A Loving Goodbye: 5 Tips for Pet Owners Exploring End-of-Life Care for Their Loyal Companions
March 11, 2023 at 2:55 p.m.
...by Dr. Sara Hopkins
Consider your Pet’s Quality of Life
An animal’s quality of life is not only about pain management or physical health, but their mental health as well. Are they able to do the things they love, or do they seem anxious and stressed? Do they still engage with you or are they spending more time by themselves? Are they frustrated because they need help with basic tasks such as standing up, eating, and drinking?
It is also important to think about your own emotional well-being and quality of life. Caring for a sick or elderly pet can be demanding, both physically and emotionally. “Caregiver fatigue” can affect those looking after their 4-legged companions as much as their 2-legged family members. If you are struggling, it is important to seek help.
Making the decision to euthanize your pet is incredibly difficult under any circumstance. Even when the brain tells you the time is ‘right,’ the heart never wants to let go. Having compassionate support and guidance surrounding this decision can make it a little less awful.
Consult with a Veterinarian
This is also the best time to discuss euthanasia and aftercare. Families have options and may need time to process and decide what is best for their situation.
Understanding the Euthanasia Process
While losing a pet is undeniably heart wrenching, the actual good-bye is gentle, loving and beautiful.
The actual process involves an initial injection (under the skin) of a heavy sedative or anesthetic plus pain medication. Once the pet is completely unaware (heavily sedated or anesthetized) the final euthanasia injection is given, and the pet will pass quickly. The final good-bye can take place wherever the pet and the family are the most comfortable in the home and should never be rushed. From the pet’s perspective, they are drifting off to sleep in their home, surrounded by the people who love them the most.
When it comes to cremation, owners now have a choice between traditional flame-based cremation, or a newer water-based cremation. Water-based cremation, or aquamation, is a gentle process involving warm water and alkali salts and has fewer environmental impacts than does flame-based cremation. Less energy is used, and no fossil fuels are burned. Because there are no emissions as in flame-based cremation, owners receive approximately 20% more ‘ash’ with aquamation (yes, owners choosing private cremation still receive the cremated ‘ash’ of their companion).
There are also memorial items such as ink prints or clay prints that can be made prior to cremation. Some of these may be offered by the veterinarian who helped with the good-bye, and some may be offered by the crematorium. These options should ideally be discussed early in the end-of-life planning discussion. There are now many memorial items available that can incorporate ashes into items such as jewelry, glass art, planters and more.
The most important thing to realize when it comes to aftercare is that there is no right or wrong path, but an owner should know all their options. Aftercare is an extremely personal choice and should be respected.
For some people, crafts or activities can be cathartic in honoring their pet. Creating a scrapbook or photo book with funny stories of their life can often bring smiles among tears. Plant a tree in their honor. Go for a walk on their favorite trail. Donate to an animal rescue group in memory of your companion. The list is endless. If you want to do something, do what speaks to your heart.
Anticipating and preparing for your pet’s end-of-life journey is not easy. And it isn’t supposed to be! But it is the price we pay for having these amazing companions in our lives.
Dr. Sara Hopkins is the founder of Compassion 4 Paws, an in-home end-of-life care for pets service in the Northwest. She is aveterinary professional with over two decades of experience in the field. In 2020, she was honored to join the IAAHPC Board of Directors and became President of the nonprofit in 2023.
With a passion for working with animals, Sara completed her veterinary education at Washington State University and went on to obtain her Certification in Veterinary Acupuncture through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2013. In 2013, she started Compassion 4 Paws to help pets and their parents through the end-of-life journey. In 2017, Sara became one of the first veterinarians in the world to achieve certification in Animal Hospice and Palliative Care through the IAAHPC, furthering her knowledge and ability to support pets and their families.
Sara lives in Edmonds, Washington with her husband Dennis, their son, and their furry friends, including dogs George and Roy, and cats Sushi and Freddie Purr-cury. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, camping, reading, crafting, and spending time with friends. With her passion and commitment to providing compassionate care to pets, Sara Hopkins is a true advocate for animal welfare.