How to cope when you’re caring for a terminally ill pet

We’ve talked before about dealing with anticipatory grief when you have an elderly or terminally ill pet. Here, we’d like to delve into this topic a bit further by exploring ways you can look after yourself and stay as emotionally healthy as possible while you care for your animal friend.

1. Knowledge is power

When a pet is given a terminal diagnosis, it’s devastating. Your emotions may be all over the place, the weight of what lies ahead overwhelming. 
What should you expect from the coming days, weeks or months?
Knowledge is power. It’s hard to cope when you’re dealing with the unknown so your vet should help to guide you through what to expect as much as possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions such as:
  • What illness does your pet have?
  • How does it typically progress?
  • How long does your pet have?
  • What symptoms can you expect your pet to experience at each stage of their illness?
  • What are the treatment options and what outcomes are these likely to have?
  • What are the potential side effects of the different treatment options? 
Armed with this information, it’s also important to consider your pet’s age, their temperament, their quality of life and their routine before making any decisions about their care.
You will need to think about what level of care you can provide at home – will someone be able to give medication at the right times or sit with your pet if they need support, especially if the family is out at work or school during the day?
Unfortunately, most of us have to factor in the financial implications of caring for a pet with a terminal illness. While you would do everything in your power to protect your pet, it’s important to safeguard your own and your family’s wellbeing. This can be an upsetting consideration – of course, no-one wants their pet’s life to come down to money – but it can be helpful to have a frank discussion with your vet and your family about this.

2. Set goals and milestones

Although it’s important not to spend too much time with your pet dwelling on the future, it can be helpful to define the goals and milestones that may help you track your pet’s wellbeing.
Try making a list of all the things that your pet enjoys doing. It’s best to do this before their health declines so you have a good picture of what their happiest, healthiest days look like.
The idea is that this list can help you to define the point when your pet no longer has the quality of life that you feel they deserve.
When once-loved activities begin to become hard or impossible, it may be time to say goodbye.
There are no hard and fast rules but some people find it helps to define what’s meant by quality of life before it diminishes. The reason being that, when you’re living with the new ‘normality’ of life with a terminal illness, you can lose sight of how much a pet has declined.

3. Focus on the moment

Steps one and two were about planning ahead but it’s essential to keep this balanced. By focusing on the future too much, you can miss out on the precious time you have with your pet in the here and now.
Animals are so special because they live in the moment – now is the time to take a leaf out of your pet’s book.
Sadly, they will be gone one day but, today, they’re with you so how can you celebrate that? What can you do to create memories? 
If you find your thoughts drifting to the future, try to use your senses to pull you back to the present. Stroke your pet, talk to them, inhale the smell of their fur, play with them if they feel well enough.

4. Acknowledge that you cannot control your pet’s illness

It can be particularly distressing that your pet is unable to state their wishes concerning their illness and treatment. Therefore, every decision about the future rests with you.
If you’re wrestling with feelings of guilt, regret or anxiety, it’s completely understandable. 
For your emotional wellbeing, try to recognise that it’s impossible to predict or prevent a terminal illness. If we could, no-one would die, animal or human. Our bodies are subject to illness, to cellular changes or genetic weaknesses. The same applies to our pets.
You have done everything in your power for your pet. If you could cure them, you would in an instant. 
You can’t control your pet’s illness but you have and can continue to give them a wonderful life for as long as it lasts. 

5. Express your feelings

One of the struggles of having a poorly pet or suffering a pet loss is that we often feel we can’t share our feelings with the wider world. Although more and more people recognise that pet loss can be as devastating as losing a fellow human, it can be hard to get support from people who don’t have a close affinity with animals.
Do look for ways to express your feelings. If you live with other family members or friends then they will be affected by your pet’s illness too and may find it helpful to talk.
You might also want to write a diary, paint, draw, sing or run to give your emotions some release.
There are also a number of fantastic support groups, counsellors and forums dedicated to helping pet carers deal with loss or illness. The Ralph Site’s Facebook group is full of understanding, like-minded people who understand what you’re going through.

6. Take time out

Caring for a terminally ill pet may be emotionally and physically exhausting. It’s important to take time out to relax and recharge whenever you can. Whether you need to meditate, go for a walk, have a long bath, read or see friends, do whatever works for you.
Just five to ten minutes of relaxation can help you to better support your pet throughout the rest of the day.

7. Start saying goodbye

Some people start to say goodbye after a pet’s terminal diagnosis. They might do this by taking more pictures, giving their pet his or her favourite meals, visiting their favourite places or people, taking time off to spend together. 
It can be a great source of comfort to create happy memories after a terminal diagnosis. It helps to make life positive and celebratory even in the shadow of loss.
If this is an issue you’re struggling with right now, support and understanding are available via The Ralph Site. We have a number of people in our Facebook group who have or have had terminally ill pets and who understand the challenges you face.
You are not alone.