Living with a Terminally Ill Pet

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I felt compelled to write this post as I know there are many pet owners/pet parents/pet lovers out there who, like us, are living with a terminally ill pet. In an effort to provide a community for our shared experiences, I wanted to offer what little comfort or words of advice that I could about our situation and ask our readers to share their own story or advice in the comments.
 
Currently, our Maggie is in month five after an osteosarcoma (bone cancer) diagnosis. We’ve done the most we can do for her as far as treatments and pain relief. We lived through this same experience just 3.5 years ago when our dog Becca died of the same disease. Osteosarcoma is terminal, the only treatments provide pain relief and a temporary stay from the inevitable. Life expectancy is in months, not years. Our Becca lived only 3 months from diagnosis to her death, so thankfully Maggie is already ahead of that timeline.
 
Maggie has been going strong. She’s been eating, going for daily walks, being her normal self. Our regular vet, who gives her weekly blood tests, remarked “you’d never know she was sick”. But her severe limp that disappeared after her radiation treatments resurfaced recently and I had to remind myself that her time with us is limited and I need to make the most of it.
 
Living with a dog you know is terminally ill is all consuming. You think about it constantly, you watch her every move looking for a sign of weakness, pain or a symptom of the progression of the disease. Your daily conversation centers around how she is doing, did she eat, did she feel up to a walk, how are her poops? I’m sure you can all imagine. You think about how you will miss them, how your heart will break when they are gone, how lonely it will seem in the house without them. And you cry and you hug them and cry some more.
 
But, I’ve realized that’s not what I should be thinking about. I should be focused on making Maggie’s last days as carefree, fun and filled with joy as possible.
 
sweetmaggiemay_quote

 
Your time and attention is the biggest gift you can give to your sick dog. They don’t know what’s wrong with them, why they feel so sick. They don’t know why they are going to the vet yet again or why you are stuffing them with these awful tasting pills. They don’t know why you are crying, but you can be sure they read your energy and know something is wrong. One of their main goals in life was to make their family happy, to be the family protector and entertainer, so remember that when you get sad. Don’t show your sadness to them, just love on them.
 
I don’t know what happens after we die. Certainly the whole visual of “The Rainbow Bridge” and our dogs revived to youthfulness and playing happily while they anxiously wait for us to join them is nice imagery. Even though I was raised Catholic, I’m not sure I still buy into the whole heaven and hell bit and whether dogs have souls and are waiting OTRB for us is certainly questionable. So, I figure the best thing to do is make the most of the time we have with them here on earth.
 

Since the movie “The Bucket List” came out, many people do a bucket list for their dog. I think that’s a great idea. We did it for Becca and fed her some great meals (when she would eat) and took her for visits to her favorite spots. We’re working on the same for Maggie. Maggie’s appetite has been great, so we’ve been indulging her and she’s actually put on a few pounds recently. Our vet and I laughed about it at her last visit – she could probably lose a few pounds, but she has cancer, so I’ve been spoiling her…but I know she shouldn’t be overweight…but she has cancer and round and round I go.
 
I’m trying to spend more one-on-one time with her. Maggie is our shy girl, so she doesn’t like much attention, but she loves going on walks with mom, off leash of course, so I try to take her on short excursions without Jack. She also loves to play “find the food”, so that is a nightly game now instead of 2-3 times a week. I sit with her often and since she doesn’t always like to be pet, I just sit with her and tell her how much we love her.
 
Maggie collage

 

The hardest part of living with a terminally ill dog is knowing when to say goodbye. Having euthanized several dogs over the years, I’m here to tell you that the old adage of “you’ll know when to let them go” is bullshit nonsense. You won’t know because your own emotional health is tied up with keeping them here, keeping them with you. Most people hang on too long and let’s be honest, it’s for selfish reasons, you don’t want to let them go because it will hurt YOU too much to be without them. Believe me I GET IT.
 
But it’s our responsibility when we bring a pet into our home to know when it is best for them to be sent off to their next adventure (whatever you may believe that is). I will always remember the words Becca’s doctor spoke to me when I asked his advice for Becca. She had been very sick from chemo and while she’d recovered from that once we stopped, she was weak, limping badly and sleeping most of the day. I knew in my heart she wasn’t going to improve and probably suffering. He said to me “when you have a terminally ill dog, it can never be too early, but you can be too late”. That really stuck with me as I realized that I was keeping her alive for me, because I didn’t want to lose her yet, not because “she wasn’t ready to go”.
 
Dogs live in the moment. A dog who is terminally ill, weak and uncomfortable knows pain. I think there is a limit to what we should put our dogs through to keep them alive. That limit may be different for each of us but it’s one of our responsibilities as a pet owner to recognize that the factor that should weigh the greatest in defining that limit is your dog, not you, not your children, not your neighbors, not even your vet…your dog. Love them with all of your heart, make their last days as fun and full of love as you can, but be unselfish in letting them go.
 
Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences on living with a terminally ill pet.
 

