Navigating Your Pet’s Health Changes: From Fear to Gratitude

Dog and man in landscape

Your pet is healthy and happy…you are enjoying being together and your day-to-day activities and routines. Suddenly, something happens with your animal’s health that turns your world upside down. Maybe you found a lump, maybe he or she is not acting like themselves and seems “off”, or maybe they seem to be in pain or discomfort. Or perhaps, you have been watching them age, have observed health changes for a while and you have been managing the situation well, but now something has shifted to a much different level. All of a sudden you are now faced with making new decisions you weren’t expecting. You find yourself overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, stress, sadness, frustration and anger…

How do you navigate this path? How do you know what to do? What are the best possible treatment decisions that are right for your animal? How do you cope with this situation while managing all of your other life responsibilities and taking care of yourself?

women & dobie

Treatment Decision-Making For Your Pet

You know your animal better than anyone else. YOU are his or her best advocate. No one can know what is the best decision for you, your animal, and your family other than you and your family. Trust this and yourself. In order to be empowered to make clear veterinary decisions for your animal, it is important that you fully understand your pet’s condition and all of the medical, treatment, and supportive options available.

Young family with a dog

  1. If the medical information seems unclear or confusing, ask questions. Do not be afraid to ask for clarity or additional feedback from your pet’s veterinary care team. Write your questions or concerns down, and provide those to your veterinarian(s). Ask your veterinary team for written resources or articles about the condition or illness, and recommended treatment options.
  2. Give yourself time and space to process and assess. You need to digest the information and the options, while also navigating your feelings. As part of your process, expect that you will need to get more information and re-assess.
  3. Develop and write a working “care plan”. This care plan will change/evolve and you can re-assess it at any time. If you have multiple veterinary providers, you may find that you will need to be the one to coordinate your animal’s care with each provider. If so, be sure that each member on your veterinary/support care team is aware of each other’s involvement and recommendations, and has the information needed from one another.
  4. Determine your information preferences. Some people want to have a lot of information to help them know what to expect or are comforted by a lot of diagnostic information. While others find this stressful and overwhelming. What works best for you?
  5. What is your goal for care? What are you aiming for? 
  6. What are your pet’s needs?
  • Are there curative options? Is there a reasonable chance of high quality of life? Are comfort/palliative, hospice care options for your pet?
  • How much additional quality time may treatment offer? How much additional quality time will comfort/palliative or hospice care provide?
  • How many of your pet’s activities will still be doable? (make a list and review it on an ongoing basis – daily, weekly, monthly, etc.)
  • Is he or she suffering or struggling with basic tasks (drinking, eating, urinating, mobility)?
  • Is there hope of alleviating and/or managing pain?
  • What do you think your pet would want? Each animal is different and our relationships with each of our pets are very unique to us. What may work well or be a good option for one pet, may not work well for another. Consider this as you navigate your decisions.

bunny kisses

7. What are your needs?

  • Do you have the financial resources to handle either short-term or long-term care? Do you have the emotional resources or social support system to help or to co-caregive with you?
  • Do you have the physical, emotional stamina and day-to-day schedule required to be a caregiver for your animal? (for example, taking to multiple veterinary appointments, giving medications, special dietary needs, getting up/staying up during the night, cleaning up, assisting with hygiene/bathroom needs, etc.). Being an animal caregiver can be emotionally and physically taxing and simultaneously beautiful and incredibly rewarding. 
  • Is the quality of your relationship with your animal declining?
  • What are your personal values, religious or spiritual beliefs regarding quality of life and end-of-life care?
  • What is your “deal breaker” for quality of life?
  • When would it be appropriate to take steps towards resuscitating or deciding not to resuscitate?
  • What are your thoughts about euthanasia? Would you want euthanasia to occur at the veterinary clinic, at home, or in another setting that is special to you and your pet? Would you want to be present, or elect not to be present?
  • What are your plans for your animal’s remains? Would you want a home burial, cemetery burial, cremation?
  • When you one day reflect back on this time, what do you want to remember? What is most important to you? What decisions can you live with, what will help you feel proud and grateful?

woman hand petting a cat head, love to animals

The following links are helpful in assessing your pet’s quality of life, and determining your values around end-of-life care:

Navigating Your Anticipatory Grief and Integrating Self-Care

Understand anticipatory grief and the common emotions experienced. If your pet is seriously injured, aging, chronically or terminally ill, you may find that you are grieving the changes in their health or their impending death. This is called anticipatory grief and it is very real. It is different from and does not replace the reactions one experiences following a loved one’s death.

A wonderful book about navigating anticipatory loss with our beloved animals is:

The Legacy of Beezer and Boomer: Lessons on Living and Dying from My Canine Brothers, by Doug Koktavy:

beezer and boomer

  1. Don’t be afraid to reschedule, cancel things, or put things “on hold”. 
  2. Prioritize what is most important to you. Create boundaries and communicate this to others.
  3. Be proactive about the things in your life that are calming and grounding for you, and do them. Avoid the things or people that are stressful.
  4. Live in the present with your animal. This is one of the most important things you can do. It is very tempting to worry about the future or feel guilt, regret about the past. However, living in the past or future is stealing away your present time…the here-and-now…with your animal. One of the most beautiful traits about our pets is that they live in the present. Embrace this gift they offer us every day and do the same for them. 
  5. Feel what you need to feel. You’re likely to feel a mix of  feeling numb, fear, grief, disappointment, anger, frustration, well as relief, joy, and gratitude. This is the emotional roller-coaster ride. Don’t resist or suppress it – honor it. And, know that you also need to take breaks from the roller-coaster ride. Trust that what you feel right now is normal and know your feelings will continue to shift.
  6. Incorporate movement or physical exercise. Whether this be walking, running, yoga, dance, massage, hiking or swimming, exercise helps you feel better physically and emotionally. It also helps your feelings move through your body so as not to get stuck.
  7. Practice self-care. Eat well, sleep, listen to music, write, sing, watch your favorite movies, read, meditate, pray, take deep breaths, surround yourself with beauty and nature. Cuddle and enjoy moments and making memories with your animal. Find what works for you and do it.
  8. Laugh. Find laughter in the small things that make you smile. Find joy and gratitude in the antics and behaviors that you treasure in your animal.
  9. Find someone who is a “generous listener” and knows how to hold space. Get help, seek out support from a counselor, a trusted friend, or a community of like-minded individuals. Understand that different people in our lives can provide us with different types of support. Some cannot or do not have the capacity to provide the support we need. Figure out what support means to you and match that up with those in your life who are willing to give that to you. Let go of holding resentments…do not waste your precious time or energy on this. Instead, focus positive and loving energy to your animal, your relationship, and time together.
  10. Trust yourself. Trust that you will know what to do for your animal. Trust that you will be able to access the internal and external resources needed to make decisions.

Please know that you are not alone. Comfort and coping can be found in having a working care plan, strong support system, and excellent self-care. It is also incredibly helpful to connect with others who have navigated this path. While this journey can feel overwhelming and scary, it also offers treasured gifts and opportunities to share profoundly meaningful moments with your pet.

Take Good Care,

Rachel Wright, MSW, LSWAIC, CDP

Veterinary Social Worker

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