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dog parent must-knows

A guide to end of life pet care

The hardest part of loving a pet is having to say goodbye. Here’s what to consider when making end-of-life decisions for your pet.

Updated April 5, 2021

Created By

Emily Johnson,
Older dog looking off into the sunset

Identifying a pet’s poor quality of life and pain

We all have bad days, but if your pet is experiencing many of the following symptoms all or most of the time, you should see your vet to determine the next steps:

  • Not active, doesn’t want to play, or doesn’t interact with others like they used to
  • Hides, seems depressed, sleeps a lot
  • Doesn’t enjoy activities they previously liked
  • Is in pain
  • Losing weight and not eating or drinking well
  • Has more bad days than good days

If your pet is in pain, they may exhibit any of the following symptoms:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Hiding
  • Increased vocalizations
  • Changes in normal eating and drinking habits
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Panting or other breathing changes
  • Trouble moving
  • Shaking or trembling

When euthanasia should be considered

Your veterinarian is the best person to advise you on when the time is right to euthanize. Information from medical tests is often more accurate than what a pet owner can observe, and pet owners often delay the moment of euthanasia in anticipation of grief. 

Observing and keeping an accurate record of your pet in their daily activities can help you to decide. If you observe that moments of discomfort outweigh their capacity to enjoy life, it is time to euthanize, even if your pet still experiences pleasure in eating or socializing. If your pet is in pain, your main goal should be to minimize his suffering.

The goal of euthanasia is both to relieve and prevent suffering; in other words, to maximize the good and minimize the bad. When euthanasia is thought of in this way, it becomes obvious that there is no one right time to proceed. 

Know that if you make an appointment for euthanasia and your dog rallies, you can always reschedule. But keep in mind the adage that veterinarians who specialize in end-of-life care believe to be all too true, “Better a week too early than an hour too late.”

Alternatives to euthanasia

If you aren’t quite ready to say goodbye just yet, and depending on your pet’s situation, you can look into end-of-life care (also called hospice care) for your pet to help preserve their quality of life.

Types of illness or conditions that are terminal and require end of life care

One of the first steps to starting a hospice plan is recognizing whether the pet would benefit from this type of care. Many diseases don’t have a cure, but along with the help of a veterinarian and hospice care team, there are ways to keep a pet comfortable. Some of the common medical conditions that result in a pet owner seeking hospice care are:

  • Cancer 
  • Incurable organ diseases, such as kidney or liver failure
  • Severe osteoarthritis uncontrolled with medication  
  • Progressive neurological conditions or paralysis  
  • Senior pets reaching the end of life

What are the end-of-life care options?

End-of-life care is all about prioritizing the quality of life of your pet versus the quantity of life (how long they’re going to live). We want to optimize their quality of life so that the time they have left is as happy and comfortable as it can be.

Hospice care

Pet hospice care (also known as palliative care) is an option if your pet is suffering from a terminal illness. The goal is to make your pet’s final days or weeks as comfortable as possible with the proper use of pain medications, dietary strategies, and human interaction. 

If you choose palliative care for your pet, you will be your pet’s primary caregiver and will work with a veterinarian to make your pet’s last days comfortable and peaceful. The hospice veterinarian will put together an individualized plan for your pet and will teach you how to provide intensive home care to keep them as comfortable as possible. If you aren’t sure where to start looking for hospice care, consult with your primary veterinarian to see if they have any recommendations. 

👉 One highly recommended national hospice service is Lap of Love   they are available in almost every state and provide palliative care, along with in-home euthanasias.

The price for pet hospice care can vary depending on the company and what services you want to be included. Initial in-home consultation visits and assessments can range anywhere from $400-$1,000 with on-going communication and additional home visits at an added fee. For the most accurate pricing for your pet’s needs, reach out to the hospice facility of your choice and ask for an estimate.

Woman petting an older golden retriever

How to care for an elderly pet

The best thing you can do for your elderly pet is to make sure they’re comfortable in all aspects of life. 

Some ways to do this include:

Pain management 

There are pain management options for pets that include numerous prescription medicines as well as dietary supplements, diet changes, and certain types of exercise depending on your pet’s health. Depending on your pet’s underlying condition, the actual drug used will vary they may benefit from an NSAID anti-inflammatory painkiller or something more suited to nerve pain, like gabapentin.

Physical therapy such as hydrotherapy (gentle exercising in water), cold laser therapy (using a low-energy laser to help reduce inflammation), or acupuncture may also help relieve your pet’s pain.

