End of Life Care for Pets – The Peaceful Transition

Rainbow - Photo credit: http://www.kickapooanimalrescuealliance.com/The-Rainbow-Bridge.html

An important part of responsible pet ownership is helping your pet through the final stages of life. The impending death of your pet brings up all sorts of emotions and questions.  Is my pet suffering? What can I do to make my pet comfortable? What will the end be like? Should my pet be allowed to make a natural transition in my home? Should I euthanize before the condition gets worse? How will I know when it’s time? This post will describe the peaceful transition process so that you will be better prepared to make these challenging decisions.

Death is a process.  Except in catastrophic situations, it does not occur in a single moment. Instead, death occurs over time, hence the use of the term transition when describing it. Stress at the time of transition may make it difficult for you to think clearly and make the best decisions for you, your family, and your pet.  As difficult as it may be to consider your pet’s passing, it is important to explore these questions in advance.  Modern society has a tendency to deny death and to distance ourselves from the process. Consequently, most of us make decisions regarding end of life care for our pet in a vacuum.

While we cannot determine in advance if our pet will transition peacefully, it should be recognized that the natural transition is not necessarily a painful process.  Many pets can be allowed to transition peacefully at home. However, if you plan to pursue a natural transition, it is advisable to have a back-up plan for euthanasia if it is needed. It important to discuss your plans with your veterinarian.The-Rainbow-Bridge

The Peaceful Transition

In the early stages of transition, your pet may need adjustments to his diet and encouragement to eat and drink. Your pet will commonly begin to lose weight and body mass, even if he continues to eat.  A previously continent pet may become incontinent (i.e., he will have bowel and urine accidents). He may feel the cold and the heat more profoundly. At times he may seem disoriented, have a glazed look to his eyes, be lethargic, and reluctant to get up and move about.  He may need assistance standing. He may be less tolerant. There are good days and bad days. During this early stage, your pet will need you to support him in his daily activities, but you and your pet can continue to lovingly connect with each other.

At some point, your pet will enter the active dying process, when essential body systems begin to cease functioning. This stage can take days or hours, or be as short as a few minutes. During this final process, there is very little that needs to be done aside from just being present with your pet, letting him know you love him and that it is okay for him to go. Distractions, such as loud TV or radio and other raucous activity should be avoided.  It is uncommon for the dying pet to experience hunger. Offer food and water, but do not force him to eat or drink. Typically, death occurs within 24 to 48 hours after your pet refuses to take fluids on his own. During this time, his eyes may remain partially or fully open. Blankets or sweaters intended to keep the pet warm may actually feel uncomfortable to him. As muscle function diminishes, the pet may move very little. You may see a decrease in urination and your pet’s mouth may be dry. Your pet withdraws attention from the immediate environment and may no longer respond to his name. While it may seem that very little is happening at this stage, this is an important part of preparing to leave this world.

In the midst of this final decline in physical and mental function, your pet may suddenly regain some lost functionality – he may begin moving about or express interest in eating again. This should not be confused with recovery, but is instead a last effort of the body to use up all of its remaining energy before passing. This brief period during which your pet reconnects with the world can be a wonderful gift, offering you and him a final opportunity to show your love for each other. Shortly, however, you pet will return to his previous state.

Soon, the warmth of the body fades, usually beginning with the extremities. The breath coming from the nose may seem cold. As the digestive system fails, animals who have eaten may have a bowel movement or regurgitate. The time your pet spends Inhaling air becomes shorter and the time in exhalation longer.  These changes in respiration continue until the last breath is taken. During this time, there may be twitching of the limbs or stretching movements as the remaining life force that crystallized to form his being during conception leaves the body and returns to source. In the end, the back and neck often arch backward slightly and your pet peacefully transitions.

There is wide variability in how each animal transitions, so close collaboration with your veterinarian is required to assure that your pet is comfortable.

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