Animal hospice care: after the last breath

Louie, a few minutes after his last breath.

Although many would rather avoid thinking about the topic, what happens with our animal’s dead body should not be an afterthought. This article will review common and not so common options for when that moment has come. I’ll share with you my experiences and choices as well as other alternatives.

After a stroke, followed by a lymphoma diagnosis, I looked after my elderly dog, Louie, until he took his last breath. Seven weeks of hospice care of his partially paralyzed body made it possible for him to live out his life and die at his pace. On Wednesday, September 15, 2020 at 9:15 pm it ended. For the next two hours his body looked and felt as if he was asleep, except there was no movement of breath. It was warm and soft and I sat with it, patting it, processing what had just happened. Part of me could not believe that he now really was dead. I felt Louie’s presence, a sense of love and gratitude filling the room. It was very comforting.

Wakes and vigils

A wake is the custom of keeping a vigil or watch over a body from death until burial. We’ve lost our way with death, says Kevin Toolis – but the Irish wake, where the living, the bereaved and the dead remain bound together, shows us the way things could be done. In this article he shares some valuable points.

At around 11 pm I noticed Louie’s dead body changing, losing its warmth and starting to become stiff. Witnessing this transition made his death more real, the resemblance to what I had known to be Louie waned. This gradual dawning was gentle and peaceful. There were tears, there was sobbing, stroking his ears the way he had loved it so much, cradling his body with mine. Intense moments came and went like thunderstorms, with tranquility in-between, a serene calmness. Looking for the best way to describe to you this experience, I came across the Japanese concept of SHIBUMI.

Shibumi is about an almost inexpressible sense of beauty, completeness or contentment. Everydayness raises ordinary things to a place of honor, void of all artificial and unnecessary properties, thus imparting spiritual joy – it’s about the auspiciousness of the moment. Shibumi’s sanctuary of silence is non-dualism—the resolution of opposites. Its foundation is intuition coupled with faith and beauty revealing phases of truth and the worship and reverence for life. It’s about the ‘felt sense’ of Life behind any experience. A ‘felt sense’ of qualities, such as, quiet beauty with intelligence, love, light, and joy. These qualities can be more easily registered when quietly viewing simple, natural everyday phenomenon or objects, such as a sunrise or a simple piece of pottery. Or the dead body of a beloved. *

Holding a wake with Louie’s body was very helpful to my internal processing of loss. It was the first time in my life I was able to do so. Previously, dead animals’ bodies were whisked away moments after they had died. Too fast and shocking for the system, my bereavement greatly intensified by the abruptness of it all.

This is Fraser, I already talked about him in another one of my articles. The photo was taken after the vet had come to his home to euthanize him. His human took time to say goodbye and later arranged for his cremation.

Holistic veterinarian Ella Bittel describes her experience of being with the body of her dog Plouche (pronounced “Ploosh”), who died unexpectedly while Ella was on a short trip. Without being familiar with the concept of holding a wake, Ella found herself having a vigil for Plouche. The actual incident preceded Ella’s engagement in hospice care for animals and has since become a natural and much appreciated part of her suggestions for aftercare. Whether an animal dies suddenly, under hospice care or has been euthanized, time spent with the body of a beloved animal family member can be very precious. **

I would like to mention that a dead body decomposes and thus can leak fluids. This happened with Louie after less than 24 hours, a bit of foul-smelling liquid seeped from his nose. The rest of his body still smelled as it always had. I have spoken to others who have kept their dead animals’ bodies up to three days, some have encountered oozing fluids, others haven’t. If you are doing a wake for your dog, it is a good idea to be prepared and put the body on old towels or a leak-proof sheet so clean up, if needed, is easy.

Animals may want to say goodbye too

Allowing other pets of your household to view the dead body gives them a chance too to say goodbye and be clear what happened to their sibling. When our dog Harry was euthanized at home, Louie and Lenny were present. Just as he slipped away Lenny came over and gave Harry a gentle nose bump, saying goodbye to his good friend. Just like people, every animal reacts differently to loss. Some don’t seem affected by it at all whereas others are visibly grieving. And in-between these two opposites is a wide range of all kinds of responses.

Some animal species have been observed to attend to their dying or dead. Among them are elephants, primates, wild horses and cetaceans (dolphins and whales). They have wake ceremonies, to say goodbye to their loved ones. Watch the funeral of Uncle Sam, a wild horse, as documented by The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. They describe the event, “Several different bands took turns saying their goodbyes. How did they all know there was a death? How did they process and understand it? We have no idea. But we see this same behavior each time there is a horse death. They are highly social, caring and truly amazing animals.”

Animals have wakes not only for their own kind. After Lawrence Anthony – known as the elephant whisperer – died, although they were not alerted to the event, the group of wild elephants he had helped to rescue and rehabilitate trekked to his house and stood around it in vigil for two days and then disappeared again. They return every year on the anniversary of his death.

Photo by redcharlie on unsplash.com

Major’s last kiss tells another such story, talking about a deep bond born from trust and love between a horrifically abused rescue horse and the person who made all the difference in his life. How considerate of Major’s feelings to let him say goodbye to his dear friend.

Memorials

Another decision you need to think about is what to do with your dead animal’s remains. The most common choices are

  • cremation
  • burial

If a vet is involved in your dog’s death, they usually can take care of cremation arrangements but you can organize it yourself as well. Different companies offer slightly different services and different styles of urns. If you don’t want your pet’s ashes, you or your vet just arrange cremation. If you are considering burial, here are some guidelines I found very helpful.

