There’s a comforting old saw that, to me, deserves to go the way of the myth of unconditional love: Your pet “will tell you when it’s time.”
Frankie has dementia and he’s blind but he’s fairly healthy. He lets me know when he wants to go outside to relieve himself but he can’t always find his water bowl without my help. He’s sometimes affectionate but he’s no longer aware when other people enter the house; his days of barking to “protect” me are long passed.
So what exactly is Frankie telling me? If anything, he’s sending me mixed messages, ones that I can’t decode.
It’s tough enough to watch your pet’s aging and illness; the last thing you need is the burden of trying to read the tea leaves to determine whether your pet wants to leave this world. Consider the natural language barriers — even those of us who have become reasonably familiar with dog signals can’t always understand the special dialects — and the fact that animals often hide their pain.
Not every pet “will tell you when its time” — and not every owner will be able to listen. Many of us need the help of a human who is an expert in this arena.
What Exactly Is a Hospice Vet?
Last week I did an interview with Dr. Janet Tobiassen-Crosby for About.com Veterinary Medicine; it was posted Monday as Hospice Help: Guidance for Knowing When It’s Time to Say Good-Bye. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about my experience on a widely read forum; I’ve gotten quite evangelical on this topic.
There are a few things I’d like to add.
- You don’t send your pet away with animal hospice. The term “hospice” for humans often means going to a separate facility to get medical care for a terminal illness, though home care is also an alternative. In animal hospice, your pet almost always remains at home getting care from their people with the help of a veterinary professional or professionals.
- So called “euthanasia vets” often deal with life as well as death. Many of us are aware that there are veterinarians who will come to your home to perform euthanasia so your pet can pass peacefully in familiar surroundings — in some cases, it’s your regular vet — but there is very little information about practitioners who also have an even more important role: as life counselors. In many cases, after a consult with a hospice vet, owners will learn that they have more time to spend with their pets as long as a pain- or stress-relief program is created. In other cases, such as mine, owners discover that they need to let go.
This discovery made me very very sad — and it was a huge relief to no longer spend my time trying to figure out what to do. In case I missed the point of what she was saying — “he seems to be frightened and confused much of the time; he’s not aware of his surroundings” — my vet, Dr. Sheila Kirt of Home At Last, was specific: “I probably would have said good-bye by now.”
I believe Dr. Kirt saw Frankie at his worst — more out of it than usual because we awoke him from a deep sleep — so, although that statement gave me a few guilt pangs, I don’t feel like I have subjected Frankie to undue distress (and now I’m devoting several weeks to making up for any discomfort I might have allowed him to experience). At the same time, I heard her message, loud and clear, and not from Frankie: “It’s time.”
Where Do You Find Such a Vet?
As I said in my interview with About.com, I found Dr. Kirt through a friend who had used her services and recommended them highly. I asked her how other people find her and she said, “Like you did: Word of mouth. Often, vets recommend me.”
There is an organization called the International Association of Animal Hospice Care and Palliative Care that lists some individual veterinarians with this type of practice (though not Dr. Kirt’s). I found the description of hospice on the site rather confusing: it does not make clear that your pet stays at home and it makes it sound like you have to hire an entire team of veterinarians — which could be very expensive. I don’t know what the actual cost of a palliative care program is; I haven’t investigated it. I paid a one-time consultation fee of $150 for a home observation and examination — money that couldn’t have been better spent. Forgive me if I sound like an American Express commercial but “Peace of mind? Priceless.”
So I would suggest you ask your vet and look on the internet — and then get a personal referral in addition. You do not want a person in your house who is not good at this. You want someone who is kind but firm, who picks up on and respects your beliefs (in my case, my loathing of the Rainbow Bridge; of course it helps that I sent her my post on the topic in advance) but does not let them interfere with common sense — or the laws of the land.
Someone who confirms that your pet is adorable but does not let that deter her in advising you to let him go.
Update: I wrote here about what was right for me; many others have had different experiences. See Your Turn: How Did You Know When “It Was Time”?