Today I continue to navigate the upcoming death of one of my own companion animals. As a companion animal end-of-life doula, I have to say this is still an incredibly painful event each time I say goodbye.
Suki is a poodle mix I adopted from the shelter the first week I joined the staff. There were certainly a lot of laughter and warnings about adopting incoming critters as quickly as they arrived. But this work was such a perfect match for me and I loved meeting each new animal and helping them find new homes.
That was 10 years ago and I remember it so clearly. It was my first day and a woman came in and said she wanted to ‘get rid’ of her dog. I would hear that many times over the years I was there, and I still cringe when I hear it.
The shelter was full, but we had an empty crate set up in the lobby for emergency cases. The woman yelled at Suki to get in the crate and Suki shrunk from that woman and the crate. She was terrified. We helped her get inside the crate (without the woman’s help) and there her life and mine became forever entwined.
I talked to Suki throughout the day as she lay huddled in the crate. Her shaking and growling made it hard to get close to her. But as I whispered to her, I noticed blood and a strip of raw skin hanging from her back leg. It appeared to be a scissors cut, and probably the reason the woman brought her to the shelter. It looked like Suki had been cut when her person tried to cut off some mats on the back of the leg.
I took Suki to one of the veterinary clinics we used and by the time we returned with stitches and a cone, she and I were fast friends. AND by the end of the week, she came home with me to begin her new life with my husband, our household of other critters, and me.
Ten years later, I listen as Suki coughs a hard honk. Her congestive heart failure (CHF) was diagnosed two years ago. I’m grateful that she’s made it this long. We have a good doctor working with us.
Being a Companion Animal End-of-Life Doula doesn’t change how heart-wrenching this process of upcoming death is. I just have more tools in my toolbox, including my knowledge and experience with animal care.
I offer her Reiki for comfort. She still enjoys short walks and absolutely loves her food and treats and even her medicated ‘meatballs’ I give her three times a day.
Her daily wellness is tracked on a calendar. I watch how easily she breathes and moves; does she enjoy her food? Are her elimination habits changing? Are there signs of pain or anxiety? I use a quality-of-life chart to check her as well. This is an extraordinary tool for knowing if I’m on the right track with her care. Right now, I’m checking it every few days. (I’ve created one you can download for your own animals, which I’ll add to the website this week.)
Here’s the thing. I don’t want her to suffer. I’d like to help her through a natural death, but that’s really not an option for dogs with CHF. Sometimes the kidneys shut down with this condition and that’s too painful to let her endure. Or her breathing can get so bad that she can’t get a breath. I can’t let her struggle to breathe. I’ve seen that death; it was horrible and the dog was terrified.
Those are the lines I’ve drawn in the sand. And so I watch how deeply she looks into my eyes.
And it seems that each day is a blessing and I watch my friend. Her coughing has worsened. But I’m confident that she will let me know when she’s ready.
I won’t plan her leaving if I can help it. It would feel too much like a convenience to say, ok, on this day, you’ll be released from all this. No, I can’t do that. It will be on her terms, not mine.
I’m planning her life celebration now, while I can do it without tears—while I can write without tears. I’ll have her cremated so I can keep her with me. I’ll create an altar for her and include her favorite cookies and toys, and a slice of pizza. Boy, does she love pizza.
I’m writing a eulogy and blessing for her on her journey. And I’ll play this song
“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend
she’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me ’til the end
People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend
she’s a one joy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy
‘Cause she’s my best friend
Yes she’s my best friend”
Source: LyricFind, Songwriters: Harry Nilsson, Best Friend lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc