Animal hospice care: Amira’s story

Claudia knew Amira since the day she was born. A little over four years ago, she helped bring up the big litter of twelve puppies. Claudia had just lost her previous Leonberger who had died of cancer at age seven. Still grieving, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to welcome a new dog into her life so soon. But life has its way with us, not always unfolding according to what we think is best.

Amira as a puppy.

Legend has it that about 200 years ago in Germany, the Leonberger breed was created as an homage of the animal in the town crest and coat of arms where they originate, the lion. They were kept on farms as watchdogs and for draft work. During the two world wars, they were used to pull the ammunition carts which resulted in almost entirely wiping out the breed each time. Leonbergers are also valued as water rescue and lifesaving dogs as well as livestock guardians. I am mentioning all of this to help you realise how brave, independent and strong (physically and otherwise) the dogs of this breed are.

Amira was self-assured and friendly to people and animals in spite of her reserved nature. Even as a puppy she would seek out her own private space to snooze in peace for hours, not appreciating any invasions. Although affectionate, she wasn’t really a cuddler. Under the right circumstances, she could be quite the clown and charm an audience.

Amira helped Claudia in her dog training business – during group classes and with training assistance dogs. Claudia relied on Amira’s response when assessing new dogs. They made a great team, so Amira’s death was not just felt on a personal level but also as the loss of a work partner. She was just over four years old when her body had reached its expiry date.

Amira loved her cat siblings.

Towards the end of 2020, Claudia noticed that Amira became very picky with her food and started skipping meals. At first, Claudia wasn’t worried, knowing that type of behaviour is not uncommon with the breed. Amira was full of life and energetic just like always. But in January 2021 it all became more pronounced as it became apparent that she had lost quite a bit of weight. Blood and urine tests showed renal insufficiency and an ultrasound revealed nephrozirrhose (shrinkage of the kidneys), a condition she likely suffered from birth as it later turned out that one of her litter mates had died as a one-year old from the same condition.

Though Amira’s condition was advanced and serious, you’d have never guessed there was anything wrong with her because she was fit as a fiddle. When she went for her ultrasound the vets asked Claudia if she was sure these blood results belonged to this dog that looked so lively and well.

Once the diagnosis was clear, treatment began, including a change of Amira’s diet, homeopathic remedies, medicinal mushrooms and other supplements. As a result, she regained some weight. Every six weeks Amira was re-checked. She continued to be in high spirits for about eight months when Claudia began to notice that Amira was playing less and resting more, not out of weakness but from a lack of motivation it seemed.

Amira loved water, she could swim for a long time and just for the sake of swimming. Wondering if her recent slowing down was a signal that the end of Amira’s life was near, on a beautiful autumn day Claudia decided to take her to her favourite spot by the lake. Wanting to make sure she would not exhaust herself, Claudia limited the time in the water to two short swims. Leonbergers have an incredibly thick coat and overheating is more of a concern than ever being cold. However, renal insufficiency is a condition that makes you susceptible to getting a chill. The morning after their beautiful outing, Amira was quite unwell. The vet started her on infusions straight away but she did not improve. Two days later, when listening to her lungs the vet detected water in them and prescribed diuretic tablets which made a huge difference within a few hours and Amira bounced back, surprising everyone again. She started eating again but only wet food anymore. For several days she ate normal amounts and then less and less, and now only when hand-fed until the stage when she merely accepted a few treats. Their daily walks became shorter until they didn’t leave the property anymore and Amira was content with sniffing around the immediate surroundings of their house. Getting up was a bit of a struggle now and navigating stairs not easy anymore.

On the last trip to Amira’s happy place – the lake.

At this point, one of the vets suggested bringing Amira to the clinic for a full round of diagnostic tests. When in a quiet moment Claudia considered this, she clearly sensed that it was not appropriate at the stage they had arrived. It wasn’t right to put her dog through everything that would have entailed a vet visit. She was dying. Now it was just about providing pain relief and making sure Amira still enjoyed her life to the full extent possible.

Claudia is an animal communicator herself. However, to receive a clear telepathic message, one must hold a certain detachment which the emotional rollercoaster she was experiencing in this situation didn’t allow. She contacted Jennie Hellkvist, a Belgium-based animal communicator, to support her in this capacity. Claudia wanted to make sure to regard Amira’s wishes about her dying process and was wondering if it was time for euthanasia. Jennie relayed that Amira was feeling at peace with where she was at and did not wish to be euthanised at this point, that she wanted to follow her own path.

Independence played a big role in her life as well as her dying.

All Claudia’s previous pets were euthanised at the end of their life. During this first communication with Amira, it hadn’t been specified that she wanted to die in her own time but more that at this point she wasn’t ready to be euthanised. Claudia – like many people – worried about just the right timing. She wondered when does suffering turn to the degree where responsible dog ownership demands to put an end to it? When can I allow a natural process to unfold and give the dog the time it takes?

