by Cindy Hickman
I used to look at euthanasia as the inevitable end for my loving canine and
feline companions. It was the only option that my vets offered. I always felt
that either I needed to be completely onboard with all the tests, medications
and procedures or else I should opt for euthanasia. After finding holistic
veterinary care, I felt much more comfortable with the options I had for my
senior companions. I saw the benefits that Traditional Chinese Medicine,
including acupuncture and herbs, as well as good nutrition provided for my
animals. This revelation occurred about the same time I discovered massage and
hydrotherapy for my dogs, so the combination of all these modalities was
astounding! I was amazed at how well my animals were doing. But I still felt
that at some point I would have that decision to make…when to end their
About a year ago, two of my clients changed my way of thinking. The first
was a client who contacted me about her paralyzed dog. She said her dog no
longer had any movement in her limbs and was even losing the ability to lift
her head. The dog had to be fed with pureed food through a syringe. Her vets
were not sure what had caused this situation, but said it was similar to ALS in
people. The dog’s muscles were atrophying and the owner thought that the warm
water and massage might feel good to her. Although I had no idea if I could
help this dog, the love and compassion in the owner’s voice prompted me to try.
When I met this dog, I could see that her spirit and personality were intact,
even if her body had failed. We got in the pool together, and this dog loved
it! We floated together as I massaged her and gently stretched her limbs. Over
the months they came for their sessions, I got to know and respect her owner.
The owner had worked in human hospice care and felt that animals should also
live out their natural lives, a concept I had truly never considered for my
animals. This dog lived several more months before passing away peacefully at
her owner’s side.
About the same time I was working with a dog that had lost a leg due to
osteosarcoma, and the owner was aware that the cancer had probably metastasized
to the lungs. The dog did well for quite a while, and then suddenly took a turn
for the worse. The owner decided on euthanasia and asked me to go with her as
she was alone and had never experienced an animal’s euthanasia. I agreed. I
won’t go into detail, but it was the most horrific experience I have ever been
through. I still grieve for that dog, and feel so horrible that his owner’s
last memories of him are so heart wrenching.
Soon after these experiences I heard of the SPIRITS in Transition seminar on
animal hospice. I attended that first seminar in Ashland, OR and the
information that Ella Bittel presented had a profound impact on me. I think the
most important idea was that the option to let an animal live out their natural
life is indeed a viable alternative to either full blown medical intervention
or euthanasia. Ella’s teachings are based on ancient traditions, scientific
knowledge, and the inherent value of the animal’s life. Dying is an important
part of this life. Included in these teachings is the distinction between
hospice care and geriatric care.
In our profession, we have all seen geriatric animals. They have slowed
down, may have arthritis, weak hind ends, incontinence issues or other
problems. They have become more fragile. During this stage, which can last
quite a long time, we are still doing all we can to keep them happy and
healthy. It’s the stage when alternative modalities become so important as they
offer great benefit with far less side effects than conventional medicine. That
stomach upset caused by an antibiotic may not be a big deal in a younger dog,
but can be life threatening in a geriatric dog. There is no doubt that
geriatric care can be a lot of work, but I also find it very rewarding.
The transition to hospice care, which is provided during the animal’s
natural dying process, can be hard to define. Sometimes while providing hospice
care, the animal may rebound and have many more happy months of life. While
this is not the goal of hospice care, it certainly is a fantastic side effect!
What I learned in the SPIRITS in Transition seminar has helped me understand
the stages of the dying process and be more prepared to face this time with my
animals. Now I know that loss of appetite in an animal at the end of its life
is simply a sign the body no longer has use for nutrients coming in as it
brings its processes to a closure. This is very different from “starving”, as
we can learn from human hospice that there actually no longer is a sensation of
hunger. There is also comfort in the fact that dehydration, as may occur in the
last stages of dying, can decrease sensitivity for pain so much that if pain
medication was used before it may no longer be needed.
I feel confident that in the future I can make decisions based on knowledge
and listening for what my companion wants, rather than fear and avoidance.
While my vet is giving their professional opinion, I know that all decisions
are ultimately mine and I want to be the voice for my animal companion during
this sacred time. I am also able to discuss hospice care with my clients, and I
encourage them to really tune in to their animals and trust that they know
their companion better than anyone else.
I believe we can learn a great deal from the way that animals deal with life
and death. A geriatric animal that can no longer participate in activities that
he once found enjoyable doesn’t sit around and mope about his lost youth or
worry about his future, he lives in the moment. He doesn’t look at a quality of
life scale and decide it’s time to check out if he doesn’t reach an acceptable
number. If I would have used the quality of life scale for my senior Dalmatian,
Susanne, last winter, I would have concluded that it was time to euthanize her.
Thankfully, we kept going and this year she is doing great! Yes, we know our
animal companion is going to die eventually, but what a gift to our animals and
ourselves if we can embrace that process and not try to make it fit into our
own timelines and hurried lifestyles. We may have to slow down and spend more
time at home, not such a bad idea, or ask friends for help. Isn’t our companion
Cindy Hickman is the owner of Aquadog Spa and is a Licensed Massage Practitioner, Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, and endorsed as a Small Animal Massage Practitioner.
A note from Cindy Horsfall:
I was so moved by this story that Cindy Hickman and I will be hosting the Spirits in Transition Seminar this May. Please see our calendar of events for more details.
May I be at peace
May I have an open heart
May I know the beauty of my true nature
May I be healed
May my life be a gift of peace in the world