Animal hospice care: a beginner’s guide

Ideally, you are looking into animal hospice care before your pet ever needs it. Often life is not ideal. I jumped in the deep end one ordinary Wednesday evening when my dog Louie had a stroke. I had thought about allowing Louie to live out his life naturally but I never had taken the time to look into what might be involved. I was fortunate to have by my side a vet who has accompanied countless clients in animal hospice care for their pets. Her experienced guidance and support were invaluable, especially because I was not well prepared at all.

Since then I have delved into the topic deeply – I apprenticed myself to dying. On my journey, I realised that there were two areas of study – the Nuts and Bolts and The Matrix. The former is about the practical aspects of caring for a dying animal. The latter is about becoming conscious of our cultural and personal beliefs on dying and death, sorting through them and then emerging from our reflections with an updated understanding.

The Nuts & Bolts of animal hospice care

What does natural dying look like? What are the needs of a dying pet? How can I care for my animal companion in the best possible way at the end of their life? What are the practical aspects of animal hospice care?

When searching for ‘animal hospice care’ on the internet you will come across a good number of websites. Many are centred around ‘When is it the right time?’, in other words, the timing of euthanasia. To me that’s about end of life care but not hospice. Hospice is about providing comfort care (including pain control if required) until natural death occurs. Euthanasia is available if needed – which mostly it is not.

The following websites share my focus.

Spirits in Transition as well as Bright Haven offer a huge amount of information, it might feel a bit overwhelming at first. Take your time to work through the material, start where you feel drawn to. I found there was much good, free information available but both websites offer online courses as well. I took the Spirits in Transition course which was very informative. I did not like that the contents was only available for a few months after purchase because I am not very good at note taking, instead I prefer to go back and rewatch sections.

Image by Hannah Bullen-Ryner Art, used with permission.

At Horse Hospice you can learn about caring for your equine at the end of their life and courses specific to horse hospice care are offered.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with the sheer amount of info, this article is a great start.

Rather than referring to Quality of Life charts, consult the Quality of Dying checklist to assess your dying pet’s well-being.

The Matrix

To be able to provide animal hospice care in the best possible way I believe we need to apprentice ourself to dying. What do I mean by that? Facing our own death denial, accepting our body’s mortality, looking where we’d rather not. Find out what led us to be conditioned to think of dying and death mainly as a medical event, reducing one of the great mysteries of life to solely managing physical or cognitive symptoms.

Here are some books and movies I found insightful on this path.

Books

Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
The surgeon author takes us on his own journey of discovering the suffering created by medicine’s neglect of the wishes the dying have beyond mere survival. Honest and humble, he intersperses eye-opening research with stories of his own patients and family and we also learn of the historical unfolding of circumstances that led to death being perceived as it is today – as a medical event. Beautifully written and deeply moving. There is also a film based on the book you can watch on YouTube.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.
Incredibly funny but never callous, the author tells about her becoming a mortician, she reveals the history of cremation, undertaking, embalming, and other funeral practices. This book is a gem. Candid, hilarious yet heartfelt, death gets demystified. Caitlin Doughty also founded The Order of the Good Death.

Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush.
This is such a beautiful book about how we all sit on the edge of that mystery: death. About what scares us and wondering what if dying was perfectly safe? And how our life turns magical if we bring curiosity and love to the dying process.

In an article on grieving the loss of a pet, I share some of the children’s books on dying and death that offered me and the little people in my life insights and comfort.

We are all made of the same stuff, remember,
we of the Jungle, you of the City.
The same substance composes us –
the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star –
we are all one,
all moving to the same end.
P.L. Travers
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Films

Zen and the Art of Dying
Documentary about Byron Bay’s death doula Zenith Virago. Her invitation is, “Let’s #DoDeathDifferently.” You can watch the film here. She also did a TedX talk about eight of the deepest insights that life and death have taught her.

