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.

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