In further communications via Jennie it became clear that Amira would prefer to live out her life and die naturally. Jennie assured Claudia that in case things became too hard for her to witness, it would be alright to call the vet to come and euthanise. Hearing that was a big relief. Firstly, that she had ‘permission’ in case she just couldn’t do it any longer. Secondly, that no matter how things would look and appear, this was Amira’s choice. Claudia remembers that in the final two of three days of Amira’s life when things weren’t pretty, she was able to perceive her dog’s deep sense of peace and acceptance in spite of her circumstances.

Jennie also suggested that Claudia get in touch with me for additional support.

Amira with Leo (assistance dog in training) and Idefix the cat in the last week of her life.

Claudia appreciated that Amira’s dying process unfolded in small steps. This slow pace helped her in facing what was happening, small daily doses of dealing with death. When she heard from Amira via Jennie that yes, there were waves of intense pain (in spite of the opioids) but that she was okay with it, it helped Claudia when I pointed out to her that tolerance for pain differs widely and that we all can be in various levels of pain or discomfort without wanting to die.

Claudia wasn’t sure how her regular vet would respond to hearing about animal hospice care for Amira. When she told him she was surprised how positive the vet’s reaction was, however, he believed that Amira’s heart was too strong for her to die unassistedly. When Claudia mentioned the vet’s remark, it raised a bit of a red flag for me, knowing how the words of an authority can take on fact status in our minds even though they are just an opinion. It sounded rather absurd to me, and I said as much, the idea of one organ continuing while the rest was dying. Bodies are complex systems, not just a compilation of parts. When not medically interfered (other than pain management) it seemed laughable – in a mirthful rather than a derogatory way – that the heart would continue beating without the support of kidneys, lungs, etc.

Death ain’t pretty. Not on the physical level anyways. A body that is shutting down can look sunken in, skeletal even. Bladder and bowel control might be lost. Breathing might be different, shallow or laboured. Vomiting might occur. There might be discharge from the nose and eyes. The breath and anything expelled often has a foul smell. The nose can get dry and cracked. Getting up might be a huge struggle or not possible at all anymore.

Something happened to Claudia during Amira’s last night on earth who was vomiting copious amounts of brown liquid and was very weak. When Claudia saw how unwell her dog was, she noticed a deep acceptance in her that it was time for Amira to die. Claudia had been telling Amira every day that it was okay for her to leave if the moment had come. But seeing that this body truly had reached its end made letting go a natural response from a place of love. What before just were words, now was a deeply felt surrender.

On what turned out to be Amira’s last day, Claudia observed Amira lying down and getting up from different places outside, even though it was a struggle for her each time. She did not appear restless but rather as if she was looking for just the right spot to die. Claudia had an important health appointment she strongly considered rescheduling but in the end decided to go, leaving Amira outside, under supervision. After leaving the doctor’s clinic, when she was able to tune into Amira, Claudia got the distinct sense of a battery going flat, a diminishing of the spark of life. She drove home as fast as possible with the hope she would catch her dog still alive.

It was the worst moment of all, when back at home Claudia went to where Amira was lying and noticed she wasn’t breathing anymore. The paradox hit her hard – seeing Amira there but at the same time knowing she was gone, simultaneous presence and absence.

Claudia found that sitting by Amira’s body until it turned cold and stiff helped her wrap her mind a little bit around the mystery of death. During this time the confusing disbelief of, ‘How can this be?!’ changed into a quiet acceptance of, ‘It is so.’

Photo from her last trip to the lake.
Amira with Claudia’s daughter.

The remaining animals of the household were allowed access to Amira’s dead body. A few meters away from the corpse, Leo, the other dog, suddenly dropped into a crouch and cautiously inspected the shell of his friend. When he was done he ran off, rolled in the grass and did his own thing. The cats didn’t show a noticeable response.

The timing of Amira’s death upset Claudia, she wished she would have been present for it. As to not completely drown in her ocean of tears, Claudia decided that evening to use animal communication to connect with Amira. The following is what transpired.

C: Where are you?
A: I am everywhere you are.
C: Why did you choose to die while I was gone?
A: I did it for you. It would have been too difficult for you.

This last answer came with the sense that Claudia wouldn’t have been ready for it yet. It was said free of judgement.

A: Just my shell remains. I am eternal. Thank you for giving me the space I needed. I saw how hard that was for you. I had a fulfilled life.

Claudia says the word ‘fulfilled’ carried the weight of at least ten years, not just the short four of Amira’s life.

