On a cold, Portland evening, in March of 2012, my partner drove me and my beloved 14-year-old chihuahua, Sonja, to Dove Lewis Emergency Hospital. We were headed there to have Sonja euthanized. She was still seizing while we drove there, the last seizure she'd have during her year-long struggle with Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism). When Sonja was first diagnosed with Cushing's disease, the vet advised that she could be treated with medication. Unfortunately, due to her age and small size, there were very serious side effects to consider, including death. I learned all I could about the disease, the side effects of treatment, and possible alternative care solutions. Ultimately, I decided that changing her diet, providing her with nutritional supplements, and keeping her as comfortable as possible was the best solution for her particular situation. During the year that we dealt with her disease, changing her diet seemed to help. She still had occasional seizures, but that was to be expected. And, during those times, I just stayed near her side, made sure she didn't hurt herself (comforted her, but didn't "restrain" her), and made sure I kept her close while she recovered. As time inched forward, however, the seizures—once short and sporadic—eventually began to occur more frequently, lasted longer, and took her longer to recuperate from.
On the evening we drove Sonja to Dove Lewis, she was having seizures about once per week. The question wasn't ever When should we euthanize her because she's close to death? but rather When will we euthanize her because her quality of life seems to have significantly diminished? During that last seizure, we both knew that the time had come to help our best friend of 14 years pass peacefully away from the disease that changed all our lives and forced us to make those "hard decisions" no one wants to make.
I share this story because, within this past month, I've had two long-time clients whose pets are in the latter stages of their lives. Each dog's quality of life seems to be slowly (but most surely) deteriorating, and "arrangements" need to be made—now—in preparation for the inevitable. As difficult as it is to talk about end-of-life decisions for pets, your pet caretaker absolutely *must* be included in the conversation, especially when your ailing pets have been left in their care.
It should be noted that before beginning any pet care services for new clients, I have them complete a few required forms (general health information, veterinary release permission, etc.). During our initial consultation, we go over the forms together and discuss all the important details. Before services begin, I always work with clients to determine a procedure for dealing with emergencies. One of the points I like to cover is that, while I *am* trained to handle many emergency situations, it is my goal to prevent emergencies before they happen. Any pet care provider you hire to watch your pet should have similar protocols... but, I digress.
Aging and terminally ill pets require extra care and attention from pet care providers. So, when families use my long-term/extended services to care for their pets while they're traveling, I make sure we talk about the "what ifs." That is, what if something happens during my care? Do pet parents want me to take them immediately to their vet? Do pet parents already have a on-call vet who will provide an in-home emergency visit? If it's clear that the pet is in pain and immediate action needs to be taken, do pet parents want every action taken to keep their furry friend alive until they return, or do they want me to handle the situation as best I can, with the instructions they've provided?
So... in case you haven't talked about it yet, here are some options:
If you haven't already spoken with your veterinarian and made some sort of arrangements (transporting to the vet's office, having her or him come to your home, or having after-hours, in-home euthanasia services provided by your vet), Dove Lewis, a 24-hour emergency animal hospital located in Portland's Northwest neighborhood, provides a warm, welcoming, and quiet environment for you to say your final good-byes to pets. From my personal experience with them (during Sonja's illness), we were attended to quickly, given a quiet room in which to spend some final moments with Sonja, and treated compassionately by the vet who performed the euthanasia service.
A relatively newer option (and one I wish had been around when I had Sonja) is Blue Door Veterinary Services. In addition to offering mobile veterinary care for pets, they also provide in-home euthanasia services for families who are ready to help their furry friends say goodbye in the comfort of their own homes. You don't have to be an established client of theirs to receive services; however, they are only able to offer their services during their normal operating hours (unless you've made previous arrangements with them).
