“Lily has a tumor [hemangiosarcoma] that has attached itself to every blood vessel near her hind legs. I don’t know what else we can do for her…”
I sat there in shock as I heard my veterinarian tell me this at the other end of the phone. Lily was our 8-year old basset hound who was otherwise healthy. We found a lump near one of her back legs, which the vet thought was something that could be easily removed. We were confident it wasn’t anything major. After all, she was only 8. And she was healthy. But in reality, she wasn’t. And that was a hard pill to swallow. Lily’s tumor couldn’t be easily removed, so it wasn’t. She came home to us that same day, tumor still inside her, and as happy as she was that morning (albeit a little more drugged). My husband and I had dealt with another terminal diagnosis of another one of our beloved dogs two years before this. We’d been here before. We knew what to do. We just didn’t want to do it again.
If you’re a pet owner and you’re still reading this, chances are you’ve dealt with watching one of your pets succumb to a terminal illness or are in the throes of it now. My heart is with you. I’ve done it more times than I care to remember. I know how awful it can feel, and I also know how difficult it is, so I want to share some tips with you to help normalize what you’re experiencing, and maybe provide some suggestions on what to do next.
- First, feel the emotions that inevitably come when you find out your beloved pet is terminally ill. I remember throwing my pen across the kitchen into the wall as I listened to my vet tell me Lily’s diagnosis. Then I hung up the phone and ranted to my husband. I was angry. And I let myself be angry. Then I cried a lot.
- After you’ve allowed yourself to feel all the emotions, you’re going to need to make some decisions. What’s best for your pet? What treatment options are available? What will the impacts be on your pet’s quality of life? What will the impacts be on your quality of life? Don’t forget your quality of life directly impacts your pet’s life, so you have to consider what you’re willing and able to do as part of your path forward. Talk to your vet, get advice from other people, and do your own research. Get as much information as you can and then take it one step at a time. There weren’t many options for Lily. Her cancer had spread, and because it was such aggressive cancer, chemotherapy likely wouldn’t have given her much more time. It would have made her feel bad and required a long weekly car ride to the oncologist. Lily hated the car. It wasn’t an option for her.
- Depending on your decision to manage your pet’s illness, take the next necessary step. If you’re going to be seeing specialists or getting further treatment, make those appointments. Try not to plan beyond that because you don’t know what each specialist visit will reveal. With one of our other dogs, we had to see numerous specialists to deal with her end of life care, and each specialist visit presented another round of decisions to be made. That’s why I suggest taking it one step at a time because it’s all you really can do. With Lily, we knew we weren’t going to proceed with any additional treatment, so our next steps were making her as comfortable as possible and doing what we could to prolong her life, giving her the best quality of life. This included a new diet with all homemade healthy foods and having her on several supplements. Eventually, when those things didn’t seem to be maintaining her quality of life, we gave her prednisone until the end. We only had Lily with us for six weeks beyond her diagnosis, but we made the most of those six weeks with her. Every day was a gift.
- Next, consider the end of life decision that will need to be made if you plan on euthanasia. We spoke with our vet about our options for Lily, so we had a plan which included where we would euthanize her and who would be present. We also knew we didn’t want her to suffer, so continually assessed (sometimes daily), whether it was the right time. There are many quality-of-life assessments to evaluate whether your pet is living his or her best life, but we use the “five things” rule that our vet suggested to us many years ago. Think about five things your pet loves to do (and, if they’re older, it may only be three things). Ask yourself how many of those things they can still do. If it’s not at least half, they’re not living their best life, and it may be time to say goodbye. Trust your gut about when it’s time. You’ll know. You know them best. And they usually let you know. For me, it’s usually a look I get from them. Trust them, trust yourself. You’re doing the right thing.
- Finally, grieve. Grief knows no time and no process. It differs for everyone. Allow yourself space and time you need to grieve the loss. Get support if you need it. All you’re feeling is real, and it needs to be processed, even if it feels awful. That’s why support groups and understanding family members and friends can be helpful. Give yourself the care you need during this time and all during the end of your pet’s life.
Even though we know that we’re going to outlive our pets in most cases, it doesn’t make watching them fail or age or be sick any easier. My biggest takeaway from dealing with end-of-life care for several of my pets the last few years has been to cherish every moment; cherish every walk, every tail wag, every meow, bark, lick, and hug. Those are the things that remain in your heart forever.