Can we really sense our pets’ needs?

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golden retriever nose

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu said the wisest people are present to whatever the moment brings.

Our animal companions seem to “live in the moment” naturally. For example, when we sit down to rest on a sunny day with our dog or horse – or, sometimes, our cat – we may all have our eyes half-closed. But if you sneak a glance at your dog, his or her nostrils are often all a-quiver and his ears too.

Dogs’ ears are one indicator of their mood and can move independent of each other. Cats’ ears can also move independently: often when a cat seems to be snoozing you’ll see an ear rotate like a funnel, to catch some sound that we may not hear ourselves. It’s fun to watch! Horses’ ears are like that too. And, of course, mules’ and donkeys’…

mule listening with head cockedMost people find that being relaxed but attentive is pleasurable. Our pets also seem to enjoy being in this state. Down the road, their ability to enjoy the world around them may help us recognise whether they still have `a life worth living’.

Making that judgment for someone else is a huge responsibility that we can easily get wrong. (It’s why doctors and lawyers encourage each of us to make our own advanced care plans and appoint a Power of Attorney. If we don’t, we may find ourselves stuck with care that others think we want but we do not, and we won’t be able to tell them…)

We all want to do the right thing for our pets

We all want to do the right thing for our pets and we use terms like quality of life, best interests, suffering. They are important and useful ideas. They can also mean different things to different people. Also, the best of us can be biased or blinded by our other work or ideas. The animal welfare scholar and ethicist Professor Bernard Rollin described his regrets when he realised he had not noticed the first signs that his beloved dog had reached a point of no return.

Having “blind spots” and biases are potential pitfalls of our quick-thinking, human brains. But our brains can be such a help too. We can ponder our pets’ final days well before times of necessary decisions arrive. We can work out what to watch out for, and how to double-check. We can see how we feel about different general care-plans. We can question our assumptions. Always, we can exercise compassion for ourselves—and for our critters.

The next few posts will suggest some things to ponder, starting with the questions: Who decides about our pets’ life and death, and how?

Over to you. We can’t advise on individual cases, but we’d like to hear from you on our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram.

Caroline Hewson


Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS
Caroline Hewson is a vet and has a PhD in animal behaviour. She writes and gives talks that translate research relevant to pets’ end of life into points to keep in mind. 


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If you are facing the loss of a pet companion, or are recently bereaved, you may find this resource useful.