Thursday, June 16, 2011

Suffering: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

     When it comes to end of life care for animals, it is inevitable that the discussion focuses on the animal's suffering.  What kind of suffering does the animal have?  Do we have a way to alleviate the suffering?  Can we afford the remedies or treatments that might reduce suffering?  When is the suffering so great that the animal should be euthanized?  How do we know if the animal is suffering and how do we quantify that suffering?

     In my mind, no matter how genuine and well-intentioned these inquiries, debates, and intense moral struggles may be, they are missing the point.  To use a favorite animal-expression, when we go down that path, we are barking up the wrong tree.

     Why?  Because suffering is an integral part of life.  As humans, we accept (although we may not like) that we all suffer in our lives, some days more, some days less; sometimes intensely, sometimes mildly.  Suffering can come in many forms: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, psychological - and often a combination of some or all at once.  Suffering can be, or at least feel, completely overwhelming.  Suffering can feel like the end of the world.  Yet suffering ebbs and flows in all of our lives. And suffering can be the gateway for change, enlightenment, gratitude and fulfillment.  In times of suffering, we may find strength we never knew we had, deep and transformational connection with others, and an abundance of love.

     Suffering is a very complicated concept that is loaded with value judgments, personal experiences, and questions that can never be answered.  It often is the most agonizing part of caring for an animal with special needs or at that end of life.  Your own experience with suffering will influence how you interpret your animal's suffering and confusing philosophical questions (such as, "Does my animal understand or experience suffering the same way I do?") may take you off on a tangent that is not helpful.

     That's why we think the question should be this simple:

Does my animal still want to live?

     Many beings want to live despite suffering.  It is not your job to figure out how much suffering exists and when that level is too great. Your job is to accept and respect your animal's will to live - and readiness to die - while alleviating as much suffering as possible given the resources and knowledge available to you at the time.

     Start here:    STOP whatever you are doing.  Find a quiet place and MAKE time to sit and BE with your animal.  DON'T go through a checklist, or make a chart of pros and cons.  Drown out the voices in your head about what you should do and what other people want you to do.

     Touch your animal, look in his or her eyes and ask him (out loud or in your head if you prefer): "Today, at this moment, do you want to live?"

     And then WAIT for an answer.  Wait until you feel in your heart that you have an answer.  No, I'm not saying Fluffy will stand up and say, "Yes, Mom, I'm good today."  But trust the feeling you have in your heart. 

     Then, and this is often the hardest part, honor that answer for this moment, knowing that the answer can change at any time.

     If your animal is done, it's time to call your vet and discuss the options for euthanasia knowing that you are doing the right thing for your animal, no regrets, no guilt.

     But if your animal is NOT done, it's time to roll up your sleeves and say, "OK then, let's see what we can do to alleviate your suffering, eliminate your pain, and make you comfortable for as long as you want to be here."  Always start with your veterinarian and remember there are many modalities that can be very beneficial at the end of life, there are many treatment options, there are many products that can help, and there are people who will help you lovingly care for your animal during this time.  No one person has all the answers and no one treatment is right for every animal.  Experiment, see what happens, see what helps and fight for your animal's comfort for as long as he or she wants to live.

     Search for the right tree, and bark your heart out.


  1. Thank you for posting this. As a veterinary technician, I am often asked by pet owners "When do I know it's time?" This article is a definite help.

  2. This is a daily question for me & my 15 y.o. Lab w/ cognitive dysfunction syndrome & arthritis. So far he says no, I still have love to give & cookies to eat. When he's ready though, I will be too.
    Thanks for great article!

  3. Thank you for your comments. It is always hard to know, but we truly believe that the family has the connection with their animal to know, when they trust themselves and are supported by the caregivers.

    Keep up the great work. This is a hard path, but can be very rewarding and a time for close bonding with your animal.

    Take care,
    Founder and Team Leader
    New England Pet Hospice, Inc.

  4. I sent this great article to Luke Robinson, who has been living with the suffering of his dog-son, Murphy, for the last year. Murphy was diagnosed with nasal adenocarcinoma shortly after the 2 Dogs, 2000 Miles event in Boston last June. Luke has had to make many difficult decisions but has ended up pursuing treatments for Murphy's cancer because it is clear - although he is suffering, Murphy absolutely still wants to live. See Luke's blog for more info.: