Second in a series of “pet loss and grief told from personal experience”
Sometimes the loss of your pet is sudden, an accident, or an acute disease like cancer or a virus, and there is no preparation for the loss. Your decisions are made all the more difficult, and your grief all the harder to resolve, by the very shock of the incident. When there are no apparent threats to your pet’s health, who would have thought about arrangements and aftercare?
But in other cases you can begin to prepare yourself for eventual or imminent loss in very specific ways, first by finding a veterinarian with whom you are comfortable, and, second, by learning more about your pet’s health and participating in their health care.
These two actions can help save your pet’s life in the first place. But sometimes the grief of loss is made even worse by realizing that your pet had a condition that could have been treated if you had only known a few easy symptoms to look for. Learning some simple palliative care can prolong your pet’s life or give the last weeks or months a better quality and help you with knowing you could simply do something helpful in the situation. And even if there was nothing you could have done, just having a little time to prepare and be with your pet before it dies is a comfort in itself.
Finding a veterinarian for you and your animal companion
When you adopted your animal companion, you probably realized you were adopting a living being that was not necessarily maintenance-free. Some animals, like some people, live out their whole lives with no health issues at all, and die quick peaceful deaths. But this is really only discovered at the end of that life and can’t be predicted at the beginning or any point along the path, so it’s best to take precautions.
I can’t say enough about the importance of my veterinarian in the health of my cats and my ability to care for them. Caring for them at home, guided by her, has been instrumental for me in my acceptance of all my losses as she has always been willing to explain diseases, give me care options and has taught and supported me in basic palliative care and generous phone consultations. She is a house-call veterinarian with no formal office, and this has always been my preference since she can see them when they are still fairly relaxed and not freaked out by a ride in the car. Because she has no clinical situation, I need to go elsewhere for other treatments such as spaying or neutering, X-rays or emergency care, but because I can do so much at home I have also found other clinics that I can call on the rare occasions when I need those services.
This has not only benefited everyone from Kublai to Namir, but it also gave me a feeling of control over the situation, and as we came near the end I felt much more confident about where they stood and when euthanasia was the right choice, especially knowing that I could call her to come to my house.
Every animal should have yearly veterinary checkups, especially as they age, and certain vaccinations are required, varying from state to state. During that yearly exam a veterinarian can often find a disease or condition at its very early stages and give you information and a treatment plan that may mitigate later cost, efforts and discomfort for your pet.
Also, developing a working relationship with a veterinarian who will keep your pet’s records and remember your pet’s health history will provide a good background for your pet if a condition should develop.
The other part of this working relationship is your comfort level with the amount of information your veterinarian shares with you. You may be content with a brief explanation of a condition and leave the rest to the veterinarian, or you may want to know all the details and participate in your pet’s care should a condition develop.
Next, get to know your animal companion
Just like people, not all animals are the same. Some are enthusiastic about mealtime, others are a little more reserved, and while there are pets who are in your face to make sure you pay attention, others are distant.
Get to know the details of your pet’s personality and daily habits. Often a change in this most basic everyday activity can indicate an underlying health issue.
Pets and “hiding” illnesses
If we are either lucky or skillful, we can understand what our pets try to tell us. “It’s time to get your butt out of bed,” is usually pretty easy to figure out, and, “I don’t like this food,” is generally pretty clear.
But pets don’t tell us about illnesses in the same way if they tell us at all, and for various reasons.
Do animals “hide” illnesses? To a certain extent this is not an intentional act because it is instinctive even in our domestic pets to adapt to new conditions as far as they can, including gradual changes in their own body. Most animals don’t really question slight pains, difficulty breathing or a slow loss of hearing or eyesight as in old age, but accept it and adapt their behavior to the new condition as long as possible—unlike we whining humans, by comparison. I only make that point because it’s important to remember that animals are not little humans. Where humans may not whine, most would certainly question why changes are happening to their body and take steps to discover the reason, animals do not so it’s not safe to assume that your pet will either let you know or try to do something if it senses some physical change to its body.
My Allegro was diagnosed with lymphoma when growths in his esophagus had made it difficult for him to swallow, and only lived two weeks after the diagnosis. I was shocked, thinking that I had seen no signs of it at all, but I remembered that, although he approached his food bowl with customary enthusiasm, he seemed to eat less and have some trouble with it. At the time I was distracted by Kublai’s condition as he was very near his end, and I remember thinking that I’d check into this “after” Kublai, but by then it was too late. Allegro wasn’t intentionally hiding what was happening, he was only adapting as best he could. Another lesson learned, too late for Allegro but in time for others.
But then there are reasons our animal companions will intentionally hide things from us. Realize that even the most aloof cat is sensitive to our moods and reactions to their activity. A worried, shocked or frightened reaction from us to our animal companions could be perceived as disapproval or it may simply frighten them, resulting in them hiding the activity that produced your reaction, like vomiting behind the furnace in the basement where you’d never see it.
And sometimes when discomfort becomes debilitating or frightening, they will simply hide. Getting to know their personality and habits will help you see a change that could point to an underlying condition.
Palliative care: how far do you go, and what do you do?
Not every chronic illness I immediately life-threatening, and it’s already common for many pet owners to administer medications at home. People with diabetic pets test and administer insulin at home, and the diagnosis of hyperthyroid disease in cats is so common that a transdermal form is available in addition to the pill form of Tapazole because cats are known to be reluctant to have a pill shoved down their throats.
