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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Armchair pet activism can easily deep dive into a sea of vitriol, and sometimes unfairly so

As most of you already know, I spend a lot of time engaging on social media. There's a constant flow of insight, ideas—and a willingness to help when there is a pet in need. Despite what many might think because of today's political climate, there are a lot of folks who are using social media platforms to do things for the greater good. And then there are some who think they are, but are seriously misguided. This of course has nothing to do with the quarterly jobs report or health care or goodness knows what else floats through our feeds. 

It's armchair pet welfare activism. But, it goes even deeper than that someone eager to make that first comment time and time again on how they'd love to adopt that sweet homeless dog that's been featured on Twitter if only they didn't already have enough canine mouths to feed, but that's as far as it goes. Deeper than those who foolishly admonish the [over]use of life-saving vaccines when they see and share an out-of-context online post by a less-than-reputable source (oh! fake news!), if they even bother to read the article. It's almost as downreaching than the loathsome bashing of the veterinary industry; "...they're only trying to make money off of people by ordering all of that unnecessary bloodwork and those tests," when said people haven't given the doctor enough to go on because they've not kept track of how long any number of symptoms that the pet is presenting with have been plaguing them.

We've all seen it, and I've watched more than my share of it, though I'll admit that my lens is probably different because of my profession. Sure, I read things and exchanges between people online that cause a knee-jerk eye roll, but others infuriate me. One of which is the intense judgement of people on their fellow pet owners. 

A few days ago, I was browsing Facebook and saw a photo of a small breed dog on a well-known lost pet page based in Michigan. He needed some grooming at the time he was found (a few of my charges do too, not uncommon) and he was wearing a doggie diaper (also not as uncommon as you'd think). The photo was accompanied by a couple of snide paragraphs written by the individual that found the dog (and continued in the comments), which clearly set the stage for what was to come next: a seemingly endless string of seething, judgmental comments about the owner. Even a bit of a witch hunt ensued. There wasn't one happy comment that the dog had been reunited. There was, however, plenty of vitriol toward a woman whom the countless number of commenters—nor the finder—had ever spent a [measurable] amount of time with.

What struck me from the start was that there was no context—something that is vital, in my opinion when reading anything about humans and pets. No context to the relationship between the human and the dog, how the pooch get separated from their family (they're a family, remember) and so much more. There wasn't one glimpse of what kind of life that woman has. All that was illustrated was that the owner is a neglectful, selfish woman who doesn't deserve to have the dog.

Ignorant b****



 These are just a few of the words. 

What I mindfully gather from the limited exchange that the finder and the family had, is that the owner could very well be feeling the effects of being frantic over their pet becoming lost. She could have been frazzled, overwhelmed and have few resources, financial or otherwise to have help with their dog during the time they're at a job they might really hate. Who knows? Maybe she also has to take care of an ailing parent, or maybe she got the worst news of her life the morning her dog went missing. She might have lost her husband a month ago or have a child with special needs. Maybe she's mentally ill. She just might be doing everything she can all the while hoping she doesn't lose her s**t and everything with it. There's a chance that the animal/human bond has been degraded somehow for reasons unbeknownst to the outside world, and she's giving her all so that it doesn't break.

But no one knows, because no one asked, they only judged—from the safety of their smartphone. 

In my professional life, I've seen this: families who are frazzled, disempowered, lacking in resources of all kinds. They are some or all of that and more and most of the time, people want to do better but if they don't have the resources, they can't. But maybe they could if they had a little encouragement. And they often do. 

Judgement like this does nothing. But empowering others does. Maybe it'd be mindful to think about that the next time we're in the midst of another human who is demonstrating a reaction that we don't quite understand or doesn't fit a situation when it comes to their pet or otherwise. Who knows. We might be in their shoes one day when we least expect it, but one thing is for certain: we'll be judged in some way.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- and the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The bucket-list for pets, re-imagined

Years ago, I had an idea to do a piece on bucket lists for pets, and it was one of the most well-received posts I've ever written. The reason isn't surprising, really. When we become aware—usually with a confirmed diagnosis by the vet or in other cases when it's clear that, because of age-related decline, the sand in the hourglass is dwindling at hyper speed—we naturally want to squeeze out every day with our companion animals. People shared their stories with me since that time, and they've been left with some terrific memories. What's really great about it is that the human-animal bond not only remained intact, but was strengthened. 