A: Four years were enough to live my life to the fullest. Not a thing is missing. I have freed the space by your side for someone who wants to come to you. Trust life. Be open for changes, they will help you grow. Live, love, laugh. Enjoy life.

Amira’s body was buried the next day.

Amira’s grave.

Because Amira always had the need to retreat and be left alone, it was no surprise that this tendency increased at the end of her life. Though Claudia understood and didn’t take it personally, she struggled with it because it was opposite her own need to be close to and cuddle her. Amira needed peace and quiet in preparation for transitioning from this world into the otherworld, Claudia says. It was an inner learning process to come to grips with her dog’s heightened sensitivity and need for stillness.

Another aspect of the dying process that was challenging for Claudia was to witness the physical decline. Leonbergers have a large presence, they are big and strong. It was difficult to watch that dwindle away, the young body suddenly ancient looking and Amira’s attention turned inwardly more and more. Claudia knew that this wasn’t a shifting away from her but rather an attending to the inner processes of dying. This discernment helped to not take things personally and was comforting.

All her life Amira loved going for walks.

What Claudia remembers fondly of the last three weeks of Amira’s life are their walks together. Usually being very busy with life, Claudia enjoyed the leisurely pace of these outings, the mindful presence that happened. Just the two of them, no more need for a lead, being together, feeling at peace, deeply content. It was such a contrast to the stress-filled ‘normal life’. When Amira took a break and just stood still, Claudia often would gently massage her body, a blissful experience for both of them. It all had a quality of timelessness, this slowing down, taking time off work to just be with her dying dog.

Doing hospice care for Amira, Claudia found it was her turn to give to her dog. Of course, we provide for our dogs, Claudia reflects, but their simple being-ness, their presence in our lives, nurtures our own well-being deeply. They gift themselves to us. At the end of their lives, we can return this offering by being with them with utmost mindfulness and consideration, intuiting their needs. Claudia says it was hard at times and tiring but Amira’s graceful appreciation was a gift in itself and worth it. Putting ourselves aside and being available for someone who is dying is a beautiful experience, a wordless exchange of trust. Something that can get cut short with choosing euthanasia.

If she met someone who was considering providing hospice care for their dying dog, Claudia would like them to know how incredibly valuable it was to her to have Jennie (the animal communicator) and myself (as a guide) accompanying her and Amira during this process. Having Jennie’s support reassured Claudia that she was choosing her actions in full regard of her dog’s wishes. Having my support informed her of the practical aspects of dying which eased her fears as she learned what normal dying looks like. Being met in the full scope of her feelings during this difficult and rich time by someone who has been there and understands was a true blessing. Claudia doubts she could have done this without our support. She might have called the vet to end Amira’s life or, if not that, might have really struggled through it all, overwhelmed with so much unknown. To be able to talk openly about Amira’s dying and have her tears welcomed, was indispensable and deeply appreciated.

Amira with another feline family member.

Thank you, Claudia, for allowing me to share Amira’s hospice care story and thus helping to spread awareness of this pioneering field. May it inspire and validate others choosing this path – you are not alone.

Who’s this little munchkin? This is Pauline.
She’ll be joining Claudia in a few weeks, taking the free spot by her side,

watched over by Amira’s spirit, no doubt.
Available support for people providing hospice care for their dying animal

If you’d like me by your side while you are providing hospice care for your dying animal, please get in touch with me. I speak English and German. I encourage you to read my blog articles on animal hospice care, they share my own experiences, provide practical tips and links to valuable resources as well as hold a death positive space (where it’s not morbid or taboo to speak about death).

I’ve asked Jennie Hellkvist to tell us a little about herself as an animal communicator. She says, ‘In 2006 I felt drawn to a basic course with Karina Heuzeroth in how to “relearn” animal communication in the way of Penelope Smith. I had no doubt that some people were able to communicate with animals though I was rather sceptical as to whether I was one of them . My communications were a bit “bumpy” in the beginning but good enough for me to want to carry on learning. And so a new journey began for me. I’ve since learnt to see many things from the matter of fact and often simplistic ways they look at their world from many different animals. After supporting some of my own animals to die naturally, at their own pace and when it’s right for them, I realised I wanted to support others as they navigate their way through the emotional helter skelter wondering if their animal is really ok with their decision, when they too feel the right thing to do for their animal friend is to allow them a peaceful space before they make that final step over the threshold when they are ready to. As a communicator it can at times be an overwhelming task to hold this space. But I am blessed to be a member of the BVTK Germany, an association of well qualified and very grounded animal communicators that support each other if the road gets a bit bumpy. I offer my services in English and German. I can be reached at jennie@tierkommunikationen.be, on my mobile (and Signal) on +49 15 734 134 885 or via WhatsApp on +49 15 756 568 299.’

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