Serving pets and their people at the end of life

Entering a stranger’s home — especially at the emotionally charged time when they are facing the end of their beloved pet’s life — is always uncertain.  Most people are gracious, thankful, tearful. Some are speechless with grief.  Others are angry and ready to blame — as was one inebriated, distressed man I encountered on a late Thanksgiving night.  Arms around his dog yelling, “No, stay away from us!” when I arrived.  Later as I left though, he hugged me tightly, reminding me how powerful kind words and a gentle touch can be.

I see it all, but many soften when they see me.  At 4’9” and very non-intimidating I can’t imagine what they expected.  They greet me, size me up, many showing the same thoughts in their eyes . . . though it’s never said aloud:  glad to meet you but I really wish you weren’t here.  Then they allow me into their homes and lives.  The homes differ vastly in value, location and design, each saying a lot about the families.  Some homes appointed with exquisite things, some homes that are particularly barren.

Despite the range of socio-economic levels I serve, I always marvel at the many commonalities: floors covered with carpet remnants or rugs providing traction for an old dog; ramps leading to the elderly cat’s favorite perch; pet beds, toys and sometimes other pets scattered about.  These are homes and lives that treasure the animal family members.

Some apologize as they grab a tissue; I tell them it’s okay, everyone cries, and, I’ve been there too. And I have.

Mine was a black cat.  In the late ‘70s my mom and I had gone on a whim to the humane society. I was eight and we’d intended to see Charlotte’s Web.  Mom had misread the showtimes, so to pass the time we went to the shelter, “just to look.”  And there she was — a tiny black kitten batting around a ball.  She lived for 21 years, and sometimes I see her in the old, frail kitties languishing in a spot of sun.


And while with clients it is their story, I still often share mine, in hopes that it helps them understand that their decision is universally heartbreaking and difficult, no matter how sick the animal, how aged, or frail.  Whether it’s a 15-year-old dog that “raised” your kids, or an 8-month-old kitten with FIP, facing the end when it’s time — often arriving after a time of heartbreaking decline or diagnosis — is just  The. Hardest. Thing.

Frequently I am asked “How do you do this?”  Or, “I could never do your job.”  Part of what enables me to do the work I do is the relief that comes when a dog who hasn’t slept well for weeks eases into comfort, lying restfully after sedation.  This often brings words like, “That is the most peaceful I’ve seen him in weeks.”  Because that old dog sinks into it as the sedative soothes, delivering such welcome relief.  I draw comfort in that:  being able to help — it’s that simple.

Yet no matter how peaceful the passage, I struggle with cases in which someone is going to be left alone.  Maybe the spouse is gone, died, or never was.  The woman past childbearing age who says, “These are my kids.”  Some are widows or widowers, other empty nesters.

One of the saddest cases I encountered was a kitty who could barely breathe due to fluid in his chest. The cat’s owner had died tragically and unexpectedly the night before at a relatively young age.  The following day when I was called to the family home would have been his birthday.  And instead of carrying out the birthday surprises they had planned for him, his family instead dutifully honored his wish to let the kitty go at home.

Practicing veterinary medicine has its share of pain.  We are like pediatricians, treating kids who cannot speak for themselves — unable to say what hurts, what’s wrong, or if the pain medication is even helping.

Many veterinary doctors and support staff choose the field because they are compelled to help the helpless, the suffering, the traumatized, be it people or animals.

I believe that like the birth process, death is no less momentous or important.  While most of us prefer not to think about this part of life, for me it is an honor to help those for whom end of life decisions have been thrust upon them . . . despite sometimes heroic efforts and often against every wish.

There are many reasons for home euthanasia.  Some animals are so old, or so large, travel to a clinic is just too much.  Sometimes it’s the people:  some prefer a specialist that they know will make the process go right.  Some choose this process for its humaneness and humanity:  being able to pass from this life in the safety and comfort of one’s lifelong home can be the greatest gift there is.  While the reasons are many, there is typically one abiding common thread that most would wish for themselves, and thus believe their pets would too:  a desire for compassionate assistance in meeting a peaceful end at home.


Lori Gibson, DVM received her undergraduate degree from the University of Portland and her veterinary degree from OSU and WSU. She currently resides in Tigard with her husband, son and two cats.