That's the goal, right? 

Though our interactions to carry out what we deem to be a bucket list may differ a lot between cats and dogs, I think its fair to say that we spend a lot more time living vicariously through our canine friends. Wouldn't you agree? Dogs go places with us; they are most often welcomed to join in the fun with family gatherings, they sometimes travel with us—I've even had clients take their four-legged friends with them on their sailboats or private planes when they felt it was manageable for any given trip, rather than leaving them in my care. And believe me, I am not disappointed when a client says, '...oh, we decided to take the dog this time. It'll just be the cats at home,' because a family taking any opportunity that they can to foster the human-animal bond makes me giddy. 

But when we feel motivated to give our dogs the experiences of their lives, at perhaps a time when they're least able to enjoy or manage it can leave us feeling conflicted. That's if we're able to, in our haze of anticipatory grief, recognize that's the case. Yes, it's hard. 

During this time, we often plan out epic road trips, long walks, all of our attention. We give them food we'd never consider dishing up at any other phase of life. All of this is happy-making stuff, as I call it. Until it's not. Until it's too much. When it's too hard to manage; when there's not enough energy to muster or breathing is too difficult for the extra distance on that walk; or when pain medications (or absent or insufficient pain management, in some cases) won't allow for enough comfort to actually enjoy any car ride; when our pet is just too tired because they've not been able to get adequate rest on one day or night or a stretch of days because of changing physical or emotional needs, or they've been up in the middle of the night and couldn't get comfortable.

I've seen my share of cringeworthy situations when someone—who honestly is only trying to do good—stops by with their furry friend during their hospice or end of life on a bucket list- or even a 'last car ride' on the day or two before euthanasia, to visit with others, including me, or maybe to grab a last cheeseburger or order of fries. Though I can understand the sentiment, I see so much more: frightened, pleading eyes, grimacing expressions, painful looks from the pet. The effort of getting around and into a vehicle, not to mention the car ride that at that point might be daunting to physically manage because of pain or even make them nauseous. Ditto for upset tummies that reveal themselves on my mid day visits and set them off-course because they've indulged in too much yummy food that their humans have served up. 

Have you ever been recovering from a whopper of a bug or even minor surgery, only to over do it and feel like you've physically and mentally taken a few steps back in your recuperation? Yes, that. It's tough, right? 

The intention of a bucket list is to provide joy, enrichment, sucking the marrow out of life. But don't let the term 'bucket list' slant your thinking. At some point, all a bucket list might consist of is having a good, comfortable day spent alongside one's inner circle of trusted loved ones—or it's simply spent being allowed to try and sleep in peace. That might be towards the end, or somewhere in between on a day that's just no darn good at all. The latter happens. It's okay! It's a time to re-evaluate things, or at the least go to plan B or C. 

My plea: yes, do that bucket list. Please. Only, do so from the vantage point of a pet that wants so much to spend meaningful time with you but might just be too tired, painful, nauseous and/or anxious on any given day to muster what they could do weeks or months before, with unlimited joyful complicity. Consider taking that shorter walk, a hop in the car for a quick car ride on a cool day when everything seems to be all-systems-go, give just a satisfying taste of that yummy food (maybe more frequently).

That bucket list? It's about the human-animal bond, about spending time together, and during a pet's final weeks, it's all about the animal companion at the center, not solely about how we humans want to do things. Even better, while your pet is in good health, perhaps younger, take a cue from how they live: seize the day. Don't wait to do fun stuff. Make having the "bucket list" mindset a habit. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- and the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alternatives to catnip can be a happy-making boon for fussy or geriatric cats

Enrichment for indoor cats is the focus of a lot of talk these days, which is something I'm glad to see. With the push to keep cats indoors, it's keeping them healthier and safer, but in all honesty, many cats are bored to death. 