For after-hours emergencies, in addition to in-home euthanasia, Blue Door recommends contacting Compassionate Care. Per their website: "Compassionate Care is a local mobile veterinary service dedicated to providing peaceful cat and dog euthanasia in the privacy and stress-free environment of home for pets in the Portland and Salem, OR, and Vancouver, WA, and outlying areas." Aftercare
If you own your own home, you can bury pets and honor them with burial markers. If you decide to bury pet remains, be sure to dig deep enough so that the remains don't attract digging scavengers... three feet, at the very least. Before digging, be sure to call your local utilities office so that they can mark the ground for any buried gas/water/sewer/power lines. What's nice about at-home burial is that you have the option to make it as simple or elaborate as you want. Say a few simple words, or create a beautiful casket, memorialize the spot by planting a tree... it's up to you. If you don't have a patch of land to call your own, you may opt to have your pets cremated. If you've had your pet euthanized at your vet's office, or by the in-home services mentioned above, they will handle cremation services for you, using the crematory companies they work with. Just be sure to indicate how you want the remains cremated... communally or privately. If you want to ensure you receive your pet's ashes back, opt for private cremation. Memorializing How you decide to remember your pets is a very personal choice. But, the number of options available to help you decide are pretty extensive. Talk to your vet about what sort of options they, specifically, provide (each may be a little bit different). For example, Blue Door Veterinary Services offers paw prints (both impressions cast in clay and in print using ink), fur clippings, and private and communal cremation services. Some vets also offer the option of providing urns for the ashes. Or, you could purchase your own and have it engraved (I'm thinking specifically of the keepsake boxes offered through Things Remembered that a friend of mine had made). What's nice about this option is that you have a large selection to choose from, anything from porcelain to wood, with a beautiful and engrave-able plaque that can be customized to read anything your heart desires.
While I had all my pets cremated, I was finally able to bury them beneath a weeping cherry tree in the front yard, when I purchased my home. However, I held back a few ashes from Sonja and Clover (my cat) and had necklaces made by having their ashes fused in glass. Each bead had a silver band wrapped around it with the first letter of their names stamped on the band. For the most part, they remain safely tucked away in my jewelry box; however, during family gatherings and holidays, I wear them (quite literally) next to my heart.
My partner had his pet memorialized with a tattoo. His dog, Rocket, is now iconified in the form of a bright red rocket ship on his forearm. If you wanted to take it a step further, you can ask your tattoo artist to mix the ashes in with some tattoo ink, to create a "memorial tattoo." The black in most tattoo pigments is a bone black/carbon black, which is obtained from burned bones (which is why vegans avoid traditional tattoo inks).
If using the ashes of your deceased pets underneath your skin seems a bit *too much*, you could also use their ashes in regular paint and have pet portraits made. Really... the possibilities are endless, and I've only scratched the surface, in regard to ideas for memorializing your pets. Whatever you decide, make it uniquely your own. Each person's experiences with their pets, and how they choose to have them memorialized, is a very personal experience.
Grieving and Letting Go
The most important thing to remember when your dearest furry friends pass away is that YOU WILL (and should) GRIEVE! Grieving is a natural part of dealing with loss. In addition to reaching out to friends and family for support, there are a plethora of organizations out there willing to help you cope with, and heal from, your loss. There really just are too many to list here, but a simple, online search for "pet loss" brings up the most visited and well-known organizations out there. And, while I don't mean to intentionally gloss over "grieving" and "letting go" (let's admit it... that could be a whole post, unto itself), I mention it here mostly to acknowledge its rightful role in the pet loss process.
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Whew! I don't normally go this deep into the heavy stuff, but recent pet care services provided to clients' aging pets dictated that I must! It's never a light topic, but (as mentioned earlier) certainly one that will eventually need to be discussed... especially when caring for elderly/sick pets. I promise that my next post will be a bit more lighthearted. Maybe instead of talking about what you can do when your pets die, I'll turn it on its head and discuss what your pets will do when it's your turn to move onto the great beyond! (Here's a hint... they will eat you when you die!)