Animal hospice care: Lola’s story

They first met when Lola was about three years old, in 2011. She had been seized as a street dog in Spain and rescued by a German organisation from being euthanised. When Jasmina arrived at the foster carer’s home, Lola came over and sat on her feet as if to say, ‘I am coming with you’. And so she did.

It’s not about going to a party. It’s life as a party.’ ~ Diane von Furstenberg ~
Lola and Jasmina shared a joyous love for life.

Lola was a goofball. Jasmina called her the Benjamin Button of the dog world because she became more lively with every year. She loved to be the center of attention, she was the life of the party. When Lola entered a room it lit up with her sparkly energy.

At the beginning of 2021, Lola developed a cough. Jasmina wasn’t really concerned as they had been walking in the snow and she just thought her dog had a bit of a cold. The cough syrup from the vet worked and she got well.

From then on, every so often, Lola would cough, just once or twice. Considering her dog’s age, Jasmina wondered if there was something wrong with her heart (coughing in dogs can be a symptom of heart problems) and scheduled a visit with a vet cardiologist. The check up with the heart specialist showed nothing conspicuous, until the x-rays were taken. The radiographic inside look revealed a shadow above Lola’s lung, the vet thought it to be a primary tumour and suggested further tests. The biopsy and CT scan determined that there was a malignant bronchial carcinoma in Lola’s chest. To hear the oncologist say that her dog likely had two to four months to live, at best, half a year, was like being hit by a bombshell, incomprehensible in the face of such a lively and well looking Lola. There was the option of a very risky surgery but after a week researching, Jasmina decided against it. Not only because of the danger but also because due to the pandemic restrictions at the time it would have meant that her dog spent two weeks at the vet clinic, a place the little patient really disliked.

Jasmina knew it didn’t matter to Lola whether she had six weeks, six months or ten years still to live. What did matter was how well she lived her remaining time. Dietary adjustments, homeopathy and medicinal mushrooms gave her seven more happy months until the end of October when she started to cough more and her blood tests didn’t look good anymore. But in spite of that life still was enjoyable, Lola was her cheerful self, happy on walks and loving to play.

Then there was some water in Lola’s lung. She also started to limp and the vet suspected a torn cruciate ligament. On the check-up x-ray she saw that the lungs were filled with water. She prescribed a diuretic and proposed a planned euthanasia because at the clinic that day Lola was in a bad way with shortage of breath and quite anxious.

This was a moment of truth. A few months back, when Jasmina received the news of her dog’s remaining life expectancy, she started looking into animal hospice care and felt immediately drawn to it. Once she opened up to the topic, helpful resources just came her way like the podcast of Vanessa Reif who runs an animal hospice care center in Germany (Villa Anima) and supports people in their grief over losing a pet. The vet’s suggestion to euthanise Lola brought an onslaught of thoughts and feelings. Jasmina knew that she was in no state of mind to make a good decision. So she spent a good hour calming herself down and then reviewing the situation from a more peaceful point of view. All doubts disappeared and it was crystal clear to her that now – if ever – was not the time to put her dog to sleep.

Perhaps important to mention is that when Lola returned home from that vet visit her anxiety was gone and the breathing, though still a bit laboured, had improved too. That afternoon Jasmina picked up a ‘chariot’ for Lola to ride in for their walks. She wasn’t sure how little missy would respond, would she feel unsure? It turned out she loved it right from the start! Jasmina says that Lola got to see the world from a new perspective and really enjoyed that.

Loss of mobility wasn’t a drama. Going for walks with style.

The last few days before her death, Lola’s breathing became a bit more laboured and it took her a few minutes to get settled in a position that wouldn’t start her coughing when she was lying down. But she worked it out each time and slept peacefully through the nights. She was eating less though still never saying no to treats.

But life is just a party,
and parties weren’t meant to last.

