Caring for ourselves

So far in this journal, I’ve talked extensively about pets and their challenges and how to care for them, for obvious reasons.  But there’s another important facet to pet hospice and caring for elderly pets that is incredibly important, and I think it’s time that I talk about that too.  And that is you.  Every pet that we as family veterinarians ever see has a person attached to it – or people, or entire families.  And when we’re making decisions about how to care for those pets, about their quality of life, and ultimately about the end of those lives, it’s crucial to remember those people and take them into consideration as well.

So let me say it clearly, right here and now.  You matter.

Your hopes, your concerns, your own happiness, your quality of life, and your wants are all important, and they all need to be considered when you’re making decisions about your pet.  While it can seem very noble and loving to put your pet first, whatever you decide to do is going to have to ultimately be carried out by you.  And knowing what resources you have, and what you can and can’t do, is crucial.

We all have our limitations, and they come in many different forms.

-Financial limits – not everyone can afford a few (or several) thousand dollars for kidney transplants, open-heart surgery, or other extensive and complicated treatments.

-Time limits – maybe your lifestyle doesn’t allow for someone to be home to give your pet medication every eight hours, or to take your elderly dog out to go to the bathroom six times a day, or to provide the constant nursing care needed for an animal that can’t stand or walk.

-Emotional limits – if you’ve been through a painful loss before, have upsetting memories or emotional connections to a particular diagnosis or to the process of watching a loved one fail, it may be too painful or stressful to you to be part of this process.

I cannot say this clearly or emphatically enough.  Having limits, or reaching those limits, does not make you a bad person.  It doesn’t make you a quitter, or mean that you’re failing, or giving up, or being unfair to your pet.  Knowing your limits is an important part of decision-making, and you owe it to both your pet and yourself to be aware of both what resources you have to take care of them and what you can’t do.

We all owe our pets love, and we’ve already given it to them.  We do not owe it to them to sacrifice our own health, happiness, or quality of life.  The feelings, health, and mental and emotional well-being matter of human family members *just as much* as the animals’ do.  Treat yourself with the same respect, love, and compassion that you do your pet – and when you honestly feel that you can’t continue, for any reason, it’s okay to say that.

Talk to your veterinary team.  They can help you, and work with you.  They may be able to find a way to work around your restrictions – finding affordable options for care, adjusting medication schedules, or recommending nursing aides that can help with physical care for pets with extreme needs.  Emotional supports are a complicated and detailed enough issue that I’ll discuss them in a separate post.  And ultimately, you may realize that it’s time to let go.  And that’s okay too.

End-of-life decisions are difficult, but they should always take into consideration the needs of every living thing in the picture – both people and pets.  And while we always ask ourselves ‘is my pet ready to go?’ sometimes we forget to ask ‘am I ready to let go?’

As you take care of your beloved pet, take care of yourself as well.  Be fair, be compassionate, and be gentle.  Your well-being matters.