College of Veterinary Medicine
Pet Memorial Program

Your pet has a terminal illness

Your Pet has a Terminal Illness

You have just discovered that your beloved pet is sick.  The diagnosis may be something all the advances in medicine cannot fix or help, or, if treatment is available, it might be expensive and offer limited likelihood of success.  It may not be feasible financially, personally, or in your pet’s best interest to opt for, or continue treatment, despite your undying love for them.  You may feel guilty or as if there are no good choices you can make, and you begin to experience anticipatory grief.  You realize your time with your pet is coming to an end, and that his or her condition will only worsen.

Knowledge is Power
Become informed about the condition your pet has.  What possible treatment options are there?  What are the successes of these treatments?  What are the side effects of treatment?  How long might it prolong his life?  Is this the best decision for your pet considering age, financial situation, personal time, quality of life?  Talk with your vet to understand  exactly what is occurring with your pet physiologically.  Understand the symptoms he may be experiencing or will experience in the future.  What should you expect as the condition progresses?  How long may he continue to have a good quality of life?

 If in doubt, consider getting second opinion.  Remember this is your pet...if you feel your veterinarian does not seem to be accommodating your needs, or is pushing you in a certain direction, it is ok to seek a second opinion.  (Most veterinarians will welcome the idea and respect your wishes.)  Getting a second opinion may also help you know you did everything you could for your loved one.  Sometimes it helps to hear the information from multiple sources and reconfirms the sad news...allowing you to know for certain it was proper the diagnosis.      

Make treatment goals for your pet and boundaries for yourself
Terminal illnesses such as cancer often have various treatments that can be explored.  While treatments may increase the hope of success, sometimes they are not viable because of your preferences and values, your finances, or your pet’s condition. Once you become knowledgeable about your pets condition and various treatments, sit down with your family and veterinarian. Given all the factors, decide what the best is for you and your pet, and think about your goals for your pet’s end of life.  What degree of nursing at home can you provide, and what quality of life factors are most important?  When your pet loses certain capacities, think through care what you can manage, and what kinds of treatment you will and won’t provide. Under what conditions will you try to prolong life?  You can always change your mind, or your treatment plans as your pet’s condition changes.  Taking the time to clarify your values, boundaries, and goals for your pet’s care  can help avoid having to make an unplanned and difficult decision in the midst of an emergency.  

Resources from University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work website:
End of Life Values & Goals Worksheet  
Financial Aid Resources for Animal Owners

Hospice care may improve you and your pet’s end of life time together
Today, hospice care for animals is becoming more available, and can improve your pet’s quality of life in its final stages.  It often helps people manage the care of  terminally or chronically ill pets at home, and provides additional nursing care, pain management, and support for both animals and their people during the end of life..  Hospice care often gives owners more time to emotionally prepare for and feel at peace about the loss of their pets. While not available in all areas of the US, it may be possible to find a consulting hospice care vet who will work with your veterinarian and techs to arrange some hospice services.  The Nikki Foundation link below has a list of hospice veterinarians in various states.

For more information, see:  
"Peaceful Passings"
The Nikki Foundation

Your Pet has a Terminal IllnessDefine Quality of Life for Your Pet (Also see Quality of Life)
It is important you look at his best interest.  Of course you do not want to lose your pet but you do not want him to suffer either.  Pay attention to your pet.  Define a good quality of life for him.  

If it is a younger dog...then perhaps jumping around, playing with the children, playing with his favorite toy is quality of life.  If it is an older dog perhaps a good quality of life is that he is able to continue to be mobile, appears happy when you come home, and still has an appetite.  
Is he in any discomfort...difficulty breathing, poor appetite, incontinence, does he still appear happy?
Some recommend you write down a list of the things your pet loves to do.  From getting excited at dinner time, to going for walks.  Write these things down before you notice the disease taking a toll on them.  As the disease progresses, continue to notice the list...does it seem like the list of things they seem to enjoy is getting shorter and shorter.  
Here are some ideas to reflect on:

Spend Extra Time with Your Pet
If he only has a limited amount of time he will be active, take him to his favorite spots...the dog park, the river, out to the barn...whatever they enjoy doing.  If it will not interfere with his medication fix them their favorite food (Some foods can actually make a condition such as kidney failure worse so please consult your vet before giving additional treats.)
It can be very difficult to know you only have a limited amount of time with your pet.  You feel as if you can’t really start to grieve his loss because he is still alive.  The anticipation and knowing can be really difficult.  Allow yourself to feel these emotions.
Give yourself permission to be emotional, even when they are feeling fine.  It is going to be hard as their tail is wagging, or purring and you know your time is limited.  It is ok to feel sad, even now.  
You may find yourself becoming distant with your pet.  While a normal response, your pet will not understand and you may later come to regret it and cause guilt at not making the best of the last few weeks or months you have with your pet.  
Work through the emotions you are feeling through journaling, talking with friends and family, contacting us at the hotline.  Remember we are here to help you...even if you want a listening ear of what you are going through. 

Start Saying Goodbye
Sadly, you know your pet is going to die and you have a limited amount of time with them.  Utilize this time.  Some owners often deny their pet is terminally ill...and later when they pass the owner feels as if they wasted precious time with their pet.  
Take pictures, celebrate your pets life, write about your favorite memories together, make more happy memories with the time you have left.  If they like it, brush your pet, cuddle and talk with them
Making the final decision:
Decide where and how you would like the euthanasia performed.  Many veterinary practices offer at home services and will come to your house to perform the euthanasia.  You can do it in front of the fireplace or in the backyard surrounded by family.  
Remember when performing it at home...that place may become a constant reminder of the loss of your pet.  Perhaps find ways to soften the environment with a picture of your pet, or flowers planted.
If you choose to have it done at your veterinarian’s office decide who would like to be present.  If you would like to be the only one with your pet...ask a friend to drive you.  Following the euthanasia you will be very emotional and it is unsafe to drive during this time.
Decide what you want done with his remains, most veterinary practices offer can have your pet cremated and either give the ashes back or have them spread somewhere.  You can have an at Home Burial.  Pet cemeteries are also an option in some areas.  If you do not want the remains vet can dispose of the body.  
While you may have been grieving at the knowledge you pet will die for sometime; often following the loss of your pet your grief may be more profound.  See the Grieving Process.