Although walking the path of end of life with a pet is nearly always challenging, navigating it can prove especially difficult around the holidays. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the unique struggles faced in caring for a pet at end of life during this time of year. Pet families can feel especially isolated, confused, and frustrated. My hope is to provide some helpful guidance and frames of reference that can be used to meet the challenges that can arise.
Often when our pets are faced with life-limiting, chronic, and irreversible disease processes, the amount of care they require increases. Pets that have trouble with mobility may need help with moving around, more frequent bathroom breaks, or rearrangements of the house to better accommodate them. Pets may require different diets or feeding schedules, and often they require medications given on a regular basis. Pets with cognitive dysfunction (similar to dementia in humans) may be up at night and react with fear or anxiety to events that they used to be comfortable with. We are happy to make these changes to our routines in order to give our pets more good quality time, but this can often causing increased friction and stress during the holidays. Many people travel to see family, or their family travels to see them, and both of these scenarios can make end-of-life pet care more stressful or sometimes not feasible.
If a pet used to be boarded at a pet resort or kennel when you traveled – will he or she be safe and comfortable with them now? Will the staff be equipped to handle the higher needs of the pet? We ask similar questions when a pet sitter comes to the home while we are away. We also wonder about a pet having a crisis and whether or not we could get home to be with them or be able to make end-of-life decisions for the pet from a distance.
If family comes to stay with us during the holidays, it can create unique challenges.
Is a bustling household full of extra people, loud noises, and new objects going to be more stressful for our pet than it would otherwise be? Will the other family members understand the whys and hows of your care plan for your pet and support you, or be unsupportive or even possibly get in the way of it? If you have other people that you are the primary caretaker for, will you be spread too thin to take care of those that depend on you during the holidays? All of these questions are faced by pet families we speak with every day during the holiday season — and there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Asking those questions, however, rather than looking the other way, can help you as a caretaker prepare yourself and your pet to try to create a plan that honors the bond you share and minimizes unneeded stress for all of you.
Some advantages to the holidays
Although it may not seem intuitive, the holidays do also provide some advantages as well when caring for a pet at end of life and making end-of-life decisions. Many of these advantages have to do with the idea of perspective. Sometimes when caring for a pet, their progression of disease and their decrease in quality of life is a very slow, incremental process. Along the way, the pet and family both make changes in order to meet those needs and boost the pet’s quality of life. The example I frequently use is that of a flipbook (I made a lot of these in the corners of my notebooks as a child). If you were to just page through a flip book by turning a page a day, you might not feel that much has really changed in the image because you are comparing page 7 to page 8. However, if someone else was spending time with your pet on page 3, and then left and returned on page 30, they would see a much different picture.
This often comes up around the holidays. Either a beloved pet sitter, groomer, or visiting family member may notice changes in your pet’s physical condition, emotional state, or both that you have come to view as “the new normal.” This outside perspective, if expressed in an open and loving way, can often help us as pet caregivers look at our pet through a different lens and see things that we may have otherwise missed. If we are traveling over the holidays away from our pet, we can sometimes experience a similar phenomenon. Even a few days away from our pet, especially if we are around other younger or more vibrant pets, can make us view our pet’s situation in a different light and add clarity to what their quality of life is in their current state.
If you have cared for a pet at end of life around the holidays, or are currently doing so, I hope these words have reached you in some way. Being aware of the difficulties and assistance that this time of year provides is the first step to feeling less lost and alone (as many people do when in this position). The holidays are often a time of reflection and gratitude; this can be a good time to look back on the memories shared, on your pet’s good and not-so-good times. Holding that gratitude for the time you have spent together can help with weathering the struggles you and your pet may face. The holidays are also often meant to be a time of community and gathering together with family- whether it’s the family you were born into or the family you choose. Our pets are part of that family network, who come into our lives in a variety of different ways and who love us unconditionally. Don’t be afraid to reach out to more of that support network if you and your pet need help.
Journeys Home is here to help with pet at end of life holidays too
We keep our normal 7-day-a-week availability with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day when one of our doctors will still be available to take phone calls, but we are unable to be out on appointments. If you are located in our service area, we welcome phone consultations to discuss your individual situation and provide support. We can be reached either by email or phone to talk about quality of life and end-of-life planning.