Animal hospice care: socially connected in spite of loss of mobility

Rather than a fixed set of standards, I’d like to suggest that quality of life is individual and changeable. How creative can we be in providing activities and circumstances that bring our dog joy when they have a decrease or complete loss of mobility? How do we mentally engaged them in a meaningful way? How can they be included in everyday life appropriately?

After Louie had a stroke, he had lost much of the ability to coordinate his body and he was unable to get up at all. One of Louie’s greatest pleasures has always been our morning walk. The pace had become more leisurely in recent months but that didn’t take away from the contentment he got out of sniffing the many scents, eating wombat poo whenever he could find any and leaving his cocked leg messages on fence posts and other important places. All that was impossible now. Or maybe it wasn’t?

I posted on a local on-line notice board asking if anyone would lend me a gardening trolley or something similar I could use to take my dog with me on walks. I received several offers and we “test drove” a few to figure out which one suited us the most. Which one offered enough space for Louie to fit comfortably and safely? Which one was easiest for me to use? Push or pull? How heavy was it?

This is a bike trailer that can also be pushed like a pram.
A wagon with soft sides.
A pram. I had to strap Louie in with a tie-down to make it safe. The awesome custom wheels worked well on the unsealed ground.

In the next photo is the one that worked best for our circumstances. Someone who recently lost their dog lent me this wagon with the right type of tyres for walking on unsealed roads. They used it for their chocolate Lab when she had lost her mobility. All sides can be individually opened which is useful. Thus Louie found his perfect Cadillac.

Walter is a 14-year old Golden Retriever nearing end of life and is experiencing some loss of mobility too. One of Walter’s great pleasures is meeting his dog friends in the park and thanks to his Cadillac this is still possible, fulfilling his need for connection with his own kind.

Photo used with permission by Walter’s human.

Your dog loves the beach? A trampoline bed makes for a comfortable and safe stretcher that is easy to carry. Doesn’t Walter look like royalty on his palanquin?

Heavy and awkward for one person, no problem for three! Most people when asked are delighted to help make the day for a senior dog.
Photo used with permission by Walter’s human.
Meeting old and new friends, is there anything better for a social butterfly?
Photo used with permission by Walter’s human.

Part of our property is extremely soggy in winter, anything with wheels gets stuck. We had trees down after a storm and the ground was littered with branches, the trampoline bed stretcher idea would have been too treacherous. I improvised on the spot – et voilà, the IKEA bag dog carrier was born! You wouldn’t want to walk like this for a long distance but it worked to get us where we were spending the day cleaning up the storm debris and it meant Louie could be with us.

A dying body can be fragile and not so capable anymore to regulate body temperature. It can overheat just as easily as get too cold quickly. Rather than putting Louie in the damp grass, we put him on a bed. When he started panting I knew it was time to move him from the sun into the shade. There I monitored his temperature via checking his paws and ears in case he got too cold and needed to be moved into the sun again or covered with a blanket.

The dying don’t need to be excluded.
Appreciating life.

Less is more. At this stage in a dog’s live their energy levels are pretty low, so activities are best kept short and for the most part they participate by watching. There will come the time when your dog sleeps a lot and is no longer interested in such outings and this level of interaction. I find simply spending time outside with Louie “doing nothing” is very nourishing. Nature therapy, very soothing for the nervous system. The serenity of letting thoughts rise without engaging with them, simply listening to the soundscape, taking in the earthy scents, sensing the breeze and warmth of the sun, feeling Louie’s weight on me, it all adds up in the understanding that this hospice journey is about allowing. There is nothing to do, nowhere to be.

When I say that there is nothing to do I mean that there is very little to do. Caring for a dying dog’s needs is very simple, toileting, offering water and food, assisting in switching positions, administering remedies. It’s little deeds to maintain comfort. So, the doing part is caring for the needs of a dying body. But there is nothing else to do, no making better or fixing.

Not being able to make things better can be challenging for a mind that is conditioned to exclusively value growth . It seems so wrong. We don’t do brokenness well. “But isn’t there something more I could do?” presses the mind.

The relationship of our dying animal with other animals in the household may change. Some animals withdraw from or show aggression towards their dying mate, others become closer and provide comfort. A dying dog can be more sensitive and startle easily. It’s wise to monitor and observe. If in doubt, keep your hospice pet safe in a place where the others don’t have access unsupervised.

Ally the cat loves Walter and most of the time can be found lying by him.
Photo used with permission by Walter’s human.

Loss of mobility doesn’t need to be your dog’s death sentence. With creativity and help from family, friends and the wider community when needed your dog can continue a life worth living.

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