How to cope with losing a pet

Lisa Sinclair interviews Dr Courtney Prue for Seniors Pet Insurance.

Most of us know the pain of losing a loved one. When the family member is an adored pet, the grief can be just as traumatic – if not more so. As their owners, those final months and weeks can be a maze of complex decision making, with the onus on us to ensure they’re treated with dignity and that pain and discomfort are minimal. 

A rapidly growing field in Australia is the provision of at-home palliative care for elderly and terminally ill pets, with vets helping owners to navigate what can be a fraught time.

Dr Courtney Prue learned about palliative care for pets in her native Canada, where she trained as a vet. Six years ago she set up Rest Your Paws in the Sydney area and today she has 20 vets practising across Australia, with other veterinary professionals also providing the service nationally. 

“Over the last 10 years it’s a subfield that has become more and more advanced,” says Dr Prue. “We’ve recognised as an industry that a lot of this kind of care could be given in a home setting. Having a vet come to your home and do regular check-ups, provide pain relief and help with any symptoms to maintain your pet’s quality of life, keeping them comfortable for as long as possible, relieves a lot of stress.” 

Much of that stress can come from toing-and-froing to the clinic, especially when the animal becomes incapacitated through old age, dementia or disease. “What we do, ultimately, is provide emotional support for the families who are caring for these pets, and help guide them with end-of-life decision making, so that they can have that support when they need to make the difficult decision to put their pets to sleep.”

Home euthanasia is a key element of such services, allowing the family to say goodbye in a calm and familiar setting. It’s a process that can involve younger members of the household.

“We help parents with navigating those conversations with their children,” says Dr Prue. “And we make beautiful pictures, and do paw prints in different colours – everything we can to help make that experience of losing a pet into a beautiful memory for them to cherish.”

There’s a practical element, too, such as helping with hygiene and ensuring pets don’t suffer diarrhoea or become incontinent. 

Referrals tend to come from vet hospitals, or via internet searches (search online for ‘pet palliative care at home’ for your local options). “When we’re caring for sick pets with the same diseases over and over again, we get incredible ideas from all the families about how to help their pet. And then we can share it with other families who are in a similar situation,” Dr Prue says. And it’s not uncommon for families to donate medication when their pet has gone, to be used by others.

Expert advantage

Palliative care experts can also provide advice on how other pets in the household will cope with the loss of their companion, which is a common issue. They can provide resources and advice to families on what they can do to alleviate that grief, explain the timeline of pet grief and how it may manifest.

“It’s a really holistic approach that encompasses not only the needs of the pet, but also the needs of the family, and the other pets that are all going through that journey together,” she says. “And how can we make it as nice an experience for everyone involved?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs and cats form the bulk of patients, but Dr Prue has also treated rabbits and guinea pigs, and even a pair of ducks. “They were considered part of the family. So we had a beautiful goodbye ceremony for them.”

The integration of pets into our homes has transformed the way we think about animals, and has also contributed to the industry’s growth. “This service would not have been as successful 20 years ago, when dogs were living outside and they weren’t sleeping in the bed,” Dr Prue says.

“We’ve seen a huge change in the veterinary industry over the last 10 or 20 years. Our pets are now as important as the other members of the family. And in some cases a pet is actually more important. People want the same level of care for their furry friend as they would expect for their own family members if they were sick.”

The personal nature of the service does come at a cost, with euthanasia in particular costing about double what it would at the vet’s. “The home option is generally a bit more expensive, but you often get much more of the veterinarian’s time,” Dr Prue says.

Once a pet has died, owners are talked through the next steps, which might include a private cremation, where their ashes are returned in an urn. A community cremation with other family pets is a more affordable option, and means the ashes are spread in a garden. Experts can also advise around the logistics of home burials, or the location of pet cemeteries, and in some cities you can even donate them to a veterinary teaching hospital.

While the work is challenging, it does have rewards. “Most of the families say you have the worst job in the whole world,” Dr Prue acknowledges. “When I see the impact that we have in taking away some of that burden, I say it’s the exact opposite.” 

“It changed our lives”

Border collie Bonnie was Penny Snow’s rock when she lost her husband Peter A’hearn to cancer 10 years ago. So Bonnie’s diagnosis of bone cancer at age 15 was a devastating blow. Penny, 51, who didn’t want to put Bonnie through chemotherapy and a recommended leg amputation, had purchased a Walkin’ Wheels pet wheelchair for Bonnie. She searched for palliative care online on the advice of a fellow animal-lover she met in the park, and contacted Rest Your Paws.

“The care was immeasurable in terms of options for comfort, convenience and pure one-on-one compassion at such a difficult and confronting time,” she says. “Having all this addressed in our own home was such a calming action, removing the very distressing and physically difficult process of lifting Bonnie in and out of the car to take her to a normal clinic, waiting around with other ‘happier’ pet owners while you know just how sick your own is, and facing delayed appointment times. It brought Bonnie instant comfort too; she stayed in her home environment where she felt much less anxious.”

They received further help with pain management and bandaging techniques, and as Bonnie’s condition worsened, the team supported Penny in the final weeks and prepared her to say goodbye, for which she remains grateful. “It changed our lives in the hardest moments,” she says.

Our pets are like family

While we can’t predict the future, we can help our pets get the best care they deserve in case of accidental injuries or sickness by considering pet insurance. Head online to find out more about Seniors Pet Insurance and to obtain a quote.