Animal hospice care: Zuri’s story

Lindsay used to think of mindfulness as this serious, self-possessed state until her Labrador Zuri inspired a different understanding – being fully absorbed in ecstatic joy, the world consisting of only this very moment. Like what you are eating or the scent you catch on a breeze. Having someone living their life with so much joy and abandon teaches you about being present. The name Zuri comes from the Swahili word meaning ‘beautiful’. A more literal translation, however, is ‘pure good to the extent of being beautiful’. And that’s exactly who she was, pure good.

Puppy Zuri

Lindsay knew Zuri from the moment she was born, or so she likes to think because when she heard that her in-laws’ dog Kwali was in labour, she came as fast as she could, however, all the puppies, eight of them, had been born by then. She sat and patted the new mumma dog when suddenly – surprise! – one more was born, a female. At this early stage it was hard to tell them apart but since there were only three females in the litter chances are good that it was indeed Zuri.

Zuri’s family

With her human family – first two, then three, then four – Zuri lived in Los Angeles, California. When she was eleven years old, still in really good health but slowing down a bit, they moved across to the other side of the country. The main reason for their relocation was Zuri. They wanted her to enjoy her senior years in a more natural environment.

Weekly trips to the beach were Zuri’s highlight of the week when living in LA.

They shifted from a small house without a yard and 30,000 cars going by every day to a mountain in rural Vermont. From their hot home in a canyon with no dog-friendly beaches close-by to a property with creeks and ponds and lots of snow in winter, a Labrador’s paradise.

A bit blurry but capturing perfectly Zuri’s joy
experiencing her first snow in Vermont at age 11.

For three years Zuri enjoyed the wilderness of her new home. Her family grew, now including chickens, bunnies, cats and bees. The country lifestyle offered a diversity of activities that kept her engaged in her senior years, so much so that Lindsay noticed a rejuvenation from what she had accepted to be Zuri’s elderly constitution.

Gardening companion. Zuri especially loved cucumbers.
Her family called them her vegetarian rawhides.
Barn time – daily caretaking of chickens and bunnies.
Making maple syrup – Zuri loved the maple snow cones she got.

In September 2021 it was time for Zuri’s annual vet check. Her family wondered if it made sense to take their elderly but still healthy and happy dog on the long car ride because she never left their mountain home anymore. On the other hand, they wanted her to get a general wellness check, to see if there were any lumps or bumps they might be unaware of. The vet did a thorough exam and gave her an excellent review. He was quite insistent (Lindsay describes it as ‘super pushy’) to give Zuri the lyme vaccine. The family was reluctant because their dog didn’t go out on long walks in the woods anymore but just enjoyed the immediate surroundings of their home where the grass is short and they checked her for ticks every night. Was it really necessary to burden Zuri’s immune system with this? The vet responded that any dog living in Vermont needed this vaccine (it’s not mandatory). They succumbed against their better judgement in the face of this strong conviction. The vet also prescribed incontinence medication because it had been mentioned to him that Zuri was afflicted by it. Again, the family didn’t really want the drug for their dog because they had been managing the condition well, Zuri wore dog nappies when inside that she had no objection to. The vet said it would benefit her muscles and would make her feel better about herself. Hearing that it was good for her body and spirit, they agreed. What harm could it do?

When Lindsay’s husband Collin brought Zuri back home from the vet, she was elated and vivacious. Like every night she was so eager to eat her dinner. A little later she vomited. They didn’t think much of it, attributing it to the general over-excitement of the day. Or, maybe it was a side effect of the vaccine? In any case, they didn’t think it was anything serious. Zuri was fine for the rest of the evening and went to bed as usual.

When they came downstairs the next morning, they discovered that Zuri had thrown up during the night. She did again as soon as they let her outside. She looked wobbly as if she was drunk, she couldn’t find her balance, she fell on her face. She was too weak to stand. Given that their dog had been perfectly fine until the lyme vaccine and incontinence medication, they suspected strongly that one of these substances must have brought this on.

On death’s doorstep, one day after the vet visit.

