Making decisions when our older pets become ill or infirm

Coping with the burden of uncertainty

sad labrador pet loss

The Royal Veterinary College in London has a massive and growing database. It’s part of the VetCompass project, which looks at the lifespans and illnesses of pets.

Sure enough, our pets typically live long but tend to get chronic illnesses. That’s true of us, too. And, rather like some families, some breeds of pet tend to have longer lifespans than others.

Resources like VetCompass supply many interesting facts. However, they make no guarantees for individuals. The weather forecast is the same.

As I write this, the BBC Weather app shows the probability of sleet right now is 99%. Rereading this post 45 minutes later, the probability is 97%. But so far the day has been dry and mild, and the sky looks as if it could stay that way.woman with umbrella

Uncertainty about a sick pet can be very worrying

The unavoidable uncertainty with the weather doesn’t normally matter too much or bother us. But, when a pet is very sick or is ageing, uncertainty about what to expect when, or what to do for the best, can be very difficult and worrying. It is a burden according to most dictionary definitions.

With everyday physical burdens—like buckets of stones and earth from the garden, or boxes of jumbled “stuff” up in the attic—we manage best if we can balance them.

To do that, we have to find our centre of gravity. Sometimes, we have to stop and rearrange the contents of our load. We may need to accept some guidance—and ignore other suggestions. Otherwise, we might trip up and that could be disastrous.

Perhaps, facing major decisions for a very frail or injured or sick pet can be a bit like that. Each relationship is unique and the decisions involve more than cool facts and logic, or a rush of emotion. Decision-making touches on our values and on the many responsibilities that may also be burdening us.

A sick pet can make us confront our own fears about death

older catAlso, our pet’s situation may put us in touch with our fears about our own death and dying, or that of loved ones. Add in uncertainty and it’s no surprise if we dread these times of necessary decisions for our pets. Heroic treatment or animal hospice? Euthanasia now? Soon? Or, see how we go? What to do?

Other people want to help and support us, but they may not always `get’ it.

‘It’s only a dog’, one may say. Another may be reassured if we tell them ‘it is what it is’. The person may say to us ‘be strong’—as if it is weak to admit that What Is is sad, or unnatural to weep for it…

Facing what we can in advance can make a big difference

Facing what we can in advance can make a big difference when times for decisions arrive. For example, we might gradually ponder and review our ideas, nourish our inner strength, and talk to our vets and wise others. Most of us would probably consult the internet, too.

That’s where this blog may come in. It isn’t about answers. But, I will try to provide a varied mixture of musings and nuggets.

Over to you! 
Do you prefer not to think about serious things—death, life, dying?
Are they a normal topic of conversation when you get together with friends?
What is your favourite quote or your favourite source of wisdom?

Caroline Hewson


Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS
Caroline 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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