How to support your friends when their pets are fading
This week I stood by two long time friends as one of them was euthanized.
It followed a “tough conversation” I had recently with the human friend after witnessing the canine friend’s decline in recent months.
I had called up first and asked permission to discuss the topic. “When it is my turn with [my cat] Mikki I want you to be objective,” I told my friend.
It was love at first sight for “Jamie” when a bloke walked into her country town restaurant 15 years ago asking for directions to the river where he was going to drown the cattle dog pup in his hands. Since that day, Jamie and Blue have been devoted to one another.
However, in recent months I heard how the daily walks had stopped, of the mounting medications Blue was on, of failing eye sight, deafness and back pain. Blue still had a good appetite; and enjoyed her cuddles but in Jamie’s own words, she was “not the same dog”.
My cat is 15 and already on a series of shots for arthritis but otherwise fine. Vets say he looks 12. Is that the beginning of my denial? I know I can count on Jamie’s empathy and honesty down the track.
Jamie has always scorned those who euthanase pets because they require more effort to care for. She’s right. I know a guy who gives daily injections to his elderly diabetic cat who has an otherwise lovely life. He regards the cat as a loyal mate who deserves no less after the joy he has given over 18 years.
Animals give us plenty. A friend’s cat lay with her every day she was going through chemo for breast cancer, a male friend says his dog helped get him through depression after a break up and a former neighbour told me of the great comfort my Mikki provided when he was recovering from prostate cancer. There is also the recent case of Paula Bockman-Chato whose beloved saluki, Kaspar, sniffed out cancer early enough to save her life.
So how do pet owners know when it’s time and how can friends help? I put this to Dr Emma Hughes of the Balmain & Drummoyne Vet Clinic (where Mikki and I go) and Better Homes & Gardens vet and managing director of Pure Animal Wellbeing Dr Alister Webster.
Both Dr Hughes and Dr Webster also work with the RSPCA.
“Every case is unique but ensuring your animal still has dignity is a good goal,” says Dr Hughes. “You don’t want to leave them until they are carried into the vet or are defecating where they lay.”
Dr Hughes adds: “I have never known an owner that felt guilty about having their pet euthanased too early but I have known many people who felt guilty about waiting too long.”
After talking to both vets I would add: don’t judge owners who appear to be dragging their feet. It’s not your heart that will break. Dr Hughes points out that veterinary science is so advanced now that many options are available to treat an ailing animal. Vets and owners can often focus on what can be done rather than whether it should be done.
Because support friends don’t live with the pet on a daily basis it is easier for them to spot dramatic changes in the animal’s weight or behavior when they do visit. This could prove valuable feedback if delivered with tact.
Besides, there appears to be many things that could confuse pet owners about the state of their animal’s health.
“In the animal kingdom the rule is survival of the fittest so animals can be quite good at hiding pain. It is in their best interest to hide it,” said Dr Hughes.
“Their survival instinct will also drive them to continue to eat and go to the toilet. They have to be very sick not to eat.”
Dr Webster says a visit to the vet will send adrenalin pumping through an animal. A usually listless pet could suddenly perk up in front of the doc. An owner will want to see this as a good sign. Support friends who tag along can gently coax the pet owner into telling the vet how the animal is behaving at home.
He bases his decisions on what is most humane for the owner, the animal and the quality of life the pet is experiencing. A highly emotional owner can be in denial but he says vets are trained to be patient and provide extra counselling.
Dr Webster knows what it is like to have to let go. He had to put down his “best friend”, a Jack Russell terrier.
“Euthanasia is the most powerful tool available to vets and to pet owners,” he says.
He says staying to watch an animal pass is up to each individual but he believes the peaceful nature of the process provides comfort and closure to owners. I’ve been through it with friends twice now and it is incredibly peaceful.
My tips for support friends are:
- Always ask your friend’s permission to discuss issues but be prepared to speak up. When a pet is taking more pills than an ailing grand parent or vet bills are sky high, it is time to at least review what is going on.
- If euthanasia is the next step, be prepared to see your friend in a lot of emotional pain. Don’t rush in with solutions. Grief is part of life and they may need no more help than a bit of space and or the loving support of friends and family.
- Don’t tell a grieving dog owner “you can get another dog/cat/bird etc”. People think this is helpful but during the grieving period there is no other animal in the world that could replace the departed pet.
- A colleague’s parents recommend a “gap” dog. They got a young pup of the same breed as their existing ageing dog to help fill that aching void when their dog goes – hopefully still some years away.
- Help your friend make arrangements for a proper farewell and get paper work done in advance as they are in no condition afterward. Discussing disposal options when your friend has just seen their pet take their last breath or picking between the “cremation box or urn or scatter box” can be too hard for the newly bereaved.
- If a friend adores their animal then a condolence card and flowers is totally appropriate no matter how you view pets personally.
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