Not only do they live in rural Vermont where vets are few but it was also the weekend! They rang emergency vets and urgent care animal hospitals trying to find someone to come to them with no success. There were two options where they could take her to be looked at. One had an already eight-hour waiting time. The other one was the vet they had seen the day before. They felt uncomfortable to go back but took her in the end because they were so worried. Zuri received an anti-vomiting injection. Lindsay remembers feeling scared and conflicted because in her mind this vet was responsible for her dog’s terrible condition. However, the drug had the desired effect, no more throwing up. Nonetheless, by the next day, Zuri was so weak, her family feared she was dying. She could barely keep her eyes open, she was unable to move, completely depleted, not wanting to even drink.

Collin remembered what his parents used to do whenever one of their animals was sick, they’d feed them sugar water. Using a spare guinea pig bottle they offered Zuri this concoction. She wasn’t licking at first but she also was not resisting their efforts, allowing the fluid in and swallowing it. As she regained some strength, she started to actively lick. For at least two days they continued this treatment. They also offered her food but Zuri wasn’t interested. Slowly she came around, finally eating again when Lindsay served her duck fillet. When she was all better again, they would joke that she only decided to live because of her hand-fed gourmet meals. Labs and their love of food!

Looking back, Lindsay is still amazed about that turn around from death’s doorstep to running to fetch her ball a week later. She felt like they received a miracle gift with Zuri’s recovery. Lindsay remembered lying by her dog’s side and thinking that she wasn’t ready for her to go yet. She says, ‘I would have never been able to find peace with the idea that we took Zuri to a vet and they killed her. The rest of my life I would have been filled with guilt and deep regret that that was what ended her story because it was so clear that she was perfectly healthy the morning she went to the vet.’ Lindsay believes that Zuri made a decision to stay alive and let them nurse her back to health.

From then on, nobody in the family took Zuri for granted. She’d come back more energetic and life-loving than before. They treasured every moment with her. Lindsay tells me that when they thought that Zuri was dying regrets surfaced about times when they had been impatient or unkind in any way to her. For the remainder of her life – a little more than three months – there was only sweetness and so much appreciation. Lindsay thinks that Zuri felt more loved than ever during this very last phase of her time on earth.

Though Zuri was filled with joy every day, she especially loved Christmas time. Her family has this wooden statue they call ‘Old Man Christmas’ that sits on the mantle during advent. When she was a puppy and Lindsay and Collin in their early twenties, they would hold Old Man Christmas saying, ‘HoHoHo, you’ve been a very good girl,’ and pretend he was giving her a treat. So, every December Zuri welcomed Old Man Christmas and would look at him beseechingly in hope of receiving a goodie.

Zuri and Old Man Christmas

Zuri loved presents and always knew which ones were hers. She’d hold the wrapped gift with one paw and rip the paper off with her teeth. It was simply the jolliest of times for her.

Just after Christmas 2021, the family took a short holiday and organised a trusted house sitter to take care of Zuri. While they were gone Zuri seemed a bit off. When they returned on New Years Day, Lindsay noticed immediately that something had changed because they only received a low-key, quiet welcome from their dog. She didn’t get up from her bed and just gently wagged her tail. Over the next few days they observed that Zuri was lethargic, her typical buoyancy was diminished. Collin thought she likely was just exhausted from the Christmas season’s excitement but Lindsay could feel in her heart that something was very different. It felt like Zuri was winding down. She still loved being outside, lying by the pond, taking in the world but her interest in food waned even though the family offered all her favourites.

Zuri loved to sit and enjoy the green grass (or snow), the pond, the stream rushing by her
all the way through to the end of her life. 
In her last week of life, night and day, someone was always there with Zuri.

On January 18, Lindsay took her for what would turn out to be their last walk. Slowly they made their way around the pond and stopped at a creek where Zuri had a long, long drink. It looked like she was relishing every lick of it. This went on for so long Lindsay started to feel impatient. Just as she was about to call her she suddenly wondered why she always was in such a rush and left her be. Now she feels so grateful she didn’t interfere because this was Zuri’s last drink from her beloved creeks. Then she lied down in the snow and crossed her paws like she often did and Lindsay stayed with her even though she was getting cold and would have preferred to go back inside.

