Losing a loved one is never easy and the fact that it's a pet doesn’t make it any different. A medical situation can change gradually, or develop suddenly almost overnight. Knowing that the end is near is a dog owner’s worst nightmare, but in some ways, it can be bittersweet too, because it gives you time to say goodbye and ease the transition for yourself, your dog, and everyone in the family.
Scientists today say that grieving after losing a pet can be just as painful as after a loss of a human life, and in certain cases it's devastating for a pet owner's mental health. Preparing for the inevitable can give you a way of dealing with the coming loss of your dog. You can't control how long he's going to live or solve all of his inherent health problems, but making choices where you can will give you a certain sense of control during this difficult period.
Give yourself permission to feel exactly how you're feeling and time to process what’s going to be a big change in your life. The sadness associated with a loss of a dog we feel is because of how much we love ours pets, and when we think about it that way, it’s a beautiful thing.
Although it's a very hard time, being able to take your dog home for his last few days of life can actually be a blessing in disguise. It gives you time to calm your pet and help him to feel loved and appreciated before he passes. It gives him the opportunity to spend his last days with the family that he loves.
15 Ways to Spend Last Days With Your Dying Dog
1. Measure the Cost of Medical Interventions and Tests
Love can’t be measured, but when a dog is obviously suffering because of illness or age, certain costs have to be taken into consideration before making medical decisions. It’s possible there might be a treatment or test available, but it might not be worth it.
I’m not talking about money, but about the emotional and physical costs to you and your dog. You might be able to get more time, or more knowledge, but if it doesn’t add to the quality of your lives together, you might regret it.
2. Do the Quality of Life Check-List
There's something called HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale for dying dogs, or what pet owners casually call When to Put Down Your Dog Checklist. So think about ways to improve these issues for your dog, and ask your vet for advice:
- How much pain is your dog in?
- Can he breathe normally?
- Can he see and hear normally?
- Are hygiene and grooming needs being met?
- Is he able to perform his favorite activities?
- How much control does he have over his bodies and mobility?
- Is he able to eat and drink normally?
- Does he seem comfortable and content?
- Are you both able to sleep? Is the dog sleeping all the time?
- Is he able to socialize normally, or is he isolating himself, visibly anxious, or depressed?
- Is he able to think, communicate and behave normally, or does he seem disoriented, confused or stressed?
3. Deal With Your Shock, Denial and Grief
You will probably go through a number of emotions as you say goodbye to your beloved dog and all of them are understandable and natural.
The process of grief begins as soon as you hear your pup's diagnosis, not just after your dog dies. It might not even seem real. Guilt, anger and depression are common, as well as bargaining and looking for ways to control what’s going on.
4. Explain Things Carefully to Younger Children
The upcoming death of a dog can be even more devastating for a young child, but it’s better to be honest, and let them say goodbye in their own way. Just explain the situation in an age appropriate way. Young children often don’t have a full understanding of death, so they’ll have a lot of questions that you’ll probably have to answer repeatedly.
There are children's books that might help them understand too, and you can read them together with your dog. Some books you may want to look for include:
- Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
- When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
- Jasper's Day by Marjorie Blain Parker
- Toby by Margaret Wild
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
Tell your child it’s no one's fault and a natural part of life. Be careful how you describe what’s going to happen because children tend to take things literally.
If you tell them that their dog will have to be put to sleep, it could make them afraid to go to sleep themselves, or if you say their pet has to go away, they might think their dog will come back.
5. Let Older Children Get Involved
Older children are able to understand illness, age, and the dying process. By allowing them more participation, you can give them a chance for closure. Let them talk to the vet and ask any medical questions they might have.
Be open and honest about any decisions you’re going to make about treatments, tests or euthanasia. It’s unfortunate, but learning how to handle sadness and difficult situations like this is an important part of growing up.
6. Know When to Reach Out
Ask your veterinarian about local support groups or telephone hotlines, and tell your family, friends, and the people who love you what’s going on, including your minister if you attend church, or get grief counseling.
7. Accept that Some People Around You Won't Understand
Not everyone is lucky enough to experience the kind of bond that you have with your dog. Sometimes, other people mean to say comforting words, but they just don't think of animals as real family members. Don’t let others make you ashamed of your feelings.
