Saying farewell to a pet isn’t easy, but having time to plan for it can help to make the experience meaningful
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Fifteen years seems like a long time until you are facing the end of it. The most terrible thing for those of us who love animals is their short lifespan. And when the time comes, it is almost more than we can bear -- even more so when we have been anticipating it.
Sometimes pets go downhill quickly after being diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, which develops rapidly or isn’t caught until it’s too late for treatment. Or old age finally catches up with them. That’s brutal enough. But sometimes, I think, the anticipatory grief that accompanies a pet’s terminal diagnosis is more insidious. The roller coaster of grief that we ride between diagnosis and their last day seems never-ending.
Anticipatory grief is defined as the realization that a being is mortal, whether a parent, sibling, child or pet. For us, the first pangs of anticipatory grief struck when our dog Harper was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when she was 9 years old. We’d seen a dog die from it before, and we didn’t want to face it again. So we arranged for her to have lifesaving heart repair surgery. That was more than five years ago, and since then we have lived with her in six-month increments -- the timing between visits to the cardiologist to hear that yes, her heart was still doing fine.
That’s what they tell you when your dog undergoes this particular procedure: “She’ll live long enough to die from something else.”
In 2020, Harper was diagnosed with tonsillar squamous cell carcinoma. The anticipatory grief came out of hibernation. But like a Timex watch, she kept on ticking. In May, five years after her heart surgery and 18 months after her cancer diagnosis, she got a good report from her cardiologist and her oncologist. We were elated.
In June, our pet sitter discovered a lump on Harper’s neck, and surgical removal and pathology determined that it was malignant. I cried.
In August, she lost her appetite. We tempted her with canned dog food, cat food, deli roast chicken, steak; nothing held her interest. We took her to the veterinary dentist, hoping she had an abscessed tooth. But the mass had returned, this time inside her mouth. A second opinion from a radiation oncologist delivered the news that nothing more could be done. I wept. Then I began to plan her last days.
That is when anticipatory grief can be helpful, says Sheilah Robertson, DVM, medical director of Lap of Love, a service that provides euthanasia for pets at home or the place of the owner’s choice.
“During that time, owners can think about who they want present, where they want it to happen, what things the pet has not done that they want to do, like getting a professional photograph or going to the park.”
Harper had done everything and been everywhere, so we revisited our favorite haunts: breakfast in Laguna Beach, a trip to a favorite park, one last nose work class, an evening with her favorite neighbors. We all raised a glass to her.
I had two weeks before I decided it was time to let her go. Robertson says that having even 24 hours’ notice has been shown to help people face the inevitable. It’s gentler than having to rush to an emergency room, make a decision in a hurry and have the procedure performed by a stranger in a place that’s scary for the pet.
“Everyone says a day too early is better than a moment too late,” she says. “Even when you feel like they’re wagging their tail and still want to eat but they’ve got a bad disease or time is marching on, then saying goodbye on those days leaves you with happier memories.”
We did some fun things the day before and spent time together the next day before our afternoon appointment at the park.
It was a beautiful day, and peaceful, with no one else there. Goodbye, Harper. We’ll miss you forever.
common in dogs
Q: My dog doesn’t seem to keep on any weight and has been having occasional diarrhea for no apparent reason. I took in a fecal sample and it showed that he had been exposed to giardia. What can you tell me about this?
A: Giardia is a tricky parasite. The single-celled protozoan can infect most domestic and wild animals, as well as humans, although the canine form is not transmissible from dogs to humans.
Infection with giardia has been reported in up to 39% of fecal samples from both pet dogs and cats and animals in shelters. It’s most common in puppies, but it can also affect older dogs.
Animals become infected with giardia when they ingest water contaminated with feces. The whiplike protozoans then take up residence in the small intestine, attaching to mucosal surfaces and absorbing nutrients that come through. When they reproduce, cysts pass in the feces to contaminate the environment and further spread the infection.
Giardia transmission occurs by what we call the fecal-oral route -- ingestion of contaminated feces in water or other substances. Even a small amount is enough to give giardia a foothold in the body. High humidity helps ensure that the cysts survive in the environment, and overcrowding, whether in a shelter or kennel, aids transmission.
Many dogs with giardiasis show no signs, but others, like your dog, may lose weight or have chronic diarrhea. Vomiting can also be a sign. The parasite doesn’t always show up in stool samples, and veterinarians may need to do blood work to rule out conditions with similar signs, such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or other causes of intestinal malabsorption.
Your veterinarian may prescribe a dewormer or antibiotic -- or a combination of the two -- followed by a recheck of a stool sample. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
tribute to saint
-- Foxhounds have a special day in November. The blessing of the hounds is a tribute to St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters and founder, it is said, of the St. Hubert’s hound -- the ancestor of the bloodhound. It takes place any time between Nov. 3, which is St. Hubert’s Day, and Thanksgiving Day. The occasion, celebrated by foxhunters in the United States, Britain and Europe, began as a ritual to ward off rabies, a disease that St. Hubert was credited with curing.
-- Scratching is not just a normal behavior for cats -- it’s essential. They mark their territory through scent and visual markers. Scratching performs both functions by leaving gouges -- the higher the better -- in the scratched item as well as depositing scent from glands in the cat’s paws. Both signals tell other cats that yours is a force to be reckoned with and help cats feel comfortable in their environment. Scratching keeps claws sharp and removes the dead outer layer of the claw. And stretching -- a big part of the scratching action -- feels good.
-- Keep dogs away from dead or stranded sea lions, which can spread leptospirosis to them. The zoonotic bacterial disease, which can be transmitted between species, including to humans, is spread by contact with urine or urine-contaminated fluids. Dogs with the disease can develop kidney or liver failure, loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting. Leptospirosis has been confirmed in sea lions in Oregon and California. Keep your dog on a leash at the beach or any place he may come in contact with potentially contaminated water. If your dog is sick, let your veterinarian know if he’s been to the beach within the previous two weeks. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.