We had to say goodbye to a very dear friend this past week. Our ten year old Irish Setter, Red, decided it was time to move on to his next spiritual journey after a three month fight with T-cell lymphoma. It was sad, to say the least, but as the days have passed the positive floods forward. It is not just recalling when he was a puppy or his hijinks during his middle years but rather the memories of these last couple of months which we turned into a celebration of his life. Though he was on several medications until his departure, we evaluated each one as to the likelihood of side effects, the effect it would have on his quality of life and whether it would make pre existing conditions worse. We were not on a mission to keep him as long as possible but rather to keep him as happy as possible. Sometimes quantity has to be sacrificed in the interest of quality.
What does this mean to you, a pet owner who may have to face this situation at some point of time in your pet’s life? Too often our attachment to our companion animal friends makes it difficult to put things in perspective during times of crisis. We are swept up by the surgeon, the oncologist or the cardiologist. We listen to treatment options, hear the positive but rarely ask about the negative. We feel intimidated at times and perhaps even guilty if we decline services. We are vulnerable, emotional and, in many cases, unable to make logical decisions. Red, for example, was on a treatment protocol that utilized a medication that was potentially toxic to his heart. I was encouraged by several oncologists to use this medication in spite of Red’s pre existing heart condition. Perhaps it would have prolonged his life for a month or two but at what expense? If it caused a worsening of his cardiac disease would he still be able to chase the squirrels? Swim in the pond? Run around and hike with us hours at a time? No one will ever know the answer to this question but we took the safe route. We wanted him being himself until the end. The day before he let us know it was time, he hiked for hours, chased a swan onto the ice of a frozen pond (which he retreated from just as he was breaking through) and ate like a champ. He visited with friends, chewed a rawhide and was as normal as he ever. The next day he gave us his second best gift. The first was having the privilege of having him in our life and the second was letting us know clearly it was time for him to go. Who could ask for more?
As a veterinarian we see pet owners struggle with these decisions daily. During your pet’s years of health, take the time to consider and prioritize the things that you most value in your pet’s life. During times of illness, ASK QUESTIONS! If communications with your vet doesn’t seem quite right, seek a second opinion. Read. Search the internet. Question every treatment that is proposed. Ask about side effects. Inquire as to other options. Don’t be intimidated by doctors. Finally think hard and long about what you want the end of your pet’s life to look like. Illness as well as life is unpredictable. Planning is never wasted.
Though I hope none of you have to go through what our family just did, should the circumstance arise may you celebrate your life rather than regret the end of life care. I know Red certainly did.