Prince

On work days, Lola stayed with Jasmina’s mum for company. What turned out to be her last day on earth, was Jasmina’s first day working from home instead of at the office. It was a blessing because Jasmina had hoped to be present when her fur child went over the rainbow bridge. It was a strenuous day for Lola. She sat all day (lying down was just too uncomfortable) and you could see how exhausting that was for her. Jasmina tried to help her but Lola clearly signalled that she wanted to manage things on her own. Witnessing what was going on was emotionally difficult at times.

Since Lola’s cancer diagnosis Jasmina had been in contact with a holistic vet – supporting her with homeopathic remedies – in addition to her regular one. When the former heard in what condition Lola was she suggested cortisone tablets to give the little dog a bit of a break but they made no difference. Then she recommended to Jasmina to contact her regular vet and ask if she would give her a cortisone injection to take home for Lola. And that’s what she did.

Lola wasn’t interested in eating at all anymore but still drank water. Her dog’s struggle to keep herself sitting up without having her offered help accepted was very hard. That there is ‘nothing to do’ when being with someone who’s dying can be tough to bear. Jasmina reached out to the animal communicator that had been in touch with Lola before to double check if it was true that she didn’t want or need anything. Lola conveyed that she was content and said, ‘I’ve got this, mum.’

Being able to find peace and rest despite discomfort.

Immediately after this telepathic communication, Lola visibly relaxed. She actually was able to find a comfortable lying position to rest in. She looked at peace. Jasmina quietly sat with her and suddenly knew that the time was near and she cried with sadness. When the tears stopped, she patted Lola and told her all the beautiful and funny moments she remembered of their time together, and so creating a joyous respite for them both.

A little while later, Lola became a bit restless again, sitting up and panting. Jasmina told her that she had an injection that might offer her relief and that if she wanted to receive it to indicate so by coming over to her. Lola got up, walked over and sat, facing away, in front of Jasmina. And even though the injection was a bit clumsy due to lack of experience, Lola didn’t flinch even once.

On their last walk.

Jasmina and her partner suddenly had the strong notion to take the dog for a walk. Lola was carried downstairs and put into the grass where she immediately emptied her bladder. Then she was seated into her ‘chariot’ and they walked around the neighbourhood for an hour, enjoying the Christmas lights and festive decorations. Lola was very alert, taking in fully every detail of this beautiful night. The strenuousness of the day was forgotten as the magic of the present moment enveloped them.

When they arrived back home, Jasmina had the impulse to go open the balcony door even before she had taken off her boots and jacket, a very atypical action. Then she got Lola out of the pram who with a sudden burst of energy raced onto the balcony. Jasmina was surprised but attributed it to the injection she had given Lola earlier. She checked on Lola a minute later who was lying under the outdoor table in her favourite spot, not breathing anymore. There had been no laboured breath or coughing, she died in complete peacefulness.

Whenever Jasmina replays these last moments in her mind, she is just amazed. Lola sprinting out to the balcony as if she was late for a date and then such a quick and easy exit from her body, exhaling for the last time as her human came to see her. One look into her dog’s eyes and Jasmina knew what their emptiness meant.

Remembering and telling me about this smooth death, Jasmina is still perplexed and in awe. Her dog died the way she lived, completely on her own terms. Choosing the day when Jasmina worked from home and making it all so easy for her. ‘A beginner’s animal hospice care experience,’ Jasmina calls it, then adds, ‘But I have been preparing myself for months so that I would be able, emotionally, to let her go. That I wouldn’t be clinging to her when her time had come.” She has a sense that Lola needed that time too, to get ready to say good-bye. She feels so deeply grateful to not have followed the vet’s suggestion to euthanise two weeks earlier because there had been still so much life and new experiences (like walks in her pram) for Lola. It would have been a real shame, for them both, to have missed all that.

When asked what the most challenging part of providing animal hospice care for Lola was, Jasmina’s answer comes at once, it was herself, her thoughts. Facing her fear of loss and the way her mind was running wild at times, imagining horror scenarios of suffering. Not for a moment did Jasmina ever doubt Lola’s ability to deal with it all, she only worried about herself, her family and friends. Everyone should take time, when their dog is still happy and healthy, to delve into the subject of dying, grief and loss, she recommends, in preparation for what one day will happen whether we want it or not.

