Living with a Terminally Ill Pet
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.
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.
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.