Mobility

Environmental management helps your pet get around easier and involves minimizing the negative effects of anything your pet is struggling with. This will be unique to each individual but some ideas might be:

  • Putting mats down on slippery floors to reduce falls
  • Use a ramp to help your dog get into the car, up steps, or even onto the sofa
  • Raising food and water bowls if there is any back, neck, or front leg pain
  • Use litter boxes or trays with a low lip for easy access
  • Making sure lighting is bright and furniture is not moved if eyesight is deteriorating

Optimize their diet and appetite

Adequate nutrition is key to maintaining your pet’s body condition wherever possible. Even if your pet is not doing much in terms of activity, being in a disease state generally means that they’re suffering from an additional drain on energy and nutrients. This can also include a lack of appetite overall.

There is specialized pet food made specifically for seniors,  or you can add supplements or vitamins for overall senior pet health as toppers to the meals. Work with your vet on a specialized nutrition plan for your pet’s needs. In the meantime, here are a few strategies to help increase your pet’s appetite:

  • Switching to wet food
  • Warming their diet
  • Hand feeding
  • Giving appetite stimulants
  • Eliminating nausea

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How to cope with the loss of a pet

Acknowledge the loss. It is perfectly normal to grieve the loss of your pet. Acknowledging the full reality of your loss may take weeks or months. Take the time that’s right for you. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. They were an important part of your life and it will take time to get used to them not being there.

Embrace the emotions. Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is a difficult, but important need. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore them.

Get support from others. You need the love and support of others because you often never fully “get over” grief. Talking or being with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need.

Be upfront with your kids. If you have little ones in the house, it’s best to be upfront and honest about the loss of a pet with them. Young children (seven years and under) will process death differently than older children (eight years and up). Always remind them that it’s okay to cry and grieve the loss and that you’re sad, too.

What to say to someone grieving the loss of a pet

First things first, it’s important to remember that this was not just any pet to them this was a member of their family. 

Whether you are an animal person or someone who’s never had a pet before, here are some things you can say to or do for someone grieving:

  1. Know what to say initially. Start by offering one of the simple phrases that we suggest saying to all who are grieving, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “my condolences.” It’s always hard to find the right thing to say after death, but these two are always safe and simple choices.
  2. Be there to listen. If the grieving person wants to talk about it with you, and you have no idea what to say, just listen. You’re there to lend support, even if you can’t personally relate to their grief.
  3. Be mindful of questions. If the grieving person isn’t offering many details on what happened, be respectful and don’t pry. If they’re open to speaking about it, then it may be okay to ask some questions or inquire about details. 
  4. Remind them what a great pet parent they were. Whether it was buying the tastiest treats, the best toys, or taking the cutest photos with them, let the owner know that they went above and beyond to give their pet an amazing life.
  5. Share memories of the pet. If the grieving person posts a heartfelt message about their loss online, leave a thoughtful comment showing your support. Share a sweet memory if you have one with the pet. Not only will this remind them of the good times, but they can also take comfort in the fact that their pet meant something to others, as well.

🛑 There are also things you should never say to someone grieving the loss of a pet:

    1. “They’re in a better place.” The owner might not think so. Maybe they think the best place for their pet is next to them on the couch or cuddled up in bed with them. You’re essentially saying that their pet is better off dead, or that’s how it can easily be interpreted.
    2. “So, when are you getting another one?” This might seem like an innocent comment, but it can be upsetting because it makes it seem like pets are easily replaced. Many people think of their pets as their children imagine how offensive it would be if you were to ask that to a parent who lost a child.
    3. “Get over it. It was just a dog/cat/etc.” Any person who says something like this will certainly be viewed in a negative light. If that pet was loved and cared for, there was an emotional connection and the loss will be substantial. It absolutely deserves whatever grief the owner feels. 

“They were really old/sick so it’s probably for the best.” While it may be true due to health issues, it’s not your place to say this. If the grieving person says this to try and reconcile the loss, just nod along and agree (or better yet, stay quiet and just listen).

Celebrating a pet after their passing

Pet cremation. It is very common for pet owners to have their deceased pets cremated. You need to decide if you wish to keep your pet’s ashes as a remembrance. Some vet offices will help with this arrangement, or you can set it up on your own time through a pet cremation business. These businesses typically offer individual pet cremation (your pet will be cremated by themselves) and may offer home pick-up/delivery of remains as part of their service packages, too.

Burial. Depending on the laws in your area, it may be legal to bury an animal on your property. It is typically illegal, however, to bury an animal on public lands (such as parks). If you choose burial for your pet but don’t have land of your own, check to see if there is a pet cemetery or memorial park in your area where you could bury them.

🌳 Plant a tree in their memory. Turn the loss of life into new life by planting a tree in memory of your pet. There are companies and nonprofits, such as Arbor Day Foundation, who will plant a tree for you in memory of your pet. You can even buy plant mixtures to blend your pet’s ashes into for planting if you want to grow one at home. 

Buy a personalized memorial gift. There are tons of options for gifts to have personalized to your pet online. You can choose from jewelry with your pet’s name on it, paintings of your pet, a plaque for their memorial, and a lot more.