIEF-10 for additional support.

Not many 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 kitty or pup.


Jean Marie Bauhaus

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