Jasmina has been sharing Lola’s story with other dog parents to raise awareness that euthanasia is not the only way their pet’s life must end. Just because vets don’t learn about natural death in their training doesn’t mean pet guardians can’t research and discover that animal hospice care and dying in the animal’s own time is possible. She feels that perhaps the biggest topic of all is learning to discern between projecting your own suffering onto your animal and perceiving what actually is going on for the animal. Jasmina speculates that if she had agreed to the suggested euthanasia, Lola would have fought it and it would have been a traumatic experience for herself.

When asked what was the most beautiful part of providing animal hospice care for Lola, Jasmina says, ‘To allow her the freedom of her own choices. To not have taken away her autonomy.” It fills her with great pride and happiness to have been able to let go in that manner. Let go, even though – or perhaps precisely because – as Lola’s guardian she was responsible for her. The people closest to Jasmina all supported her choice, the local vet, however, struggled to accept it. In conversation it turned out that the vet’s own father’s death had been drawn-out and full of suffering which left a deep mark on her and she wished euthanasia for humans would have be available. Aside from the fact that animal hospice care and natural death is missing from veterinary training, this vet’s lack of openness was compounded by the traumatic personal experience of her father’s death. Nonetheless, she did the best she could to support Jasmina and Lola.

If she met someone who was considering providing hospice care for their dying dog, Jasmina would like them to know how incredibly valuable it was to her to not rush a decision when she felt upset but allow the time to calm down and clear her head first. When things look bad, there is a tendency in us to want it to stop as soon as possible. That’s not the right frame of mind to make an important decision such as ending another’s life. In most cases, painkillers or sedation, if needed, will keep the dying comfortable enough to take a few hours to slow down the flurry of thoughts and feelings to find stillness and clarity.

Spending time with Lola’s dead body helped to let sink in what had just happened.

After Lola’s death, they brought her body inside and laid it on her bed. Jasmina wanted to be close and a make-shift bed was created to spend the night on the floor next to Lola. For hours they held a wake for her, remembering one story after another like the time when Lola had eaten a whole tube of liverwurst (including the tube!!!) and they gave her sauerkraut to help the elimination process and there was silver glitter in her poop for days. There was laughter and, of course, many tears.

The next morning, they put Lola’s body in the car and drove it to an animal cremation place about 100 km away. The dead body looked just as beautiful as ever, no fluids of decay had leaked from it. Jasmina chose that particular business for two reasons. Firstly, it sounded like the most tuned-in and caring environment and secondly, she wanted to draw out the time before the final good-bye. On their way they passed through the town where they had first lived and through the forest in which they had walked often and that Lola had loved so much. Handing over Lola’s corpse to the crematorium was very difficult. One more pat, one more kiss, one more look, a few times over before Jasmina could let it go.

Once she receives them from the crematorium, Lola’s ashes will be added to her special memorial altar at home.

If she could have had it her way, Jasmina would have buried Lola, would have arranged a good-bye party with all her friends. Alas, it wasn’t possible. But having the ashes in an urn at home also offers a ‘physical place’ to be with her even though, of course, Lola resides in Jasmina’s heart forever.

Since Lola’s death, every evening Jasmina and her partner retrace the steps from their last walk together. As a symbol that she is with them, Jasmina hangs her dog’s lead and collar around her neck. They call it ‘walking Lola’s memorial track’ and will continue this little ritual until the Christmas lights are taken down. Jasmina uses this time to remember consciously that last day and how perfect it was. She says that too often we think back and jump on the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ trains of thought that can make us doubt ourselves and our past actions. It helps her anchor the whole experience deeply in love, harmony and beauty. There is so much gratitude and an all-pervading sense of ‘it was perfect, all of it, exactly the way it was.’ This gratitude, Jasmina says, is so much bigger than the bereavement she also feels. Lola taught her so much by simply always bringing her back into the here and now, helping her to regain trust in the basic goodness of life.

Jasmina thinks of Lola as her master teacher.
Original image edited by Sabinananda
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).

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