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Comfort Care for the Terminally Ill Pet

by Dr. Rachel Addleman, DVM, DiplABVP, CVA
Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist, Dr. Addleman has advanced training and Board Certification in feline medicine. She practices in Houston, Texas and can be found at AnimalFixer.com

Comfort Care for the Terminally Ill PetAs a veterinarian, I am often asked when is it the right time? It's always a difficult decision. I agonized over my beloved 'Alex,' my standard poodle, who was desperately ill. After many years of experience, I have come to embrace quality of life and want to share with you my experiences with comfort care for the terminal pet.

When a pet you have loved for innumerable days is awaiting his last, there is never enough time. You lean in to experience each breath. You watch the chest rise and fall. Musty fur washes clean from a sea of tears. The smelly breath you would shy away from only days before is now sweetly familiar.

Every day in my veterinary practice I am asked, “When is the right time?” As a bleary-eyed intern, a weathered pediatric nurse helped me learn this lesson by explaining, “It's better a week early, than a day too late.”

Many years later, I was just starting my acupuncture practice. The dusty-colored little dog sat up on the kitchen table, her wet nose and soft muzzle cradled in her owner’s hands. Long lashes blinked over her big brown eyes. She wasn’t eating and couldn’t rest comfortably. It was almost her time.

“Please, I’m not ready,” the owner cried into the dog's fur, “but I don’t want her to suffer.” This is why I studied acupuncture; to have one more way to alleviate suffering and stretch the time our pets are with us.

Could I help this little dog feel better? Would she nose her way to her food bowl? Would she rest more comfortably? Was it already past her time?

The little dog didn’t even feel the needles. She liked the attention and wagged her tail a bit. Aside from the other medications she was taking, I dispensed Chinese herbs to give her strength and help her appetite. I left the house hoping for the best.

I waited each day to hear how that sweet dog was feeling, but the phone never rang. I thought, “I should call and check in,” but I was nervous. I made excuses not to call, fearing that the treatment hadn’t helped.

It's difficult to explain the intangible – especially for someone with a science background like myself – but through some indescribable inspiration, I found myself dialing the number several days later.

The owner answered and I could picture soft, fat tears sliding down her face. “It was her time…” she explained. Her sweet little dog who loved to give kisses had been helped to move on that very afternoon.

The words spilled out one after another, “She ate, she felt better, she played with the other dogs! I am so grateful she had one more good week, I would do acupuncture all over again, even for a week, because it just wasn’t her time.”

I started to cry too, out of grief for the owner and relief for the little dog. Until then, I had been uncertain if my acupuncture practice would be worthwhile. Knowing that it helped the sweetest of dogs to have a good final week, I felt at peace with my decision to take this path. I knew the owner had not waited a day too late.