Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Palative care for terminally ill and elderly dogs.

Dogs do not live as long as people, or parrots, or horses...we know from the moment that we allow a dog into our life that we are likely to outlive our canine companion. Most of us have difficulty with saying goodbye to a beloved friend. Some people will choose to do everything that is medically and financially possible to extend the life of a canine.

My personal belief system includes the idea that life is temporary for all of us and that the quality of our existence is meaningful; for dogs quality of life means more than quantity, because dogs do not have a sense of time that allows them to contemplate the future or lack of future. They live in the moment and if the current moment is not comfortable, combined with too many uncomfortable moments clouding their time, then they are not having a good quality of life. They are surviving and hoping for relief from pain.

When living with an elderly and/or ill dog, it is important to monitor them for signs that life is still giving them a reasonable amount of pleasure and not a burdensome level of pain. Does the dog wince, or react when touched, held, picked up - or do they still enjoy a brief game or shuffling walk around the block? Do they enjoy eating or are they reluctant to eat even what is usually a high value treat, i.e. the really good stuff? Are they easily confused? Do they seem anxious and uncertain where they are, or do they still just need a sniff to know who is in the room?

Some dogs age with grace and some find the loss of vision, hearing, and mobility very distressing. As care-givers we must learn to read our canine friend's body language and behavior. We are responsible for providing pain management while it is possible to manage their pain. When it is no longer possible to provide the quality of life that outweighs the discomfort and confusion, we need to marshal our strength and allow them a dignified exit from their suffering.

Sooner or later I think we all look at a beloved canine companion and wonder, "will I know when it is time?" and "How will I manage in their absence?" As the wonder-collie Jenny ages, I note her face becoming greyer and some days her joints, despite the supplements, seem a little stiffer. She and I both have days when we have to get up and move a little before look reasonably mobile. Additionally, we have another senior canine in our mix, His Majesty Chi Chi, Lord Sovereign of all he Surveys and Chief Administrator of Verbal Reprimands.

His Majesty and I have entered a new phase of life - we're both having to come to terms with connective tissue disorders - turns out he has his and I have mine. We're more simpatico then we even realized on first sight. We both are going to have good days and shaky days, and days when it is with reluctance that we leave our bed. We are in agreement, however, that we want our good days to be very good, and our so-so days to be manageable.

I know if I want this standard of more bearable moments than unbearable - and I can look forward to future lower-pain events -  then it is even more important for the canines in my life to only be asked to carry on while they are comfortable. They can only live in the present. Once one is no longer able to keep a canine comfortable in more moments than not, then it is time to seriously reconsider what we are demanding of them.

Let us all learn to be more like our doggy friends; let us enjoy the pleasure of each day, whatever that means for us as individuals. Let us revel in all the good moments we are allowed to share with those who matter most to us.
Do not borrow tomorrow's trouble today; trust yourself to do what is best for your companions when the time comes for those decisions, until then, be as present in the current moment as possible.


  1. this is a very wise post. I believe its very important to attend to a dogs feelings and alleviate pain as needed and when it must happen to say goodbye. I do tend to seek vetrinary intervention, and I would not hesitate to do treatment on a very elderly dog for cancer if the dog was in good spirits and felt well. However, I believe that when quality of life diminishes to the point the dog is not enjoying life then its time to say goodbye, as painful as that is, of course the same goes for cats. I cared for a terminally ill pug for 2 yrs. He had a wheelchair cart and was incontinent and we cleaned him and made him comfortable. I believe he was only really uncomfortable for the last two days of his life when his appetite failed and then we said goodbye. Im not a "traditionally", what ever that means, religious person so I dont tend to get comfort from the idea of the rainbow bridge, like many people do. However, I agree with you that life is fleeting and death is a natural part of life, as hard as that is to except, I like to think of the inteconnectdness of all life when I am faced with a death. I also always think of what the astronomer Carl Sagan used to say. Our bodies are made of star stuff, because all of our building blocks came from the big bang, so when we look up at the stars we are litterally seeing part of ourselves and all living things

    urban hounds

    1. I had a good friend whose senior small breed dog developed a spinal problem - he chose to spend limited resources on surgery and a cart for her, which his friends actually supported because the dog was so important to him. Ironically, the dog went on to not only recover use of her legs, but unexpectedly outlived my friend by over three years. We cannot know what life will bring us and I believe every individual should have the right to decide how to spend their money and set their priorities for what is 'valuable' as long as no one is suffering as a result.

      My friend's dog never appeared to have an uncomfortable moment and continued to race around and play both with her cart and when she regained use of her backend. There were actually several sets of caregivers in place when my friend died who were willing to take care of the dog and they wisely choose her final home based on who the dog was most familiar and comfortable with. This is of course an unusual set of circumstances and I mention it because I don't think anyone can say, "you should NEVER..." or "you should ALWAYS..." each set of circumstances is individual.

      I really like the idea of looking up and seeing my previous friends and companions in the stars and cosmic dust around us :-)

  2. I think the point you make about dogs living in the moment is an important one. It's something we all need to think about, but not spoil our good times together with worrying about what may come.

    1. Yes, there is much to be said for enjoying the moment at hand - these are also the moments tha twill form the memories we will enjoy in the future.

  3. Love this post and Urban Hounds comment touched me so. Almost all of my many dogs lived to be seniors and almost all succumbed to a major health event/illness. We've been fortunate to have vets that understood how we felt about intervention (which depended on the dog) and made themselves available to us at our home when we felt the time came to help our beloveds leave this world. Actually, that's true of our other animals, too.

    And now I've gone on a head trip... remembering. So many dear critters. So much joy. So much death. So much responsibility. Words fail me.

    1. We didn't mean to send you tripping ;-)

      It is a lot of responsability, and love, and fun, and at moments pain. Given all that, I cannot imagine choosing to live without dogs. I've known some people who having loved one dog 'never want to go through that again' and that is not a choice I could make. My life has known such great richness as a result of so many special, unique, and really lovely dogs.

  4. Great post. It is always so hard to know if you are making the right decision when it comes to our furry friends. I also think the point about dogs living in the moment is an important one and had never thought about it that way until I read your post.

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