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30 Comments

  1. I walked on this hard and sad road for 18 month as our Frosty was diagnosted with big C. It was nearly impossible for me to be happy about every day we have together, I sadly ruined this days for me with crying and grieving. I agree with Becca’s doctor, that’s true… I first felt bad that I made this decision to let him go, but today I feel shame that I waited too long…
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  2. Mom’s last dog Trine passed away from pancreatic cancer. There really was no time to think about it as she stopped eating one day, and 8 days later she was gone. It is so fast moving and stays so well hidden in humans and pets. It is almost always diagnosed far too late. Mom’s friend was her vet, so she was given medication to help her feel better. They went to Trine’s favorite spot on the beach at the North Sea, spent the weekend doing everything Trine loved. She had surgery that Monday morning and never woke up. They found a huge tumor that was about to burst in her. Had she lived, it would have burst and she would have bled to death internally within a few days. It was fast and hard, but there wasn’t time to think much. We wish Maggie the best. It is so sad to hear her limp is back. Spoil her, let her put on a couple pounds. No one wants to leave this world wishing they had eaten that one dessert they passed on because of the calories. Hug her, talk to her, cry on her. So very sad. We wish her all the best.
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    • I never knew Trine went so quickly. That is tough to take, but in some ways better as you don’t have time to think. Maggie’s limp is gone again – a little extra pain killers seemed to do the trick.
      mkob recently posted…Living with a Terminally Ill PetMy Profile

  3. What a beautiful and supportive post. My heart goes out to you and all the dog lovers dealing with this. I’ve been there and done that and completely agree with all you’ve said, particularly that bit about how they will tell you when it is time. Um, no. They are depending on us to make that call and we all too often do it later. I’m so sorry that Maggie’s limp is back, but so glad she has you to get her through this final life journey.
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  4. Very well said. It’s difficult to find clarity and articulate these thoughts during difficult times, but you’ve done an exceptional job. I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. The only guarantee we have with our dogs is the moment, so we must strive to make the most of it – especially at the end of their lives when it can be so difficult/painful to do so.

  5. Your vet definitely spoke words of wisdom despite the pain it causes humans. Here’s wishing you more memorable times with sweet Maggie with many thanks for sharing your journey.
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  6. I really appreciate your vet’s perspective and words of wisdom. Just said goodbye to my sweet Breeze a few weeks ago – also due to an aggressive peri-anal cancer, and while his absence is profound, I found peace and smiles re-living our short and treasured life together by making a journal of that special time, complete with pictures. The process was very cathartic, and I would highly recommend it. A book called the Dog Cancer Survival Guide was also extremely helpful – and encouraged not only the “live in the moment, day-to-day” focus, but provided some examples of daily meditations to do with your dog….as simple as telling him/her thank you for your time together. The other protocol that was very helpful, both energizing and calming, for both of us – was the use of massage techniques combined with energy work (Reiki, Healing Touch, Jin Shin Jujitsu). I took a local class in healing touch so I could practice just a couple of techniques daily with him – it was an extraordinary way to be close and continue to create that safe trusting place for him. While our hearts break and we are so sad when these circumstances occur – practicing the small daily rituals lends comfort to both human and canine. As I also read….. making that choice is our final act of great love for our pets. Wishing all of you extraordinary memories of lives well-lived and that special love we have with our animal companions.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience and you suggestions. I have that book and should probably dig it out and reread some of it.
      mkob recently posted…Living with a Terminally Ill PetMy Profile

  7. I remember when my Shadow was diagnosed with cancer – a really aggressive form that treatment would have done little to help. Her tumor was in the back of her throat, attached to a couple of different surfaces. In the end, it was beginning to cut off her ability to breathe and eat and drink normally so I made the decision to have her euthanized. My vet told me I did the right thing and that most people would have waited too long. Which at the time, made me think I was jumping the gun (even though I knew I really wasn’t, but you always doubt yourself a little in those situations). I remember it was only about 6 weeks after her diagnosis that I let her go – but during the time leading up to it, I tried to focus on making her happy, keeping her comfortable, and fed her cooked lamb and sweet potatoes and carrots – all mushed up because of the tumor. She loved every minute of that.

    It’s so hard, isn’t it? I know I wavered between tears that her time was limited and gratefulness that she was having another good day.

  8. The hardest part about being a pet blogger is that you make everyone else’s pet part of your family. So my heart is breaking for you but of course I know I’m not in your shoes. I have never lived with a terminally ill pet, or at least known they were terminal until it was too late. I personally did not like the Bucket List dog, I felt the owner was doing it for himself not the dog. I would never take Dolly on a Bucket List. I know what her list is, to be on the couch with me, or on walks to her favorite park. That’s it, maybe a car ride to a favorite walking place. So I’m with you the more time you can spend with her the better, doing what she loves. I also believe in quality of life, if I think my pet is suffering for one minute I will make the decision, not prolong their life just because I can’t let them go. Maggie is so lucky that you choose her.
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  9. My mom has had this experience with two of her dogs. She says it’s horrible, but she also remembers it as a time when she treasured every precious moment with her beloved Riki and then again with Rab. She was certain that both dogs knew they were seriously ill and marvelled at their spirit and resilience, but also their acceptance. She and they spent many hours together, two loving souls sharing the stillness.