If the humans were unavailable, one of the cats would be there with Zuri providing hospice care.
This is feline nurse Carly.

The next day Zuri ate her last meal. After that she still accepted drops of sugar water but made no effort on her own anymore. She also stopped eating snow which she had still enjoyed. In the last three days of her life there was no more solid or liquid intake.

Kitty Marshmallow providing comfort for Zuri in her last days.

Lindsay and I had met online during a course we both attended the year before. She remembered me talking about providing hospice care for my dog Louie until his natural death and decided to get in touch. Hearing about my support service she felt so relieved. Lindsay’s biggest concern was keeping Zuri comfortable from her arthritis pain because she no longer accepted the chewable meds. After sharing with her what I know on that topic she did her own research and chose CBD oil because aside from its anti-inflammatory effect it also induces calmness.

Learning about what’s normal during the dying process gave Lindsay and Collin so much reassurance. They could make peace with the fact that Zuri’s body was getting to its end and didn’t need food or water anymore. They understood the death rattle when it came, common among the dying, a gurgling sounding breath, and knew it was nothing to worry about and that it is not painful.

Other than on her very last day, Zuri was still able to walk outside under her own steam, toilet and lie in the snow. When she couldn’t anymore, Collin assisted her. Mentally Zuri was responsive to the very end, remaining fully aware of her environment.

Just being together as Zuri’s life winded down. Snuggled up in the blanket with her portrait on it.

The day before Zuri died she climbed onto Lindsay’s lap and pressed her body into that of her human, enfolded in the loving arms she had known all her life. This was not something she’d typically do, especially recently when she only moved very little at all anymore. Lindsay understood that Zuri was saying good-bye. They remained in that hug for quite a while until Zuri got tired and lied down and so did Lindsay. They were on the same carpet they had lied on together the day she came into their home as a puppy. Both exhausted, they conked out on the floor and as she drifted off it occurred to Lindsay that they had come full circle. It was beautiful and sad at the same time. Less than 24 hours later, Zuri died.

Zuri emptied her bowels on her bed, she got soiled to a degree that Lindsay and Collin needed to give her a bath. They carried her into the bathroom and while Collin held her, Lindsay gently cleaned her up with the shower hose. When they carried Zuri back they realised how taxing this process had been for her because she breathed in huge gasps. They feared she had come to her end and told her it was okay to let go, that she had been the bestest girl, that they loved her very much and she was free to leave now. After about ten of these big breaths her respiration returned to normal.

A little later, Zuri had another accident and they repeated what they had done before, this time it took an even bigger toll and she continued the big gasps breathing for quite a while. Again they lovingly reassured her to let go without a worry. Lindsay got down in front of Zuri and gently held her head, with tears streaming down her face she told her dog how much she loved her and that she really could let go, in fact, that she should let go now. Zuri took her last breath then and died. They kept stroking her body, feeling the heartbreak. Lindsay noticed that Zuri had a smile on her face. The smile she knew so well and loved so much. It was bittersweet. She died the way she had lived: filled with joy. That expression on Zuri’s face remained unchanged until they buried her.

The smile. Reminiscent of the one in the family photo above.

A few moments after Zuri had taken her last breath, Lindsay and Collin’s daughters, aged nine and twelve, came into the room and asked if she had died. The girls’ eyes filled with tears and they came to stroke Zuri’s body and told her how much they loved her. The whole family was crying as what had just happened sank in. Lindsay says that it was a really good time of closure. She reflects on how grateful she was that her daughters hadn’t been present for the big gulping breaths before Zuri’s death because it might have been too much for them. But even if they wouldn’t have been bothered by it, she knows that she would have automatically slipped into her mother role and that that would have diverted her focus. As heartbreaking as that moment was, to share it with her husband, holding hands, saying good-bye to their ‘first baby’, was very special and precious.

There for her first and last breath.

