End of Life, Pet Loss and Grief Support
End of Life Decisions
Although treatment options are available for many types of cancer, sometimes intensive anticancer treatment is not a good choice with an incurable disease. Decisions need to be made about how to best care for your pet to ensure they have as good a quality of life as possible for as long as possible. Planning end of life care is also important. Knowing when the time to say good-bye is approaching brings with it many emotions and feelings that can make end of life decisions difficult.
Even though your pet has been diagnosed with cancer, this does not mean that this is an immediate death sentence. Many pets, just like people, are living with cancer and leading a good a quality of life. In many ways, cancer is like the other chronic and incurable diseases such as heart or kidney failure. There are many ways we can support our pets with chronic diseases to live with their disease.
Our Survivors Celebrated page offers you an opportunity to post a photo with your pet's cancer story while they are living with cancer. Your stories are a source of support and hope for others whose pets are affected with cancer.
For information and advice on caring for a pet with terminal cancer please read or download one of our information sheets.
Caring for a cat with terminal cancer
Caring for a dog with terminal cancer
Once an incurable diagnosis has been made and the prognosis for your pet is poor, it may be a matter of days or weeks of survival that you are faced with. You will need to make some tough decisions at this time and you will likely wish to discuss with your vet practice how best to care for your pet. In many cases, when your pet is still comfortable and relatively healthy, palliative or hospice style home care is an option to allow you to plan the next steps. In some cases, the kindest decision may be to opt for euthanasia, particularly if you pet is in pain and suffering.
When is it time to say good-bye?
Knowing when the time to say good-bye is approaching brings with it many emotions and feelings that can make end of life decisions difficult.
For many patients, cancer (or another chronic disease) will result in their death. While we would all like our pets to die in their sleep, this is extremely uncommon and most pets who die naturally will suffer a degree of pain and discomfort at the end. Euthanasia is the final gift we can give our much-loved pets when the time is right. Like any other treatment, euthansia can be planned and scheduled to allow you time to prepare. The etymology of euthanasia is that the word comes from the early 17th century: from Greek eu ‘well' or ‘good' + thanatos ‘death' to form what is literally called a ‘good death'. The challenge is that it can be hard to know how soon that time will come. It's rather like being on a slope halfway up a mountain– you know that at the end you will be at the bottom, but you don't know how steep the slope will be. The speed of deterioration can also change.
Knowing that your pet has a cancer which will ultimately be the reason that you need to let them go can be difficult and distressing. It is emotionally exhausting for everyone involved in the care of that pet. However, it also gives us the chance to plan their end of life so that their final day is as good as it can be.
Many pets with cancer are otherwise well but the location of the cancer may mean that one aspect of their life is poor. As a pet owner, you know your pet better than anyone and, in most cases, will know when it is time to let them go. However, if you are not certain you will know then talk to your vet about the things to look out for.
Generally, most of us feel that it is better to let a pet pass away before their quality of life is seriously affected. Many owners report that their only regret was waiting too long before ending their pet's suffering.
When making end of life decisions, there is a lot to think about including:
- Whether you would like to have euthanasia performed at home or at the vets. Many vet practices have a special room where they will meet with you to discuss and perform the procedure.
- Does your pet have a favourite place, food or activity that you would like them to be able to experience on its final day?
- Who needs to say goodbye and who wants to be present during the euthanasia procedure?
- What would like to happen after your pet has passed away?
- Do you want any mementos such as hair or paw prints?
- Do you want to have your pet cremated or would you prefer to have them buried?
- Do you want to have an individual cremation and get your pets ashes back to keep or scatter at a place that was special for you both?
It can be helpful to start having conversations about these issues well in advance of your pet's final day. Keeping a note of the things you will need or want for that day makes it easier to remember them when the time comes.
After your pet has passed away it is natural to feel grief. This may manifest as anger, guilt and/or sadness. Grief varies widely, with some people feeling affected for a prolonged period and others seeming to recover quite quickly. It can resurface at any time in the future.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of your pet but there are organisations that can support you during the grieving process. Society is starting to appreciate how the loss of a pet can be at least as difficult, and sometimes worse than the loss of a family member.
Pet Loss and Grief Support
Grieving for the loss of a pet is often a sad and difficult experience. Life once filled with their love and friendship may suddenly seem very empty and feelings of despair and loneliness are not uncommon.
It can help to share these feelings with someone who knows from personal experience how distressing the loss of a pet can be, and who will listen with compassion and without judgement.
Below are several sites that offer support to those who have lost a pet.
The site was set up by vet Shailen Jasani (MA VetMB MRCVS DipACVECC)
Established in July 2011 as a not-for-profit website providing support to pet owners around the loss of a beloved companion, with excellent downloadable and printable resources and both public and private Facebook groups.
Cats Protection has a site with information on grief and loss of a pet cat
Helpguide.org website has a section on pet loss with some very helpful information on the loss of a pet.
The Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) of Blue Cross is also useful and offers several ways of communicating with them.
PBBS is dedicated to offering support and understanding to bereaved pet owners through a national network of trained volunteer telephone and email befrienders. All calls and emails are treated confidentially and the support line is open from 8.30am - 8.30pm every day. You can chat with a trained volunteer using the online chat function, complete an online form and you will receive a response via e-mail within 48 hours, you can find support from people who have been through pet loss on the Blue Cross pet loss support community on Facebook or you contact the service by telephone at 0800 096 6606 or by e-mail to email@example.com.
There are many other websites that offer support when you lose a pet, including the RSPCA