By Angela Gutzer –
The question of when to say goodbye to your pet is one of the most difficult questions to navigate. When you are with your veterinarian, they may ask you about the quality of life for this member of your family. Are they eating or drinking? Are they in pain?
When I had to make the decision for my beloved dog friend, Chloe, it boiled down to one single moment. She became suddenly sick while I was away for a veterinary conference and went downhill quickly. By the time I got to the clinic, she had already had several seizures and her liver was in complete failure. I raced toward her, diving onto the floor and wrapping my arms around her—but she was no longer there. She did not recognize me! We took her home for one last night, and I hoped and prayed she would return, but she didn’t. She didn’t acknowledge me, or her home. I knew I had to say goodbye, and she was euthanized the next day.
For other animals, the decline is ever so slow, making the decision less clear. My cat Kitz made her exit as slow as molasses, and I grieved her loss as she lived. She required palliative care in her last few months of life. My decision for euthanasia was made when she no longer wanted to eat.
Palliative care is supportive care with the aim to provide comfort versus a curative therapy. In Kitz’s situation, she had renal failure and was 21 years old. I aimed for her quality of life. She didn’t like her fancy renal diet, so I gave her canned Recovery food filled with fats and protein. She was dehydrated, so I gave her fluids under her skin. She enjoyed crème, so I gave her as much as she wanted. Another example of a palliative approach would be after a cancer diagnosis. You may want to opt out of chemotherapy or radiation for your friend and instead make their last days, weeks, or months as comfortable and love filled as possible.
When faced with the end, the question of how to say goodbye may also come up. Many people have said that they wished their loved one would pass quietly on their own. That may happen—but from people who have experienced this, they wished they would have known so they would have stayed home that day from work or slept with them as they passed. Death comes when it comes. The most common way to say goodbye is with a planned euthanasia. The word euthanasia translates to “good death”. The aim is to make the transition from life to death as smooth and pain-free as possible. It is often a two-step process where the beloved is sedated, then given a barbiturate intravenously. The sedation is used so that the barbiturate injection is not felt, and the animal doesn’t pull their limb away—which is a natural reaction to pain we all have. The injection of the barbiturate causes the heart to slow down to the point that it completely stops. It is a fast-working injection, and the animal will stop breathing quickly. At that point, the stethoscope is used to ensure the heart has stopped. When it has been confirmed, the beloved friend is declared deceased. A unique signature of silence ensues before the cries of sadness and grief.
In 2016, the Parliament of Canada passed federal legislation that allows eligible adults to request medical assistance in dying (MAID). I find it interesting that as this choice has become available for people, the interest in a natural death or a non-assisted death for our companion animals has risen. As a veterinarian, I have not witnessed non-traumatic, natural death very often. I have, sadly, witnessed death in accidents and in very ill animal patients. The idea of our loved friends dying naturally never really entered my sphere of experience until four years ago. My neighbour’s dog was old and was in distress, and I went to assist. The dog’s heart was racing, and she couldn’t get comfortable. It felt like she was in shock and distress and was close to dying, and therefore needed to go into a clinic for care or for euthanasia. They opted to stay at home with her, saying they loved her and that she could go. I left them hugging their beloved dog and within ten minutes she passed. Since then, I have heard countless, beautiful stories of people witnessing their furred loved ones dying without chemical assistance.
As excruciating as it is to say goodbye, there is a beauty in the moment. The space is filled with the utmost love and devotion. I imagine angels cloaking the space with compassion and offering the beloved friend a beautiful passage to the spirit side where their bodies no longer cause them any pain.
Dr. Angela Gutzer has been a veterinarian for 15 years, working in Williams Lake and later as a locum practising throughout BC. Her passion with death started with the loss of her beloved dog, Chloe, and then through the loss of her mother, Doris. She completed the Contemplative End of Life Care course through ITM in 2017. She will open her palliative and end of life practice as a veterinarian—White Feather Mobile Veterinarian—in Williams Lake this fall.