Becoming Nobody
Everyone’s busy being somebody. From the movie’s website,Becoming Nobody represents the core arc of Ram Dass’ teachings and life: whether as Dr. Richard Alpert, the eminent Harvard psychologist, or as Ram Dass who serves as a bridge between Eastern and Western philosophies, he has defined a generation of inner explorers and seekers of truth and wisdom. Through his turns as scion of an eminent Jewish family from Boston, rock-star Harvard psychologist, counter-culture rascally adventurer, Eastern holy man, stroke survivor and compassionate caregiver, Ram Dass has worn many hats on his journey, the narrative of which is revealed in this film.”
The Hanuman Foundation created by Ram Dass founded the Dying Center in Santa Fe, the first residential facility in the US whose purpose was to support conscious dying. Dale Borglum was its director. He consequently founded the Living/Dying Project.

Departures
This Japanese movie received an Academy Award for best foreign language film. I am not big on watching movies with subtitles because I feel often so much gets lost in translation but I immensely enjoyed this movie. It’s about a cellist whose orchestra is disbanded. Looking for work he ends up with a company that does ‘encoffinations’ of corpses prior to cremation. I loved watching his transformation from disgust and rejection to tender care and the realisation that this was his true calling. We also get to watch his friends and family grappling with this unfolding and their own reactions and transformations. Unexpectedly, the protagonist also finds peace and closure with a deep hurt from his childhood.

I am not overloading this article with information on purpose. There are many books and films on the topic, here is a good list for you to further explore – books and movies & documentaries. Talk Death also lists a wealth of resources to explore.

Practices

Since death is certain,
but the time of death is uncertain,
what is the most important thing?

Pema Chödrön

Each day for a few minutes, simply remember death. Perhaps while you drink a cup of tea or sit under a tree, become aware that all beings die, that you will and so will your loved ones, even your enemies. You can envisage how you’d like to die, imagine your funeral or ponder what you’d like your last words to be.

In Bhutan they say contemplating death fives times daily brings happiness. The free app WeCroak sends you five notifications per day with quotes on dying.

Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Many spiritual traditions have practices to prepare for dying and giving up attachment. In the book Walking Each Other Home Ram Dass shares the following exercise. Scan your body as you would in a deep relaxation meditation, but instead of relaxing, you are letting go of attachment. For example, bring your awareness to your eyes and silently say, ‘I am not these eyes and what they see. I am loving awareness.’ Let your breath flow in and out as you rest in loving awareness. Then continue, ‘I am not these ears and what they hear. I am loving awareness.’ And so on and finish with, ‘I am not this body, I am loving awareness.’ This practice can also extend to thoughts, memories, emotions, opinions, beliefs – ‘I am not these thoughts’ etc.

The Bubble

Creating connections with like-minded people, especially if your pet is dying and under your hospice care, is essential. Family, friends and professionals that are not open to hospice care and unwilling to inform and educate themselves are a distraction and draining. When you are caring for a dying being, you don’t have the energy to defend yourself or trying to convince others. Taking things personal and creating a drama around ‘being misunderstood or not supported’ is not beneficial either. It helps to consciously create a bubble for you and your animal, to have a circle of people who share your understanding of dying. Tails of Love – Sharing Stories and Support for Animal Hospice Care is a Facebook group that is a ‘place to share stories of the journey towards end of life and to find resources and support for end of life care, animal hospice care and alternatives to euthanasia. Hospice here is defined as the intent to support an pet for comfort with love through to a natural death.Please share and comment with compassion and without judgement‘ (quote from the group’s ‘about’ section). 

And if you have not already done so, I invite you to read my articles on animal hospice care. I am also available for you to reach out to me, offering support and guidance via video chat or phone consultations.

Vet Support

Please understand that animal hospice care is not (yet) taught at veterinary schools. Therefore, be prepared to receive a raised eyebrow or rouse your vet’s concern for your pet’s welfare if you bring up the topic. Read about different vets’ reactions to their client’s wish to provide hospice care for their fur companion in this blog article of mine.

When embarking on the animal hospice care journey, most people feel very vulnerable. To navigate the unknown of a taboo part of life is not for the faint of heart. It can be a tremendous relief to speak with a professional because usually we endow them with more authority than a lay person. Here are three vets that are hospice care friendly and open to be consulted on natural dying of your pet.