Zuri looked as if she was just sleeping. The girls wanted to make sure she was really dead and asked their dad to sleep another night next to their dog. The following morning they picked out the location for her grave. They wanted to make sure her final resting place would be part of their everyday life. Not far from the house and the creek where Zuri took her last drink, just behind the pole on which it says, ‘May there be peace on earth,’ in four different languages, they found just the perfect spot.

Both girls said they didn’t want to be present for the burial because they felt it would be too hard for them to watch. They said their final good-byes to Zuri’s body and went to school.

Lindsay and Collin always thought they would bury Zuri next to her mother Kwali in Pennsylvania. However, a few days before her death they changed their minds. Zuri loved this place, it was her home, so this should be where she went into the ground.

Collin dug her grave in the frozen soil. It was hard work but it felt like part of his process. When Lindsay tells me this I share with her my own healing experience of hand-digging Louie’s grave. I recount that after I had finished I stepped into the hole and lied down. It was tranquil there in this earthy embrace, not cold, alone or horrifying. Hearing my description, Lindsay expresses how helpful my words are to her because burying Zuri was the hardest thing. The thought of a grave feeling containing and womb-like brings her great comfort she says, as if they placed Zuri back into the ‘womb of everything that is’.

The burial was quick with no special ceremony. Lindsay says they were both sobbing, it felt so final then. They lowered her body with the blanket she had died on and put a toy and a tennis ball in with her. They both shovelled the dirt into the grave, smoothed out the surface and put the moss back. Lindsay feels that being present with these tasks was the ceremony.

It meant the world to Lindsay that her extended family all understood that Zuri had been a family member and their responses to her death reflected that. She deeply appreciated receiving sympathy cards, caring calls and offers to visit and support them in person. To be fully seen in her grief like that was healing. Of course, there were also those people who just don’t understand the depth of such a loss. Lindsay remembers telling herself to not take insensitive comments personally because she could see they tried to express their care but simply couldn’t relate to the significance of Zuri’s life.

Lindsay muses that people’s inability to face their own pain makes them uncomfortable when they see you sad. She says, ‘You braced me for that when you suggested I explore my own relationship with pain. And I did. It helped me to get that straightened out before Zuri got really weak. It helped me to realise that I don’t like seeing people I love in discomfort but that I was willing to be strong enough to witness it when it’s the loving thing to do.’

I ask Lindsay what the hardest part was for her in providing hospice care for Zuri. ‘The self-doubt,’ she answers, ‘Am I doing this well enough?’ It was such a vulnerable place to be in, it demanded trusting her heart and intuition. It was helpful to read in my blog articles and other materials that I had pointed her to that it is common during this time to find oneself in a quandary. After all, someone else’s life is in your hands.

Lindsay always felt a deep connection with Zuri. Never more so, however, than during hospice care. At first, it felt as if she was going against her better judgement until she understood the discernment between caring for a sick versus caring for a dying loved one. Learning about what natural death looks like deepened her trust in her dog’s wisdom and accept when Zuri said ‘no’ – to food, to water. She died with that smile on her face that, if Lindsay needed any further proof, said it all.

What brought Lindsay to choose animal hospice care? ‘I always thought it would be such a betrayal to kill my friend,’ she tells me and adds, ‘I am not making a statement broadly speaking but speaking just for me. There are very rare circumstances that I can imagine would have made me choose to end Zuri’s life.’ Lindsay tells me that her daughters expressed repeatedly that euthanising their dog would be an act of injustice. Even though it was hard for the girls to see their fur sister so weak at the end, they both say they wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Lindsay tells me that Kwali, Zuri’s mum, died at home too. Peacefully, in front of the fire place, surrounded by her family. They buried her in their back yard. This experience shaped Lindsay’s thoughts and expectations about Zuri’s end of life.