  10. This post made me cry shoulder shaking hard. We have also had to decide when the time was right for our dogs. You feel terrible praying that they would go on their own in their sleep one night, but I always found myself asking for that reprieve. As far as what happens after they leave us, I don’t know but I have had some true signs that they are still with us. Here is a post that I wrote about my recent experience. http://bit.ly/1Joc9D7
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  11. This has me crying for my sweet Daisy girl. I was with her when she died and I knew I needed to be strong and not let her see me cry. I told her how wonderful she was and how she saved my life and made me a better person and that I will send her heart kisses every single night. I collapsed when she was gone but I knew I gave her all the love and she knew it. There is never enough time. Beautiful post.
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  12. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt article. We’ve dealt with severe illnesses and fought successfully through most of them until the last. Roxy became ill on Sunday and was set free on Tuesday. That’s how fast things got bad. Bruin was declining slowly but calmly; his heart became weaker and weaker but it was peaceful decline. Jasmine fought some major battles and always came on top. Before her neck got bad she looked happy and as if she had at least two good years in her. We struggled for couple of months trying to get her better and she was improving. We were planning on winning that battle like those in the past. And then everything went wrong at once and things went to hell quickly. Letting her go was the last thing I wanted to do. But her hope of getting to doing things she loved and having the life she wanted were too small and she was suffering too badly. That last horror lasted only couple of days where at first we hoped things would turn around … But they did not. We did what we felt was the best thing to do for her.
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    • That’s all you can do – is what you think is best for them. Our Sally went quickly too – fine Saturday morning and gone Sunday evening. I still feel some angst over that, but she was in terrible pain. It’s so hard being a pet parent sometimes.
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  13. I started crying when I first read this post this morning. So much so that I had to put it down and take Shadow and Ducky outside (in the rain). That morning when we said goodbye to Callie she and I were already at the vet. Upon examining her, he said “anything else we could do now we would be doing for us, not her…” Deep down, I knew he was right but I had a hard time accepting it. The day before she had rallied for a few hours and was actually running around the yard with Shadow, chasing the tennis ball. I finally accepted the fact that Callie needed me to let her go when I saw the look in her eyes at the vet’s office as I was getting ready to bring her home one last time. I couldn’t ask her to find the strength to get in the car again. It would have been too much for her. It hurt so much that it felt like someone was trying to crush my entire body. But my poor girl was hurting much more than I was and there was only one way to end that suffering. It still hurts, but I get through each day by reminding myself that Callie isn’t hurting any more.

    I personally believe that our beloved pets’ spirits are always with us, watching over us like guardian angels. And when we need them, they find a way to “visit” us. In fact, Callie made her presence known to me again earlier this evening. And I still feel her sweet, loving energy nearby. And all the photos I’ve taken over the eleven years she was here make me smile through the tears.

    This is an excellent post, Kate. As Will said, you did an exceptional job of articulating very difficult/painful thoughts. I had many similar thoughts during those three weeks between Callie’s lymphoma diagnosis and the morning we said goodbye; but I found it difficult to write them down without breaking down. And, for the most part, I spent as much time as I could loving on her, playing with her and her sisters, taking photos, and taking care of her when she didn’t feel well. She knew she was loved deeply and wholeheartedly by all of us. She still is, and always will be.

    I know you guys love Maggie as much as we love Callie. She is a lucky girl to have you. Enjoy whatever time she has left. Godspeed!
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    • So sorry to bring up painful memories, but I think it’s somewhat cathartic to remember and release some of that pent up sadness. They fight hard to stay with us don’t they, they know how important they are in our lives. I agree with you – their spirits are always in our hearts.
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  14. I am sorry to hear that Maggie’s limp is back. I know you’ve been doing everything you can for her. Thank you for this post. We’ve just received the news in the last few days that the lumps removed from our Sheba were cancerous, that it was not possible to obtain clean margins, and that the cancer will likely be back more quickly this time (it’s been 9 months since the first lump was removed), and possibly show up in her lungs. I’m still just digesting it all, and it’s so much to take in. For now we are going to try to make the most of each day….her incision is healing well and she’s feeling good. Once we get those stitches out we hope that she will be able to go back to just playing and being happy for the time she has left.
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    • Cancer sucks. I’m so sorry to hear that about Sheba. Here’s hoping she has much more time with you.
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  15. Thank you for this post, it was beautiful and came from the heart that will help out so many people living with terminally ill pets. I remember you telling me this “when you have a terminally ill dog, it can never be too early, but you can be too late”, it does stick with you as I listened to those words when I was trying to decide when to say goodbye to Norman. I now say that line to many clients at work and I hope it helps them out like it helped me out. Thank you! Hugs to Maggie and I hope you get many more months with her.
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  16. My sister had to put down her 18 year old kitty that had advanced kidney disease. Sis had a hospice vet come to their home to do the euthanasia. I guess this vet not only does euthanasia, but also sees animals that are terminally ill before it is time for euthanasia. I think she may also counsel about when it is time. My sis felt better about their decision after meeting with her and after she examined her kitty. I agree with you that sometimes it is hard to know when to say good bye. I hope Maggie has many more months.
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