Cats are hunters. In the wild, they hunt, eat, groom, sleep, repeat—24 hours a day. They don't suffer boredom the way that indoor cats do. In a piece from earlier this year, I highlighted just one of the ways that veterinary professionals are trying to combat that. But there's so much more that we can do.

I often recommend using catnip as a form of enrichment in cats, especially those who are indoors-only, but it's also useful in other ways. 

Before taking cats to the vet, medicating them or administering sub-q fluids, I give them a little to set a positive tone, and coupled with Feliway it's especially effective. I also use it as an enhancement to boost a waning appetite in older cats, especially those struggling with inappetence associated with chronic kidney disease. Give said kitties a little catnip a few minutes before setting down a dish of food, and that can pique their interest. 

Some say that the herb doesn't seem to have quite the same effect on their feline friends, and for others, it doesn't seem to elicit the same effect as it once did. But there's some good news: they might have an alternative. 

A recent study on how catnip and three other plants—silver vine, valerian root and Tatarian honeysuckle—affect cats, yielded some interesting results. 

Researcher and owner of Cowboy Cat Ranch, Sebastiaan Bol, got the idea to test how the old standby fared alongside the other plants, and used participants from a cat sanctuary, a shelter, an animal hospital and even those living in family homes. The cats were divided into three behavioral categories: those who tended to be scared or shy, an intermediate (cats who had interest in being approached and would accept being petted) and affectionate cats (those who would approach and ask for pets).

Age, nor personality didn't seem to matter in terms of responding favorably and the same was true in terms of the sex of the cats. It does seem important to note that those who were more advanced in age had less-intense responses when given any of the plants. 23 of the 100 cats included in the study responded to all four.

Overall, silver vine was the most favored of the offerings, followed by catnip, Tatarian honeysuckle and lastly, valerian root. 

I found this study especially intriguing as in working with a lot of older cats, I'm looking for more ways to offer additional enrichment when the more traditional tools in my arsenal have fallen out of favor. If your cat isn't feeling the love when given catnip, you might perhaps try a different brand, or you can even consider introducing some silver vine.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice -- and the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fireworks season can be easier on pets and families with a tailored approach

Each year at this time, just as many other people here in Michigan, I delight in the arrival of the extended daylight hours; the warmer weather; not worrying about ice-covered roads; outdoor gatherings. Fireworks isn’t included on that list, and though I can appreciate other’s enthusiasm for them, they are the bane of those who share life with pets.

The noise is the chief offender when it comes to frightening pets, but I've no doubt that if the light and smell resulting from them are within a detectable distance of a pet, they’re contributors, too. It’s understandable; the loud pops and bangs are confusing and occur without any sense of place. Though it need not be a precursor, for a pet that already has some level of anxiety or fearfulness, the things that make fireworks enjoyable to humans only feed the behaviors that signal to us that our pet is having even more trouble coping. 

Over the years, I’ve had more companion animals in my care that find themselves in this situation than I care to count. My own dogs were included in that group. I’ve learned a few things in that time, and thankfully, there are more strategies and tools to help stave off the anxiety and fear associated with the nightly light and noise shows—and to assuage it if it’s already a problem. The key, as is the case with so many things, is to anticipate and plan ahead.

The approaches of using storm treats, T-Touch and Thundershirts is something that I’ve written about in the past, but there’s still more that families can do to keep the peace during these particularly taxing periods of time. Whether you've a young pet or an old friend in hospice or end-of-life—the latter posing its own set of emotional challenges—there's some flexibility in choices. 

Pheromone analogs aim to appease

A staple in my day-to-day work, pheromone products work to promote a sense of calm and well-being in dogs and cats, and can be found at vet clinics, better pet stores or online. What are pheromones and how do they work? Pheromones are natural chemicals produced by mammals, and different types serve various functions depending on where they are secreted, but in this case, we're focusing on the ones that aim to appease, happy make, feel good. A synthetic form of the real thing, Adaptil for dogs, and Feliway for cats are available in a plug-in diffuser, spray and for dogs, families also have the choice of a collar.

