How Do I Know If My Pet Is Dying?

When animal companions become “senior pets,” each trip to the vet may bring added uncertainty and anxiety. Whether you’re having a routine check-up or dealing with declining mobility or a serious health issue, the questions fill your heart. Will this be the visit when you’re told your time with your beloved pet is drawing to a close? How much time do you have? How do you prepare for those last poignant moments together?
While no pet parent wants to hear that news or confront those questions, it’s possible to view this difficult information as a gift. Learning that your pet’s death (transition?) may be near enables you to prepare for the sad day when you need to say goodbye.
“We live in a death-averse society,” says Coleen Ellis, founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center. “Even after we hear a pets’ final prognosis, many pet parents talk about  ‘if’ my pet dies,” rather than ‘when.’  Allowing yourself to say ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ opens the door to making the most of the remaining time you and your animal friend have together.”

A past president and current adviser for the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Coleen counsels those facing a pet’s final days or weeks to ask this question: “How do you want it to happen? What can you do right now so that six months from now you’ll know you’ve made your pet’s death perfect…both for your pet and for you?”

Acknowledging that your time with your pet is limited allows you to plan the specifics of their last days and create a meaningful and rewarding time to honor all you’ve shared.

Celebrating through the sadness.

Even as you face the heartbreaking reality of your pet’s end of life, there are ways to infuse joy into each day and make the journey as meaningful and memorable as it can be.

  • Do all their favorite things. If your Great Dane loves McDonald’s, give her what she wants! Load her in the car for a daily McNugget run. If your Persian cat loves caviar, now is the time for him to splurge. Take your Golden Retriever to a gentle spa {} for pampering and a relaxing Reiki massage. Now is the time to indulge your loyal companion’s every whim.
  • Make a bucket list.  What are the things you’ve always wanted to do with your pet? Explore a new dog park. Take a road trip. Hike in the mountains. Visit a cat café’. Cook your cat some crab legs. Set a place for Rex at the dinner table. Visit a pet psychic. Whatever adventures you’ve been putting off, you can make this a time of sharing new horizons with your pet. (some sound like bucket list, some sound like ‘favorite things)

All about the memories.

  • Capture these last moments. Whether you take the pictures yourself or hire a photographer to help, you’ll be glad you invested the time to record these precious together times. Visit your pet’s favorite park or plunk down on their favorite couch. Capture the connection you have with your furry friend.
  • Gather your pack. Create a special opportunity for your adult children, extended family, and friends to share a visit with your pet. Keep it simple—these are stressful times, and you don’t need to be the perfect host. The friends who know and love your pet will appreciate a chance to say goodbye, and their presence will be a gift to you, too.
  • Write it down. As memories of your time with your pet flood your heart, take a moment to jot them down. Remember it all:  active puppy days, a kitten’s rambunctious mischief, long soulful walks, and shared lazy naptimes. And don’t forget to reminisce about the “people challenges” your pet got your through. Record them now and they stories will be a comfort to you in the difficult days ahead.
  • Gather those keepsakes. Designate a treasure box or bag to hold your pet’s photos, vet report cards, collars, toys, sweaters, and other mementoes. Everyday objects that hold your pet’s emotional imprint will become even more precious over time.

Creative therapy.

Chances are, your pet will be more sedentary during this time. This is the perfect opportunity to heal your soul by expressing what’s in your heart through art.

  • Busy hands. If sewing is your therapy of choice, creating a memorial quilt or tapestry can be therapeutic. Some loving pet owners have created quilts or wall hangings from their dogs’ sweaters and t-shirts, embroidered meaningful quotes on their “lovey” blankets, braided leashes, and collars into wall hangings or belts, or created mosaics from dog tags and charms that have meaning for the family.

Something as simple as a paw print plaque or necklace becomes a precious memory, too. Whether it’s a DIY paw print in clay or custom jewelry with your pet’s unique touch {}, it’s a treasure that will last forever, just like the love you’ve shared.

  • Say what’s in your heart. Journaling your thoughts throughout your grieving helps to release difficult emotions. The sadness you’re feeling is a tribute to the deep love you’ve. shared. While it’s painful to acknowledge the hurt, over time the journal will be one more way to connect you to the memory of the friend who shared your life.

The power of touch.

As every pet parent knows, the snuggles, nuzzles, and pats we share with our furry companions are among the most meaningful joys a pet provides. Now is a good time to mindfully and tenderly share more cuddles than ever. Reassure your pet about your constant care and appreciate the warm feeling of being physically and emotionally close at the time when you need each other the most.

Finding the right support.

Especially at the end of your pet’s life, it’s important that you, your family, and your pet have a good relationship with your vet. A partnership built on mutual trust, honesty, compassion, and respect makes all the difference on this sad and difficult journey.

Coleen reminds families that they have permission to be heard and understood by the vet and others in the practice. Whether or not to euthanize or pursue further treatment, and when to make these decisions are your call.

Your vet is there to provide compassionate and informed counsel. “If you’re not feeling this level of support from your veterinary practice, you have permission to find a different vet who will understand and honor your wishes,” Colleen says.

As people like Coleen have built awareness of the need for pet palliative care and grief counseling, resources for families have become available. Ask your vet for recommendations on helpful books, articles, and websites;

Euthanasia or natural death?

While providing joyful and meaningful time with your pet is important at this time, it’s also essential that you begin to plan the practical details of your pet’s death.  Others may try to judge or second guess your decisions, but trust yourself and your veterinary team to know what’s best.

If euthanasia is the path you choose, you may want to “draw a line” to help you decide when it’s time to make that difficult call.  Some families say once the pet becomes incontinent, it’s time. Others use the pet’s feeding habits as a criterion. Coleen stresses that this decision belongs to the family. Euthanasia is a difficult word to hear, but its Greek translation is “good or fortunate death.” No one knows your pet better than you do, and you (with your vet’s counsel) will make the decision that’s best.

Lap of Love is an organization helping people navigate their pets’ end-of-life journey.  Their “Quality of Life Scale” {} can bring clarity to this difficult time. Factors on the scale include pain, appetite, incontinence, mobility and happiness.

If you prefer to allow a natural death for your pet, it’s your vet’s responsibility to share the realities of what that death will look like and what palliative measures are available.

Coleen stresses that at any point in this poignant process, you and your family have the right to change course and choose the path that feels right for you.

The love never ends.

Whether you’ve shared your home and heart for your pet’s whole life or adopted your furry friend later on, your lives are forever entwined. Experiencing the last days or weeks of your time together is among the most bittersweet journeys you’ll ever make.
Though your heart will be breaking, this difficult time can strengthen the bond you’ve forged. You can find joy and meaning as you take this final walk together, creating memories and celebrating the one-of-a-kind, priceless friendship you’ve been privileged to share.

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