I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on a very difficult topic - death. Each one of us pet owners will be faced with the loss of our companion. It is not unusual for our personal views regarding our own mortality to become involved in the decisions we make for our pets.
Some owners are unable to let go of their animal companions and cling to every last shred of hope. These people need confident direction and understanding to allow their pets to die with peace and dignity.
I have long ago realized, it is my place to let these owners know it is time to stop hoping and allow their friend to pass on peacefully. We need to take care of them in their dying. Because of the shorter life span of animals, I will outlive most of my patients. I see them born and I see them through their death. This is very different from human medical practitioners who still insist on treating death as a disease, rarely seeing a patient’s life cycle in its entirety.
Owners often ask me how I can be sure it is time for their friend to die. In Chinese medicine it is believed dying is associated with the loss of shen, the vital life force that is seen in a patient’s eyes. Having stared into many dying eyes, I have come to believe this is true.
I also understand the physiological changes a patient experiences from life threatening diseases – pain, weakness, nausea, respiratory distress, numbness, and unrest. I also spend time talking to my owners who will give me a clear picture of their friend’s quality of life and his priorities in life.
This is different for each patient – some dogs need to take that daily excursion to the mailbox while others are content to curl up on the couch with a view of Mom and Dad getting the mail. Your cat may find it very important to make the upstairs trek to the litterbox, while others will accept you moving it to the kitchen, underfoot and all.
Each one with special needs and individual personalities, your pet will try to make these decisions very clear. And if you can’t understand or see clearly through your tears, we are here to guide you through this process.
There are some premises which all of us must respect. Animals do not fear death and that is not because of ignorant bliss, but rather an appreciation of the power of nature and her continuous cycles: the planets revolving around the sun, the moon revolving around the earth, the change of the seasons, night turning to day, water to vapor then back again as rain, and on and on and on. They are still connected to the laws of nature and know no fear; they just accept what they cannot change.
Sometimes my patients are anxious, whining and restless, but I have come to realize they are worried about their people! Their Mom and Dad are crying, afraid, and unsure.
Is it not the pet’s job to lick their tears away and wag their tail so hard that their parents will start to smile? But they can’t, they are dying and it seems like their parents need them more than ever. It is important for owners to know they need to let their friend move on; his duty of bringing unconditional love and joy has been fulfilled.
A second premise must be mentioned. Our friends do not wish to live forever. They are not looking for quantity, only a quality of life. They have a purpose here; they are temporary gifts which must be returned.
Our pets take away our pain, suffering, loneliness, selfishness, anger and misfortune. With a warm purr or happy woof, they try to teach each of us how to live as better human beings.
If we listen to their quiet yet profound message, then a pet’s life will be eternal and meaningful. We need to live our lives as well, sharing the simple unconditional love and acceptance we have enjoyed from our furry companions.