Herbal and nutraceutical approaches

Rescue Remedy - What’s in this tiny bottle does so much. Long sought after to alleviate anxiety in humans, there’s a formula for pets, too. Available at better pet and health food stores, no vet prescription needed.

ComposurePro chews – Available from veterinarians, these tasty gems are readily accepted by both dogs and cats. Bovine colostrum- and vitamin-based, this product promotes stress reduction and a sense of calm. 

NutriCalm – A combination of amino acids and herbs, this product is available in capsule form for medium to large-sized dogs, and a liquid form for cats and smaller dogs. As with the aforementioned products and as the name suggests, it can be a help to promote a sense of chill. 

Zylkene – This nutraceutical is something I'm really excited about. While attending a Fear Free workshop in Arizona a few weeks ago, I spent some time learning about this product by the Vetoquinol company. What makes it unique? It's formulated with bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, and is good to implement before potentially stressful situations not limited to fireworks season. Events like a move, bringing a new baby home, a visit to the groomer or vet and even preparing for the transition to an adoptive home are appropriate. Zylkene is purported to allow pets to be more receptive to behavior modification training as well. 

Solloquin – Formulated with an amino acid as well as plant-based ingredients and others., this product from Nutramax Labratories boasts its ability to help dogs and cats get in their chill zone. Additionally, Solloquin is indicated to help address inappropriate elimination in cats, and would be a great addition to help make introductions between established family cats and new-kid-on-the-block kitties go more smoothly. 

Though these products are not pharmaceuticals, and don't cause sedation per se, they still need to be used with care. Despite the fact that you'll likely be able to find them available for purchase online, there's no guarantee of their authenticity through that avenue. The good news is that you can get them through your veterinarian, which is where you can figure out which product or combination thereof is right for your furry friend. Your clinician can help you sort out any possible contraindications with existing herbal supplements, prescription medication and diagnosed medical conditions.

Something new

Sileo, a new prescription option on the market, is designed to home in on one pressing issue associated with fireworks: noise aversion. Launched in May, Sileo is delivered transmucosally and is not sedating. This drug is not indicated for every dog, but that's something your veterinarian can help you decide. It seems mindful to note that there have been reported incidences of overdose in dogs, so it's a must that families (and pet sitters) are clear about how to dose and administer it properly. 

Queue up the tunes

Music is an area of great interest in recent years, and while classical has been touted as the gold standard for soothing anxiety and offering an audible buffer to offending noise in dogs and cats, a recent study suggests that our canine friends respond favorably to reggae as well. What kind of music would be most effective to help a pet in hospice and end-of-life? Harp music. Click here for more. 

No matter if you've one pet or a menagerie, there are plenty of choices to help your family navigate this ever busy and noisy time of year with more finesse.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in providing support to families with pets receiving palliative and hospice care under a veterinarian’s supervision. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Avoiding blanket strategies when addressing a pet's serious health changes facilitates a better experience

It’s not clear which is more challenging to face: the sudden and unmistakable red flags that a pet presents with when a health crisis emerges, or that the little and seemingly insignificant changes that have been unfolding that leaves one feeling hoodwinked after a serious diagnosis. Either way, it means a lot of things; decisions made along with the veterinarians involved and in most cases, becoming quite familiar with the disease, its characteristics and resulting outcomes -- we follow a road map, so to speak.

Maps are helpful. They help us understand more about the journey that we’re taking, no matter how fast we’re barrelling toward the proverbial destination. Maps are empowering, tangible, even if they appear nebulous at times.

It’s easy to look back as a pet ages, or a disease progresses -- or how a pet’s age complicates a disease -- and think, ‘I feel like if I had to go through this again, I’d know and do better,’ and that’s a great thing. (That said, age is not a disease, but the needs of a geriatric pet are far different than that of one in their senior years or younger.) It’s a lot like traveling to a place you’ve been before and naturally feeling more confident about where to go, places you would avoid. But you wouldn’t use a road map for one town to navigate around another, right?

So why would we try that same strategy to cope with a pet’s illness?

