I will never forget the day Gigi came to live with us. She spent her entire puppy life on a Texas greyhound farm and her young adult life on a race track. She was a beautiful brindle greyhound that was not very gifted in her craft. As a result, she was retired at the age of 3 and made her journey to Tennessee to the Nollner home.

Running was her heart. I still have memories of her running circles in our ½ acre back yard, just like she did when she was on the track. We were amazed that a 70# animal could be so fast with such little effort. You could see it was her first love.

We enjoyed many adventures through the years with Gigi. She dispelled the myth that greyhounds and cats could not live in the same household as she became fast friends with our kitty Charlie. She was a bully to our alpha male Corgi and challenged the totem pole when given the opportunity. Her personality was as big as her heart.

I will also never forget the day I realized she was limping. She was 9 and her lameness was due to an aggressive bone tumor. That diagnosis led to an amputation of her leg and 4 months of chemotherapy and a poor long-term prognosis. Nine months after her initial diagnosis we said good-bye to our big girl.

Navigating end of life decisions for our animal family members is one the hardest journeys we take as pet parents. The emotional, physical and financial toll that life threatening illnesses take can be devastating. In my instance, I had several months to emotionally deal with the decision I faced in the future. So, how did I navigate this journey with Gigi?

When faced with a life ending illness for our pets, quality of life measures are objective tools we have to evaluate what our pets are experiencing during their illness. The following tools are helpful when assessing our pet’s well-being:

1. Appetite: For many pets, loss of appetite can be a strong indicator of a decline in health. Pets can physiologically go for many days without food and water, however, decline of hunger and thirst can signal shutting down of the body.

2. Mobility: Many pets lose their ability to rise from a reclining position due to disease progression (osteoarthritis, bone cancer, etc). This creates a problem with their need to go outside to urinate/defecate or to get to a litterbox. Dogs may begin by falling, inability to rise, difficulty urinating and defecating and heavy panting. Cats will exhibit difficulty jumping to perches or normal napping spots. They may also have difficulty getting into litterboxes therefore inappropriately defecating and urinating in the home. Hiding is also a common behavior in cats. When medications or physical therapy to aid mobility cease to help, quality of life is a concern.

3. Pain: Pain can be very difficult to assess in pets that don’t have human language to articulate. However, we do have clues regarding pain based on an animal’s behavior. Behavior will be the first change noticed in most pets experiencing pain. Some behaviors to watch in pets that might indicate pain:

  • Pacing
  • Excessive panting
  • Hiding in unique areas
  • Isolating from the family
  • Growling/snapping/hissing
  • Whining/vocalizing
  • Not eating
  • Decrease mobility

4. Enjoyment of life: As our pets decline, owners may notice they have lost their happiness or excitement about life. Owners have observed their pet’s preferences, behaviors and attitudes for their entire life. When pets become more isolated from the family and stop their enjoyment of food, toys and their environment, their quality of life is in decline. Many owners report they see a difference in their pets “eyes” when it is time to make a decision.

When Gigi’s cancer spread, it returned to her other front leg. Her pain and lack of mobility led to our decision to say good-bye. Although it was obvious her quality of life was on a decline, the decision was still very difficult emotionally. As pet parents, we have the incredible privilege of caring for our furry family members, even to the very end. Sometimes the most selfless decision we can make is to end the pain and suffering our pet is experiencing.

And last, as we care for our pets to the end, make sure we care for ourselves as well. Your family veterinarian, friends, family, clergy and mental health professionals are the supports we need when in this season of decision and grief. Saying good-bye to our pet is difficult and the grief can be very heavy. Recognize the need for emotional support and get help when needed. Find ways to celebrate the wonderful memories of your family pet. The love they gave to you each and every day will live long in your heart and mind.