These beautiful carved boxes contain the ashes of her deceased pets.
Photo by Keryn Bardwell

Some people say that digging a grave for their dog was really difficult (emotionally). To me it felt contemplative. As I dug the clay, my mind recapped the past seven weeks of giving hospice care to my beautiful boy. What I struggled with was putting him into the grave, and even worse was filling it back up. As his shroud disappeared under the dirt, part of me was panic-stricken. I needed to slow things down to honour that part of me. I did it handful by handful, breath by breath.

Floral honouring, hauntingly beautiful.
The first cover I had made for Louie’s doona when we adopted him would be his shroud. It was a vibrant turquoise colour with tiny dark blue dots. It was so heartbreaking to see his body disappear into it. This fine body that had housed my precious boy, I didn’t want it to go. 
I sat at the foot of the grave with Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs” book of poetry. I had planned to read aloud my favourite poem in it – “For I will consider my dog Percy” – but through my tears I could barely make out the words and I simply could not speak. So I read it quietly, stopping at the parts that particularly were true of Louie too. 
Flowers gathered on our property, one of my favourite bandannas wrapped around them.
Louie’s grave.

Kye Crow and her partner Gill who look after a large group of animals in their sanctuary ArkHeart have a special way of dealing with their dead. Kye writes, “For us building pyres was something that came from necessity to begin with. A camel had died, we couldn’t bury it and we couldn’t leave it where it was. I was anxious when Gill suggested we light a fire over the body. I thought it would be macabre. It wasn’t at all. It was dignified, noble, magnificent and I fell in love with the process and found it such a spectacular and honourable way to farewell the body that I would choose this over burial any day. Of course we can’t always light fires dues to restrictions, but with Boo [their deceased Wolfhound] we didn’t have this problem.

Gill builds the logs up in a framework and Boo was put in the middle and then more logs placed on top. The idea is to get the fire really hot. You don’t want to feel as if your at a barbecue and smell burning flesh. There is none of that. Nothing yucky or awful. Its just a big fire and in the morning all you may find in the ashes is some small shards of bone. If I do I will take them with me when I move and create a rose garden.

Building the pyre.
Photo by Kye Crow.
Saying farewell to Boo their beloved Wolfhound.
Photo by Kye Crow.

To honour and remember our deceased animal, there are many types of memorials. Painted portraits, tattoos, your pet’s nose or paw print on a pendant, photo books, etc. As a memorial for my dog Harry I commissioned his face being painted sugar skull style on a rock that rests in the spot where he took his last breath. This visible reminder of him connects me with his presence on a daily basis, it provides a lovely continuity that I appreciate deeply.

A few years ago I found out about a local legend, Jerry the Railway Dog who roamed the area in the 1930ies. He was a beloved sight in the hills, running along Puffing Billy (our famous steam engine) every day. Until one day, tragically, he ended up under it. Jerry was said to be a stray that was adopted by the engine driver and his wife. After Jerry’s death a white cross was placed on his grave alongside the railway line. The marker was burnt in the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983. In 2007 a new marker was put into place.

To celebrate The Dependable Companion’s first anniversary I invited my clients and their dogs for a group walk. I painted these rocks and everyone got to pick one.
When we arrived at Jerry’s memorial site, I asked everyone to to hold their rock and for a few moments think about and feel grateful for the joys our animal companions – present and past – add to our lives. This was a surprise and I could see how touched everyone felt. It was a special moment to remember and honour how much richer our lives are for sharing it with animals. Then the rocks were placed onto the site and left there.

Have you heard of the cat called room 8? He made his appearance in 1952, wandering into the elementary school during recess and ransacking the children’s lunches. The students named him after the room where they found him.

He lived at the school while classes were in session and then disappeared during the summer, returning again only when students did. For the 16 years following his arrival, he wove himself into the community and Los Angeles history.

In his life, he never took a permanent home. He was always technically a stray cat. So when he died in 1968, the students wanted to give him a permanent resting place.*** They did a fundraiser that received international attention and secured a burial site and massive headstone at Los Angeles pet cemetery where celebrities like Humphrey Bogart laid their pets to rest.

Since I started sharing about Louie’s hospice care story, people have contacted me to tell their own stories and experiences around losing their pets. One of them I’d like to share here with you.

Music is an integral part of Melissa’s family. She explains, “All the dogs, cats and horses in my family have their own theme song. We sing them into our family, and we sing them out. Chenille took great comfort from all her loved ones singing her “the Chenille song” in her final days.

Melissa also shared with me about the special memorial for their deceased cat Ea!. It’s the rug that used to be under her husband’s piano who gave his studio to Ea! for a room of his own. Ea! loved it. After he passed they moved the rug to her studio, under her piano. The other cat and their dog visit regularly to sniff and roll around on it. Melissa says it feels like fond remembrance and honoring of their much loved, dead friend.

Ea!
In case you are wondering about his unusual name, a Sumerian deity of that name was noted for his egalitarian nature, and love of water. It summed up his personality perfectly.
Photo by Melissa Grace
Memorial rug
Photo by Melissa Grace

As hard as it might be to think about the end of your companion animal’s life, I highly recommend you do. Familiarize yourself with the options available, you don’t have to choose now. Even if you do, you might change your mind later. But having an idea in advance will help you make suitable decisions. It would be a shame to regret not having known some of the options in hindsight. Our animals take such a special and unique place in our hearts, it’s important to consider how we’d like to remember them once they are gone.

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* All italics are directly quoted from Wikipedia.
** Italics are directly quoted from Spirits in Transition.
*** Italics are directly quoted from LAist.

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