It might seem logical to tap into our previous experiences in caring for a pet with serious health issues and apply that to a current situation. To some degree it can be helpful, but rooting our approach solely based on that just complicates things. A knee-jerk reaction of ‘Why would anyone do that?’ is common, but the truth is that there are lots of reasons behind that kind of blanket strategy. The antiquated school of thought that pets prefer to be left to deal with their illness still clouds reality, unfortunately. It’s also easy to get bogged down with the notion of how to manage a pet’s illness in terms of time and other resources. Maybe you know there’s something wrong, but pursuing a concrete diagnosis means getting news that you don’t have the tools to cope with, so denial becomes a safe haven. Using previous experience feels empowering when you don’t feel so great about your ability to deal with what lies ahead. Past experiences with a pet's decline might have been especially poor, and 'going there' again is just too difficult, emotionally. Sometimes it’s much more or even less knotty than that, and I get all of it.

No two pets are alike, and especially in their needs when it comes to a health issue that is impacting them. What works for a pet with advanced kidney disease doesn’t so much for another with bone cancer (and to be honest, not all manifestations of cancer are created equal in the way that they are treated and palliated). I admit it’s not unheard of, after my not seeing a pet for several months to observe unmistakable, startling changes in their health status and gently opening up a conversation with their humans to hear a refrain like, ‘Tessa isn’t showing the same signs of trouble as Marky was when he was so sick. She has to be okay, right?’

Sketching out a fresh road map with your veterinarian that offers clear routes -- as well as the alternate ones that they are so good at coming up with -- to manage a pet’s serious illness, keep them comfortable and avoid undue suffering is crucial. Even if the decision is made to not pursue diagnostic tests to obtain a definitive diagnosis, veterinarians can design (and tweak as needed) a care plan that can offer comfort care and a good quality of life for the duration just the same. Using a faulty parachute crafted solely from the too-narrow focus of previous experience is no substitute for a tailor-made care plan, despite any apprehension about what’s to come. In fact, the latter just might surprise in it’s simplicity, affordability and as importantly, it provides the structure to support the animal-human bond that is so vital to us.  

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in providing support to families with pets receiving palliative and hospice care. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Viewing 'cute' videos of pets through an anthropomorphic lens is a dangerous prospect

Social media is great, though I have to say at times, I find it a little frustrating. No, it's not due to the current political climate, though that could be enough. People love to share things on social media, especially things that are funny or cute, at least things that they think are so.

Several posts per day on Facebook and other platforms contain 'smiling' dogs or those looking 'guilty'. Many seem to demonstrate family dogs 'nannying' the new baby in the house, while others are caught on video pulling off their best Houdini impersonation as they willfully escape their well-secured wire crate. 

When you work with animals, and have a decent working knowledge of animal behavior and health, you see the world through a very different lens than other people do. And when it comes to interpreting what a dog or cat or other creature is doing behaviorally that's very much the case. I do realize that because a video seems fun and happy to others, they feel compelled to share with me. The sentiment is appreciated, but the visuals that I see make me sad.

That dog that's smiling? They're often either very uncomfortable or fearful and demonstrating calming signals—signals to other party that they'd like the current interaction to cease. And as for dogs and guilt, that look that they're offering up isn't one of feeling remorse or an apology, it's a simple learned association based on classical conditioning, whether it be punishment or other exchange that makes the dog uneasy, and yes, yet another signal that they're uncomfortable and communicating that they'd like the interaction to stop. In other words, the dog is displaying appeasement: behaviors that actively or passively, depending on how far the situation had escalated, convey anything from I'm uncomfortable to, this is my limit.

And if a dog is craftily, frantically breaking out of their wire crate, it's not funny, nor is it demonstrative of their intelligence. It's fear—and a clear signal that they can't cope with being confined in that way, and shouldn't be.  

It seems important to mention that those dogs who are seen with the littlest of human housemates to be 'guarding' or displaying other human behaviors or emotions often are very uncomfortable with what is going on and giving clear signals that they need personal space, or want the noise, hugging, tail pulling or otherwise offensive interaction to stop. This is true for families with newborns as well; the wriggling, noisy, tiny human can pose a serious source of feeling overwhelmed for a pet. 