Dr Saranyu Pearson from Paws to Heal, located in Australia.

Dr Pearson writes, “Thankfully there are people like Mia asking more from us as Veterinarians and animal carers to challenge us to be better able to see our purpose in assisting animals to complete their own purpose.

It is a privilege to be able to support any creation to fulfil its life to the end but we must be prepared, available and surrendered to the journey given that we have largely forgotten how to provide this compassionate service to our fellow beings. It is about looking beyond the physical aspects of life which can be “rough, brutish and short”, to the higher purpose for which we all came into being.

There are no right and wrong ways to provide veterinary care but there are options. A Veterinarian faced with a difficult decision and armed with sufficient knowledge to make a fair prediction of future health status must then present this view honestly to the client. Every single one of us who has practised veterinary medicine knows how it feels to euthanise animals. It is also one of the greatest stress factors in our profession and also one for which I, at least, felt largely unprepared by my university training.  I am not sure that this level of training has changed much over the ensuing now thirty years.  I recall that this practice became more difficult with time as I evolved both as a person and a practitioner and I also recall some senior respected colleagues of mine who I observed to try everything in their power to avoid the need to euthanise. Both of these factors started weighing heavily on my conscience to bring me to the point at which I have arrived.” Read the full text here.

Dr Angela Gutzer from White Feather Veterinarian: Animal Palliative and End of Life Care, located in Canada.

A little bit about her, “Dr Angela Gutzer is a small animal Veterinarian that has practised since 2007. 

Her interest in death began after her beloved 10 year old dog Chloe was euthanised after a brief and sudden illness. She began thinking about how the Veterinary Practise could do death better. Then as her mother approached dying with cancer, she quit her job of over 9 years to be near her and the family. She began doing contract work which enabled her to pursue her passion in the world of death after her Mother died. She took the Contemplative End of life Care ( Death Doula) course through the Institute of Traditional Medicine and began writing articles in the Green Gazette. A connection was made between her and Nicola Finch ( also a Death Doula) birthing the Cariboo Community Deathcare Network where they work toward Death Literacy by hosting Death Cafes, writing articles, and helping community members through the loss of their loved ones. 

She is currently creating space for her practise “White Feather Veterinarian: Animal Palliative and End of Life Care” which will begin sometime in 2022. She will hold space for both assisted and Natural death options.”

Dr Carolin Ruckert from Meditierisch, located in Germany. She speaks German and English.

She says, “As a veterinarian, I dedicate myself solely to the field of animal behaviour. I studied Low Stress Handling but felt there was something missing. I found my missing piece – and peace – in the Trust Technique. Mindfulness and meditation have been a constant part on my path, however, my experiences with using the Trust Technique in my veterinary work have brought into focus much clearer my purpose in this world. Giving birth to my children, I was close to dying. I was not afraid to give my life so that they can live but I fought hard so that they may have a mother. Before becoming a vet, I studied medicine. I did a placement on a hospice ward. There was an atmosphere of tranquility there, no anxious or depressed grief but a caring, loving, present kind of grief. These personal experiences and my mindfulness and meditation practice naturally led me to look more closely at the dying process. In the Western world there is so much fear of death, we avoid the topic at all cost. I believe caring for the dying is a beautiful act of love and service. As sad as it also may be, sharing a feeling of love in the last moments of life is very worthwhile. I have no direct experience yet with animal hospice care but I am currently educating myself in the field. I believe that there is much to learn and that we can give a lot to each other and to our animal companions if we face suffering courageously and with an open heart. Not easy, but worth it.”

Even if you live far away from any of these vets, consulting them via email or video chat might provide you with calming support. If you are up for it and depending how open-minded he or she is, consider providing your regular vet with information on animal hospice care. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets might be a good starting point for them as well as the above mentioned Spirits in Transition (founded by holistic vet Dr Ella Bittel) website.

The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.

Albert Einstein

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

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