“Just keep him comfortable.” It sounded so easy, but often it’s the most difficult part of the journey, physically and emotionally. It’s also one of the closest bonds you’ll ever share with an animal, a chance to care for your companion, to ease pain and suffering while it can still be managed, to help them enjoy every last minute they have left.
Comfort measures, that’s what it’s often called, keeping the physical body comfortable until the spirit is ready to let go. Sometimes this comes at the end of a long road, and you may have moved slowly into the habit of treating one thing and then another as a condition has progressed, or simply as a companion has grown old. Sometimes it’s a sudden diagnosis of a disease, condition or illness that is so far along that little can be done aside from providing comfort while you and your animal companion try to get used to the idea of this sudden and permanent change.
Comfort measures can range from simply letting your animal companion have a great day, eat whetever they want, taking them outdoors into the fresh air and sunshine. It can also mean setting up a place in your house just for them, to meet their needs and keep them safe while they still have the will to get through each day.
The process can also include standard allopathic treatments such as medications or subcutaneous fluids that support the body and alleviate pain, and alternative treatments such as acupuncture and reiki that encourage the body to work with its own healing abilities, with the guidance of a trusted veterinarian who knows us as well as our animal companions or other professionals with clear knowledge of animals. Often, they are not easy things to do yourself, and may depend on skills you may not have but can remarkably summon, or find assistance.
Caring for the physical body at this point, managing pain, food and hydration as well as bodily output when the body is so fragile can be frightening to undertake, for the fear that you may do more harm than good in either a procedure or in just making the wrong decision. For a human who can communicate we can ask questions, but our animals? We can often surprise ourselves at what we’re capable of in time of need, and looking back later we’ll wonder how we knew what to do, or how we didn’t question that we would. We are encouraged by seeing the positive effects of what we do, and by our animal companions themselves.
This is the introduction to a chapter in a book I’m writing titled Knowing When. I began drafting it in 2007 with another title after lost Stanley amd the collected experience of losing four cats in the same year, but stopped when Lucy was diagnosed with FIP. I went back to it after I lost Namir and designed my sympathy cards in 2009 and gave it its final title, which I used when I wrote about Peaches in Knowing When, and Saying Goodbye. I’ve been working on it off and on since then. These past two months have been full of helping guide others through caretaking, comfort measures and losses, like my great-niece and my niece with Baby, and then preparing for Pet Memorial Sunday. September 19 is the anniversary of Kublai’s death and when the weather starts to turn I always remember that time and decided to work on this chapter. I also wanted to share some of it here, actually last weekend, but couldn’t bring the ideas down to a good size for a blog post until today. I plan on sharing portions of this as I work on it, but I also plan to publish it next spring—don’t forget my Patreon page if you’d like to make a small monthly donation to help me along.
About the photo, and what I learned from comfort measures for Kublai
This photo of Kublai and me was taken by a friend a few weeks before he died. I wish I’d asked her to take photos months before but the strange illness that took him down over the course of a year always seemed curable, and not just to me. He was only 15, and had always seemed invincible. He was my heart cat, the kitten who rescued me in college, the cat who recognized my bad days and brought me out of them, who hugged me when I needed a hug, who was universally loved by many. But though he was still vitally alive, and months of tests of all sorts available in the mid 90s turned up nothing definitive, nothing stopped his wasting away.
This was taken just as the path took us through the narrower gates of comfort measures. He weighed about six pounds in this photo, and obviously with two shaved front legs he’d recently had some tests, IV fluids, I remember there was antibiotic therapy, prednisolone, other medications administered in hospital. He had weighed 12 at his mature weight. He wasn’t staying hydrated, he wasn’t getting nourishment from his food. He wasn’t visibly suffering and was still pretty active, had in fact been able to cut his way through the basement screen door with one of his claws, the Houdini cat he always was, and I was shocked when I looked out to see him in the driveway. My veterinarian would soften things but never minced words. I knew it was “just a matter of time”. Eight other cats were part of the feline family then, and Kublai had always been the leader. I had no idea what might happen.
During one house call a few months earlier my veterinarian had hung the bag of fluids on a plant hook in the ceiling of my kitchen, twisted on a new needle and said, “This is how you do this. He’ll need this every day for a while, maybe forever, however long that is.” I had already learned to check a cat’s heart rate and how to listen to its function, monitor respiration, and take a temperature, vital in determining the state of a cat’s health, but over the next few months she explained signs of pain in cats that I would need to look for. I did my best. It was information I still use to this day, and when I call her about one of my cats she knows I’ve already checked these things and I give her the report.
This was when I also learned far more about acupuncture, reiki, homeopathic remedies, flower essences, herbs, special diets, gems, animal communicators and anything else I could find in pre-internet days to help heal an animal. The universe sent people my way who were either knowledgeable or knew of resources I could use. That entire year was a crash course in learning all these therapies and using them to the best of my ability for him. Today I still use what I learned then, and have built upon it whenever I could.
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