Children are even less able than grown ups to cue in to the calming signals, the demonstrations of fear and other examples of non-verbal communication, and they're the most impressionable and I might add, equally vulnerable as the pets in situations where the animal feels like they've no way to navigate out of them. It's our responsibility as adults, as advocates for both parties, to keep them safe.

This trend of putting our own personal stamp on the way that we think that an animal responds to a situation is well-cultivated thanks to the ease of sharing on social media platforms. Sadly, and it's nothing short of anthropomorphizing at its most vigorous. Interestingly enough it's in sharp contrast to the strides that have been made in understanding animal behavior, which in my view illustrates how much work needs to be done to bring better understanding to the masses. That's not to say that healthy efforts aren't being made. One counter to the misinformation, Occam's Rover—which was created by Jesse Miller, current editor of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAAABC) journal—deconstructs and explains the seemingly harmless videos that are enthusiastically posted on Facebook, Twitter and other places. For less-trained eyes, it helps the rose colored glasses that are much more comfortable when positioned squarely onto the bridge of nose, to slip down, if one is open to that. (Miller also pens the blog, Dogs + Ethics, which is equally terrific and can also be found by clicking here.)

Though it seems heartwarming to think of our four-legged housemates having qualities that seem to be on par with our own, it's important to remember that they're animals, not humans. There's nothing with saying that. We're doing them no favors by imposing unreasonable expectations on them behaviorally and emotionally. In fact, we cause them needless strife. So, much like with any other blurb or content that you find making its rounds on the internet, consider taking a minute to think about what might really be going on before you share. Together, we can better serve our animal friends by seeing them through an unadulterated lens, and not one that we unwittingly filter through wishful thinking.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sedating a pet for euthanasia brings the concept of 'a good death' full circle

By my own admission, I focus on end-of-life and the process of death with both humans and companion animals a lot. As one who has come to specialize in caring for senior and geriatric pets -- especially dogs -- I find myself walking alongside families as they navigate these periods of life with their pets. I’m okay with that, and I do it because I have a desire to. Pets, just like humans deserve to die with as much comfort and support as possible.

Though I had a few experiences with client’s pets meeting the end of the lives in the year’s past, in 2011 I had a deep dive into the lives of two other families. As a freelance writer for, I covered their journeys with end-of-life care and home euthanasia, which were both facilitated by local house call veterinarian Dr. Cathy Theisen. The power and intimacy of those conversations is still not lost on me.

Before too long, I’d be in the midst of death much more closely and with rapid-fire succession. I would see my father through his end, as cancer had its cruel way with him. A year later, one of my dogs would meet the same fate after some hospicing and by 2015 and 2016, I was immersed in the hospice and end-of-life care with my two remaining pets, who were in advanced age, with the help of Dr. Theisen and Dr. Monica Turenne. Those experiences don’t count the many that I've been, to varying degrees in the midst of with charges and their families (yes, the humans, too).

Inexplicably, I haven't felt the urge to run in the opposite direction during any of it. Quite the contrary, in fact. I’ve become very familiar and yes, more comfortable with death, even seeking out educational opportunities to help me navigate death and dying in a professional capacity; I’ve leaned into it, for lack of a better phrase, knowing that if I want to work with animals and their families, it’s a profound and normal part of the calling. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by professionals who have paved a compassionate path. Shying away when the topic of euthanasia comes up doesn’t seem natural to me. The Greek etymology of that word: eu = “good” and thanatos = “death” may seem like an oxymoron to most, and I understand.

My intention of giving my own pets a peaceful passing, whenever that was to be, was months in the making and by all accounts, a positive encounter. And I was all-too-aware that euthanasia might be a part of that. There was help from both doctors and other professionals to ensure that my pets and I were advocated for.

But that’s not so with everyone. And why that’s the case, is complicated.  

In my writing and my hands-on encounters, there hasn’t been another topic that has incurred as much controversy and emotion as euthanasia. And because of my experience, it’s easy for me to understand why. It’s due in part to the notion that concluding that euthanasia is the best option in a given situation -- when all of the physical, emotional, medical, financial resources (or any combination thereof) at our disposal have been exhausted -- is by all means, a huge one. It’s a sensibility of, ‘here we are’. When faced with the limitations that exist, a family might feel like they’re giving up, falling short. (They’re not.) Coming to that crossroads, let me tell you: it’s the most mind-numbing, raw experience you’ll face with a pet.