What is Lindsay taking away as precious from providing hospice care for Zuri? ‘Seeing her truly live until she died.’ Watching her lying in the snow, paws crossed, taking everything in fully present even a few days before her death. Experiencing that it all happened at Zuri’s pace, respecting her choices – to stop eating, drinking, and so on. Knowing that her dog was the one leading the process helped Lindsay to know that all that was truly asked of her was to support Zuri as she went through the very end of her life. Zuri’s dying was clear and graceful. Fully taking in the joys that were still available to her and at the same time surrendering to the winding down of her body. Lindsay finds comfort in knowing that they had been there for Zuri’s entry as well as exit from life and that the in-between was filled only with love.

One thing she plans on doing differently in the future is to find a vet she really likes and build a good relationship with them.

Lindsay tells me how the dying process reminded her of when she was in labour. A lot of waiting, a lot of ‘doing nothing’, trusting and surrendering to the process and afterwards that sense of having experienced something monumental and sacred, followed by the need to heal.

Zuri never held back, giving everything in every moment. Being able to do the same for her in the end gave Lindsay the feeling of having done right by Zuri. She says it surprised her to hear the words, ‘You should go now,’ out of her own mouth. They came directly from her heart. It was so clear how Zuri was still thinking more of them than of herself, holding on even though her body was so tired and done because they were so sad. The shift from ‘you can go’ to ‘ go now’ was the release Zuri needed. She died immediately.

When I ask Lindsay if she has any advice for someone who is contemplating providing hospice care for their own dog when the time comes she blurts out, ‘To make sure they have you to support them.’ We both laugh. ‘I really mean that,’ she says, ‘it’s such a vulnerable time. It’s important to have someone knowledgeable. Someone who can bring you a sense of confidence. You supported me to trust that I have the resources within myself to understand what my dog needs. That I was giving a gift and not acting irresponsibly. I think it’s vital that people who do this have someone to guide them, especially because the prevalent opinion is at that point to do the so-called kind thing and take your dog to the vet to be euthanised.’

I tell Lindsay that the answer to this question is always the same. It also echos my own experience. The emotional support from someone who has been there is essential to walk this path steadfastly.

I ask Lindsay what her daughters’ grief looked like. The nine-year old, usually quick to shrug off any type of hurt, cried profusely and often. The twelve-year old hardly shed a tear which made her feel terrible and she worried that her family thought she didn’t care when in fact she cared so much. After a few days she realised that her grief expressed itself differently. Little things that normally wouldn’t trouble her suddenly bothered her a lot and made her sob. All at once her sensitivity was amplified. She couldn’t weep over Zuri directly but quickly felt upset over the smallest thing and fell to pieces.

Indi

Lindsay describes her own grieving process, ‘I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get another dog because of how much my heart ached after saying good-bye to Zuri. I realised that I’ll always going to miss Zuri but there is a special part of my heart that just needs to have the healing to come through loving another dog. Even though it’s not that my grief is ever going to be gone or that I’ll stop missing her. It’s like the only balm to my soul that was going to be effective is having that type of relationship again. She created such a huge space filled with her love that without another dog it was just too vast to bear. It feels like it helps me to connect even more with Zuri. It’s the legacy of my love for her that makes me able to love Indi [the new puppy]. My love is Zuri-shaped and it comes out for Indi but at the same time it’ll always be an homage to Zuri.’

The nine-year old daughter did not want another dog at first. She said it would be too much, too hard. Her parents didn’t force the issue. A few days later she changed her mind. Lindsay reassured her that welcoming a puppy into the family neither meant they were betraying Zuri nor that they were over their grief. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the girl. She oscillated between excited enchantment with the new puppy and tearful overwhelm. Her parents honoured her grieving process and helped her work through these feelings.

When looking for a new puppy, Lindsay kept coming back to the same one. There was just something about her. She was wearing a purple collar, just like Zuri had been the purple puppy of her litter. The name ‘Indi’ kept popping into Lindsay’s head. Researching what ‘Indi’ could be short for they found ‘Indira’ which means beauty in Sanskrit. Remember, Zuri means beautiful in Swahili? Lindsay says, ‘Even though a part of me is skeptical about such things, it’s a beautiful thought that Zuri’s spirit was involved in bringing Indi into our life. Or at the very least, my love for her guided me in this process.’

Support for providing hospice care for your 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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