End-of-Life Care

Thinking about Death

The deaths of our animals help us to learn and prepare for other deaths that eventually come in our lives, whether we want to think about that or not. In our society, we often avoid discussing death, and many people feel uncomfortable with the topic. It is unpleasant and loss is painful. The sadness and loss that we feel when a pet dies is not limited to that one animal, the death brings up memories of past deaths or other losses we may have experienced, as well as concerns about the deaths that are still to come in our lifetime.

Death is inevitable though for all of us, which is, possibly, why we want to avoid it! If we could find a way to celebrate death, and a life lived, with as much enthusiasm as we celebrate birth, we would be a much healthier society. Many cultures and religions have varying views on death and the afterlife, and this is a very personal topic, not one that I have all of the answers to. I invite you to find ways to honor the lives that are lost to us in whatever manner feels right and healing to you. Memories, photos, journals, meaningful items or special places to visit are all wonderful ways to process these feelings that are inevitable in times of loss. I find it very comforting to know that all of the people and animals that I have known are still with me, guiding me through the love and memories that they have left me with. Though losing them is difficult, to have lived my life without them would have been so empty. I am grateful for the time we had together and I am a better person for it.

Caring for Animals

Death can come to our animals in so many ways, it is impossible to be completely prepared. We do our best to protect them from accidental harm through controlling their environment - keeping toxic plants and foods, such as chocolate and Xylitol sweetener, out of their reach; avoiding dangerous animals and car traffic. We also try to keep them healthy as they age - adding supplements to support joint health and appropriate diets; regular check-ups and bloodwork to catch early signs of disease. We wish that when it is time for them to go they will peacefully pass in their sleep after a life well-lived. Most animals, however, will reach a time when more care is needed and decisions about that care must be made. Thinking about it ahead of time and having some idea of the options for care can help make that time less chaotic and stressful.

Many of these decisions are very personal and will depend on as many factors as there are individuals. Most pets die from humane euthanasia when they reach a point - a point which is different for every owner/pet relationship - when they seem "ready to die." This can be an incredibly difficult decision to make. We want to honor our pets and the love they have given us over the years, but there are practical considerations as well such as "How much time can I take off work to care for my dying cat?" or "How can I care for this pet and my family, my young children, new baby, aging parent,…?" or "How can I physically care for this 100 pound dog that cannot get up to urinate or defecate?". There are also financial considerations that, like it or not, affect what we are willing or able to do for our pets. These decisions may change at different stages in a person's life, a young couple with flexible family and work responsibilities may be in a much better place to care for a dying pet than an elderly person or a family with very young children.

Palliative and Hospice Care

If a person has the ability and desire to provide hospice care for a dying pet, it can be a deeply rewarding experience. There are challenges, different for every situation, but with veterinary support and guidance it can be done. I must emphasize the need to work with a veterinarian who understands the issues of palliative care and can help you to recognize signs of pain or discomfort at every stage along the way. Animals that are dying will normally decrease their activity, eat very little (the body no longer needs fuel), and may require some assistance in keeping themselves clean and dry. They also need to be housed in a way that they cannot hurt themselves by falling down stairs or off furniture. This is a commitment to care beyond the daily routines of pet care. A supportive community of friends and family that can check in on a pet or give the caregiver a rest can make a huge difference. Often we euthanize because of a fear of what may happen rather than looking at what is happening in front of us. As veterinarians, we always have euthanasia available if and when it seems to be the right choice.

If you would like to explore palliative care options for your pet, check here for more information or, please contact me.


Whatever the circumstances, now or with past pets, and decisions that have been made, accept them as what needed to happen at the time. As humans, we are very good at finding ways to feel guilty about things, such as wondering if we euthanized our pet too soon or too late, re-hashing in our minds all of the things that should have been done differently. It is important that we give ourselves the opportunity to learn from those experiences and perhaps change what we might do in the future, but also know that we need to let go of the guilt. Once the lesson is learned and accepted, the guilt has no further purpose but to hold us back from future successes. As caring individuals, we deserve love and compassionate support from ourselves as well as others.


Feelings of grief and loss are normal when a pet dies. Sometimes these animals share so much more of our lives than any human can possibly understand. The connection and compassion that we receive and give with our animals can be incredibly strong and that bond should be honored. I often hear people say that they don't ever want another pet because it could never be like the one that has died. That is so true. We cannot expect to have the exact relationship with a new pet; that relationship cannot be replaced, but often new ones can be formed that are rewarding in different ways. Our lifespans are generally much longer than most animals, and we meet and love many pets throughout our time on this earth, and every one of those relationships is different. Those most special animals are the ones that stay with us the rest of our lives in our hearts and memories.

If you have feelings of guilt, grief or loss that you continue to have difficulty dealing with, please seek help. Click here and scroll down for some basic resources on grief and loss, but of course, these websites do not replace the personal compassion of a trained counselor. I have listed a trusted counselor found here in Ames under the "resources" section as well.