Past experiences with euthanasia often color one’s decisions about what they want for their pet; they can be empowered by them, they can feel like they’d want to do things a little differently or even be paralyzed by them. The absence of having previously traveled the path of losing a pet doesn’t often offer a buffer of comfort. That can feel like diving into the deep end of the ocean -- at midnight.

One person’s experience with the process of euthanasia highlights a common situation:

After my last pet died -- they were euthanized at the vet’s office -- I know that I couldn’t go through that again. It was too traumatic, for them, and for me. They were stressed, afraid, and yes, feeling the effects of their end-of-life because the drugs were no longer enough. Getting to the clinic was hard, but even worse, was seeing the tension and pain and fear in their face as they passed. I don’t understand, isn’t euthanasia supposed to be humane? It wasn’t what I had in mind for a death that was orchestrated and meant to be easier. I don’t think I’d choose that again. I’d rather they’d died at home and on their own than have to go through that.

Sadly, I’ve heard this kind of thing more than a few times. Folks may keep mum about this when it comes to veterinary staff, but they feel comfortable confiding in me. That is not something that I want families feeling like is their only option, going it alone. And the members of the veterinary community that I know feel the same way. Having a family try to manage a pet in end-of-life without them being medically supported (adequate pain management and getting answers to questions about what is happening, most importantly) isn’t good for the pet, nor the family for obvious reasons. And it surely damages the human/animal bond.

Having the option to have euthanasia performed at home where the pet is familiar and comfortable is a boon and can of course mitigate the problems that arise when trying to transport them to the vet, and house call and hospice vets routinely provide this in their practice. Ditto for some vets that practice in a clinical setting. With all three, planning in advance is necessary of course. I do realize that not everyone is comfortable with the scenario of a pet dying at home. So that, and in other cases where the possibility of a crisis situation availing itself and necessitating euthanasia in a clinic, making the transport of the pet as low-stress as possible is key. Having a plan in place -- one that has been crafted with a vet -- to achieve this is a must.

But aside from having all of that lined up, there is one detail that is, without question, crucial in facilitating a peaceful transition and mitigating at least some of the poor experiences that I mentioned above. It’s the simple act of a pet being sedated for euthanasia.

Sedation is two-fold: it’s not only for the pet’s well-being, but the family attending their companion animal as they are helped along by the vet. Within a few minutes of being given the sedative, the pet drifts into a deep sleep, which I can tell you is inherently a calming segue, an intensely comforting state of being not only for the pet, but for the humans. I’ll share that Gretchen’s passing was especially resonant. She gently closed her eyes after being given the sedative, then settled into the deepest sleep I’d seen her enjoy in months. Then she began to snore -- not just in her tired old dog fashion, but in a way that signaled to me that she had attained a level of comfort that hadn’t been possible in the weeks before then due to her failing body. My instinct was to reach out to her, to pet her carefully, gently because of her advanced osteoarthritis and then I realized something overwhelmingly profound -- I could pet her without any worry of causing her pain. I found myself petting her the way I used to do before her tender joints made it prohibitive. Then, without another thought, I crawled into her bed, cradled myself around her, hugging her, talking to her, listening to her breathe, saying my final goodbye, sobbing tears of comfort and joyful exhaustion and soaking up every ounce of physical contact that was most certainly the gift of gifts from the Universe that I never thought I’d ever have, and dared not ask for.

But only sedation made that possible. It brought the concept of “a good death” full circle, and in itself is an act of advocacy for both the pet and the family. Not every vet sedates a pet for euthanasia, unfortunately. If it were not something that would have been standard with my hospice vet, I would have advocated for myself and Gretchen that she be provided it no matter where that road might have led.

So, as I gently offer, “ sure to talk about sedation” to those in my midst as they indicate they see that euthanasia needs to be a bigger part of the conversation with their vet, I say the same to you.  

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.