old dog

End of life journey: Part 1

This is the third part of our series with Dr. Halle on pet hospice and the end of life journey.  We hope this information will ease a process which is inherently painful and can involve some very difficult decisions.

Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

As we explore the process of active dying, the good news is that there is help available. There are death doulas and grief counselors who can help greatly with the emotions and thoughts that come up along the end of life journey you and your fur baby will embark on at some point and you should seek them out if you need someone to talk to. If you are just feeling a little down as you go through the process, in addition to outside help, essential oils and aromatherapy can be a huge help.

If you make a blend of herbs or spices for a diffuser you can help everyone in the room, including your fur babies, feel lighter and calmer.  Another great approach is to have a pot of strongly scented herbs or spices simmering on your stove and perfuming the air.

My recommended fragrances that are both uplifting and healing are blends that include:

  • a sweet citrus like clementine or wild sweet orange;
  • an uplifting herb like eucalyptus or peppermint; and
  • a spicy herb like cinnamon or clove.

All three of these improve mood and move stagnant Qi (sorrow and depression are emotional forms of stagnation).

The Active Dying Process

dog laying downMuch of the anxiety associated with walking the dying journey with a loved one can come from the lack of knowledge about the process. The unknown is frightening, especially when you are concerned about a loved one potentially suffering.

The following information is taken in part from an excellent book written by an RN who is involved with hospice. The book is Sacred Passages by Margaret Coberly and I highly recommend it to anyone who is facing this journey themselves or with a loved one, or anyone who is curious about the process.

When we first start hospice or palliative care, the patient is usually not actively dying, and can often continue with life as normal for a period of time. A we approach the end of life with any patient, including our fur babies, we reach a stage where there are many changes occurring and veterinary care becomes more intensive as we adjust our treatments to meet the pet’s current needs. After this we usually see the beginning of a period where bodily processes and organs begin to shut down.  This is the active dying process.

The First Stage: Dissolution of Earth

Tibetan Buddhism’s understanding of the dying process provides an excellent metaphorical framework to explain this stage in detail. They understood this process of dissolution to be the reverse of the creation process.  As in creation, we progress from a subtle idea and energy into a physical body or other creation, so in the process of dissolution we see a transition from a physical body returning to a subtle, insubstantial state.  This first stage is referred to as the dissolution of Earth. In the body, earth is represented by the most solid parts: bones, teeth, nails, muscles, and skin. In this phase your pet very literally becomes less solid as significant weight loss occurs, even in patients who still have excellent appetites.

This can be a difficult phase for the pet parent because of the change in the pet’s appearance. If you are undertaking a journey through natural death, you may want to get a document from your veterinarian stating that your fur baby is receiving appropriate care to allay the concerns of any who feel their weight is a sign of neglect.

What to Expect

dog with food bowlLoss of Appetite:

In this stage we will often see the dying individual lose their appetite. When this happens as a part of the dying process it can be very disturbing to those of us who have spent our lives feeding our fur babies. Know that in the vast majority of cases when a dying individual stops eating, it is simply because they are no longer hungry. They are generally not uncomfortable or suffering from hunger and starvation, their body simply does not need further fuel and their digestive system often is no longer strong enough to handle or want food.

Loss of Mobility and Strength:

A patient at this stage will sometimes lose so much muscle and strength that they are unable to move. This is normal, and at this point often the patient no longer requires turning or adjustments to keep them comfortable unless they are in a position where it is difficult to breath or if the phase lasts a particularly long time. It is important to make sure they your fur baby’s head is in a comfortable position as she may not be able to easily adjust this for herself.

Make your Fur Baby Comfortable

Some other important considerations are that your fur baby may not easily blink on her own at this point, and she may not want blankets on her body. It can be helpful to keep lighting in the care space low to provide a relaxing atmosphere for the patient if she cannot close her eyes. We have learned from human hospice that many patients in this stage cannot bear the weight of blankets on their bodies. A good solution to avoid this discomfort while still providing warmth is to raise the general room temperature, or to use a low table or other structure over the patient and drape a blanket over the structure.

This and the following end of life stages generally proceed as laid out in part 4 of this series, but we do sometimes see patients skip stages, move back and forth through the stages, and, although it is rare, it is possible for a patient to move through some of the stages of dying only to turn around and move back into living for a time again. The first stage is the longest of the stages and usually lasts a few days, though it can be longer or much shorter in some cases.

©Onpets, LLC 2017.  All rights reserved.


Dr. HalleDr. Erika Halle (previously Raines) obtained her D.V.M. degree from Oregon State University. She was certified in veterinary acupuncture, traditional Chinese veterinary food medicine, and Tui-na (Chinese medical massage) by the Chi Institute in Florida and certified in veterinary spinal manipulative therapy (veterinary chiropractics) by the Healing Oasis in Wisconsin. She is happy to be practicing veterinary medicine back in her childhood home of the Willamette Valley.

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