8. Deal with Your Dog's Incontinence and Vomiting with Compassion and Understanding
Serious illness and age, sometimes brings its own humiliations. It can be difficult and shameful for a dog to lose the ability to control his bladder and bowels or to throw up. He might even expect to be punished.
Be gentle, as you explain to your dog that it really is okay and a natural part of what’s happening to his body. Do what you can to make the dog comfortable by covering furniture and putting out puppy pee pads, but don’t let him hide alone with his guilt.
9. Use Rituals for Comfort, and Plan Ahead
It might be a difficult and uncomfortable subject to discuss, but decisions will have to be made about your dog’s final arrangements. If you prefer to bury your dog instead of cremation, you’ll need to decide where. If you are a religious person, incorporating your beliefs into these final days and afterwards might be helpful too.
There are pet funeral homes and cemeteries, or you might want to look into cremation. Funerals can help everyone in the family process their grief, but while your dog is still with you, you might want to give him a formal goodbye, giving everyone a chance to express their love and sadness out loud or in a letter.
Some people make memorial donations to express themselves in a concrete way as well. Just having a plan and answers to these difficult questions can bring its own comfort.
10. Help Your Dog Say Goodbye, Too
It’s easy to focus on the human side of things, but this isn’t just happening to you and the two-legged members of your family. Your dog probably knew something was wrong before you did. Even if that isn’t the case, he's definitely sensitive to his owner's emotions.
You don’t want your dog to think that it’s his fault you're sad, or that he's done something wrong. Any pet lover knows how much animals can understand. Talk to him, and let him know it’s okay to let go. Tell him what’s going to happen, and that he’ll always be in your heart.
11. Live Together in Those Last Days
When you know it’s the end, make the most of the time you have left. Use it to celebrate your bond. Make your time about living together while you can, not about dying. It's a great time to do yours and your pet's favorite things, spoil your pooch a little and make plenty of new memories for the future.
12. Create a Family Bucket List of Final Things You Want to Do With Your Dog
Speaking of things to do in the last few days, let everyone in the family, and even your friends who love your dog, brainstorm a list of things to do together before saying goodbye. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Visit a favorite place together, one last time
- Give your dog treats or a favorite food
- Surround him with favorite toys
- Do a cherished activity together or just cuddle
- Make a special bed to help ease his last days
- Take photos or spend some time looking at pictures of the good old days and reminisce
- Comfort yourself too by creating a relaxing atmosphere, playing music, lighting candles, whatever helps you personally
- Remove unneeded distractions like the telephone, TV, and the Internet
13. Learn About Euthanasia and Hospice
The last days of a pet bring with it some of the most difficult decisions a dog owner has to make. The good news is that in many places there are more options than there used to be. We can find ourselves just praying for our pet to peacefully pass away, so we won't have to do anything.
Sometimes though, the only thing we can do is to ease our canine companions passing and end his pain. However you decide to deal with your dog’s last hours, emphasize to everyone in the family, especially yourself, that this is your final act of love as you explore your options.
Ask if the vet makes home visits for euthanasia or if hospice care is an option, so the dog can pass away naturally but still be pain-free. If nothing else can be done, arrange for an appointment after hours or at the end of the day, so you don't have to worry about facing other people in the waiting room, and you can take some quiet time to deal with your emotions.
14. Realize That Our Loved Ones Never Really Leave Us
It’s important to memorialize and celebrate our love for our pets, not just right after they die, but for the rest of our lives. The pain will become less sharp over time, but it’s okay to continue missing them. It’s better for you to focus on when your dog was happy and healthy though.
15. Find Your Own Ways to Cope With Your Dog's Death
Everyone in the family needs to have the freedom to deal with things in their own way and at their own pace. Here are some things that might help:
- If you find yourself wanting to talk to your dog again – do it, and don't feel silly about it if that eases your pain;
- Find a special place for your dog's photo;
- Make or buy a grave marker or special memorial for your home or garden;
- Buy your child a stuffed toy that reminds them of their beloved dog;
- Holidays, anniversaries and birthdays can be difficult – find a way to honor those feelings and incorporate your dog’s memory into your celebrations;
- Talk about your feelings as a family or to a professional;
- Discuss any decisions about getting a new pet in the future, but don’t do anything anyone isn’t ready for – don’t be pushed into anything by other people, even if they have good intentions.