Your furry friend has been with you through thick and thin. Birthdays, break ups, house moves and perhaps the introduction of new family members. So, what do you do when your pet is showing signs that they are nearing the end of their life?

Navigating end of life and grieving a pet – whether they are unwell, elderly or injured – is not an easy task to undertake. Unfortunately, few things in life prepare you for the death of a beloved pet and the decisions you will need to make during this process.

Here are some suggestions to help you through this emotional time.

How will I know my pet is nearing end of life?

Unfortunately, there’s not always a clear sign that the end of life is approaching for a pet. Dogs and cats are good at masking when they are in pain – a helpful survival tactic in the wild but difficult for owners wanting to assess their pet’s quality of life.

Some things to consider, and discuss with your vet, when assessing your pet’s overall wellbeing and quality of life are:

  • Does your pet have an appetite? If not, how long have they not been eating for?
  • Is your pet drinking excessive amounts of water?
  • Is your pet able to walk?
  • Are they taking any medication? If they are, is the medication still effective?
  • Do they appear to be in pain? In a dog this might look like shaking, panting (rapid breathing), crying, aggression, change in posture and mobility and excessive licking of painful areas (whether internal or external). In cats this might look like vocalising (meowing more than normal, hissing or purring at unexpected times), low energy, lack of interest in grooming or over-grooming, aggression and a change in sleeping patterns.

There are not always distinct signs that will flag to you that your pet is approaching the end of their life; however, veterinarian Dr Shalini Sinnan suggests watching your pet for changes in their overall behaviour. “Does your pet still enjoy doing the things they used to love, such as going for a walk, playing with toys or seeking attention and affection?”

Talk to your vet about whether there are any further steps or actions you can take to prolong your pet’s life. However, you need to weigh up whether these steps will be costly, dramatically diminish the quality of life of your pet or create more long-term stress for you and your family.

Making the decision to put a pet to sleep can be incredibly difficult and not always something your vet can give a clear-cut answer on. Talk to your vet about your options and next steps once you have decided that your pet’s quality of life is too diminished to continue. You may have the option to put them to sleep at home or at a scheduled vet visit.

Taking your own feelings and thoughts out of the equation to focus on your pet’s overall quality of life and wellbeing can be a helpful way to cope with this difficult situation.

How to say goodbye to your pet forever

Whether your pet’s health has declined quickly, or you’ve had some time to come to terms with their end of life, grieving the loss of a pet is not easy or straightforward. If you have children, it’s important to tell them the truth about what is happening – the experience will be an important step in understanding death and dying and will ultimately help them grieve.

It’s natural to have a big emotional response when you’re grieving the loss of a pet – your furry friend has likely had a meaningful impact on your life and in some cases supported you through difficult times. Talk about how you’re feeling with people close to you and consult your trusted vet should you need advice on when and how to say goodbye.

Laying your pet to rest

When a pet passes away – whether that’s at home or at the vet – your next challenge is what to do next. Your first instinct might be to bury your pet in the backyard, and this is something that many vets will suggest as an option. Be mindful of the location where you choose to bury your pet – away from water sources and deep enough so that other animals can’t dig it up.

If you don’t want to bury your pet yourself, get in touch with your vet to discuss options. Your vet may be able to dispose of the body or provide a pet cremation service.

Grieving the loss of a pet

Celebrating the life of your pet once they have passed away can be a cathartic and healing process for you and your family and friends. Whether it’s a small ceremony, saving some fur, putting together an album of images or spreading their ashes in a favourite spot, rituals and ceremonies can help you grieve the loss of your cherished pet.

If you have children, involve them in the process of commemorating the family pet. Encourage them to keep a memento such as a favourite toy, lead or lock of fur to acknowledge the special role your pet played in your family and their life.

Navigating your pet’s end of life? Book an appointment with your vet for expert guidance.