If your pet has developed an acute or terminal illness and the loss is imminent, or if your pet has developed a chronic illness that requires regular treatment, it’s a natural reaction to just give up or back off in fear feeling that there is nothing you can do, you have nothing to offer to your pet’s care or you are simply afraid you’ll do the wrong thing.
What you decide to do is a combination of what is best for both your pet and you, and what you feel you can physically and emotionally do, advised and assisted by your veterinarian. You may simply decide on no treatment and just to be with your companion until they die naturally or you need to decide on euthanasia, or you may let your veterinarian provide all the care and treatment.
Or you may decide on a literal hands-on approach, again advised and assisted by your veterinarian. I know for my part this has been my preference because taking action helps me to focus and deal with fears. During both long and brief illnesses providing care gave me a practical feeling that I was doing good for my cat, and it gave me an emotional reassurance that I wasn’t useless, both of these helping to assuage my fear at their condition and their eventual death. This in turn relaxed me around whichever cat was ill, so they, in turn, weren’t reacting to my constant stress at their condition.
I didn’t actually decide that this would be my method. When Kublai was showing signs of dehydration as his mystery condition progressed, the afore-mentioned veterinarian set up a bag of sub-Q fluids and said, “Here’s how you do this,” demonstrating the pinch of skin in the nape area, the angle of the needle, the amount of fluids ideally administered, and what it would do for him. She didn’t ask if I wanted to learn, I think she just assumed that I was capable of it and therefore I should. It was a challenge for me as I had never done anything like this before, never even seen it done, and, in part, I was too proud to admit I was afraid to give it a try.
But I saw the effect on him just a few hours later, and decided that if she felt I could administer fluids, then I would give it my best.
I wasn’t always completely successful with him or with others, but nearly ten years later when Stanley was diagnosed with a serious case of chronic kidney failure and needed fluids daily, she explained the effects of the illness and the need for frequent fluid therapy, and I pretty much knew what I was doing and had a set-up for fluids in the kitchen. A friend who is a veterinary technician came over at first to assist or administer until I grew accustomed to the frequency and how best to handle Stanley by myself. I had the technique down in a few months and I was also clear on determining when he needed them, and in the end Stanley lived for another three years with only occasional fluids. I still keep a bag of fluids in the kitchen and needles and an extra fluid line in the drawer because I needed them frequently in the following years.
Don’t be afraid to give it a try
Again, one of the sad lessons I learned in all this was to encourage others to do the same, and to help with tips and advice for techniques in pill-giving, temperature-taking, constipation or diarrhea issues and other treatments in addition to fluids. Because I became knowledgeable about a number of illnesses and diseases, I could also help friends determine when certain treatments were needed, help them with the treatments, or determine when a trip to the veterinarian was necessary.
It’s all on the sad road to losing your beloved animal companion, but to use a buzz-word, it’s very empowering to be able to help your companion feel better.
One of the most frightening decisions is the final one, when to let them die on their own or plan euthanasia. Nothing makes this decision easy, fool-proof or without pain and doubt, but because you are monitoring their condition that closely, it is usually easier to tell when the end is near.
And all of this effort can help to ease the pain of grief after they are gone, as you remember all you could do for them.
Next in this series: Options for “After Care”, featuring Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation: aftercare, and a profile of a business and a person I find exceptional, and exceptionally comforting
Pet loss and grief told from personal experience
When I was losing a pet and making decisions, and after I had lost a pet and was dealing with grief, I was most comforted by hearing stories from others about their experiences. Sitting with one of my cats in the middle of the night, trying to determine if they were suffering in any way, if they were ready to let go, struggling to make the decision about euthanasia and what to do after they died, I felt so alone and only hearing what others had experienced and what they had decided helped me put my own situation and decisions into perspective, and let me know that I was not the only person to experience the anguish I was suffering. I’ve composed this series of articles in the hopes that others find comfort in my experiences and those of the others mentioned here, and that information included about services and products may help them in their decisions.
Read the other articles in this series:
To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long: my first and worst lesson in pet loss
Starting with pet loss—before the loss: begin preparing yourself for loss by being proactive about care and providing palliative care yourself at home
Options for “After Care”, featuring Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation: aftercare, and a profile of a business and a person I find exceptional, and exceptionally comforting
Heal Your Heart After Pet Loss, a Remarkable CD and Guidebook: your grieving process, and a very special CD and guidebook for those times when you need a comforting voice
Turning Loss into Creativity with Ingrid King and Buckley’s Story: how grief can become the catalyst for change, turning grief into a creative effort
Pet Loss Support Information: ideas and resources for where to find comfort and support in your loss, including books about and inspired by the author’s personal experience
Pet Love and Pet Loss, and How it Gave Me My Art: my own experience turning multiple losses loss into multiple creative endeavors
About the images used in this post
All of the images used here are of my cats, my inspirations and muses. I sell prints and notecards of all of them. It’s one of the things that helps me with losing them, to know that their image goes out in the world and they are thereby, in a way, immortal. To see the art visit my website and look under “Fine Art and Portraiture” for the gallery, “My Cats“. Also look under “Photography” for the five galleries of “My Cats“. You can browse prints and notecards in my “Marketplace“.