Photo above: Pets can live longer, healthier lives thanks to preventive medicine, says Danielle Lagana, DVM, of Banfield Pet Hospital in Fort Collins. But when pets do reach the end of their days, their owners can feel overwhelmed by the decisions they have to make.
An emergency trip to the vet turned out to be “a weird silver-lining thing,” for Foxy and her owners Brad and Jen Shannon.
The Shannons knew it was dangerous when the Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mix raided Jen’s purse at their Loveland home and ate sugarless gum. Fortunately, the artificial sweeteners didn’t kill the little dog. But the tests to make sure she was okay revealed she had a parathyroid tumor.
Vets at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins were able to remove the tumor, but even successful surgeries can lead to kidney problems. And by spring 2017, the 12-year-old dog was in late-stage kidney failure.
Rather than give up, the Shannons helped Foxy rebound with a mix of prescription food, medications for pain, high-blood pressure and an appetite stimulant combined with acupuncture.
The Shannons, who eventually had to euthanize their beloved pet, are among a growing number of Americans faced with the challenge of helping their pets age gracefully.
Easing the aches and pains of aging
In a New York Times column, writer Margaret Renkl details the struggles of coping with an aging dog and how years ago she and her husband debated setting a spending cap for veterinary care. Like many people, they decided the pet’s benefit was the deciding factor and that they’d pay as much as they could.
Pet health care is big business in the United States. In 2017, Americans spent $17 billion on vet care, according to the American Pet Products Association.
For most people, pets are family members. And, just like humans, dogs and cats can suffer from dental disease, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Most pets can live happier, healthier lives with a good dose of preventive care, said Danielle Lagana, DVM, of Banfield Pet Hospital in Fort Collins.
Poor dental hygiene can lead not only to losing teeth but also kidney and cardiac diseases. Extra pounds can contribute to arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
The best thing pet parents can do is establish a relationship with their vet. Regular checkups from the time a pet is a puppy or kitten allow the vet to spot problems or threats sooner.
“The earlier you can find something, the more options you’ll have in slowing down the disease progression,” Lagana said.
Preparing for the end
But eventually even the best care can’t stop age and disease. As the end approaches, many pet owners feel overwhelmed by decisions they feel unprepared to make.
CSU’s Pet Hospice Program can ease that burden.
Established in 2004, the program has served 234 families and trained 265 volunteers—all CSU vet students, said Maria Gore, clinical counselor. The free program’s goal is to help both pets and their owners during the animal’s final days. The vet students assess the pet’s physical health and talk with owners about what’s going to happen next. They don’t provide any medical care.
“They provide a lot of emotional support and grief counseling,” Gore said.
The work is emotionally draining but rewarding, said Jake Rodgers, a fourth-year vet student at CSU.
“I originally thought it would be working with animals, but it’s really more working with the owners and the families,” he said. “Our mission is to support them through the process of end of life care and planning.”
Nik Olsen and his family used the CSU pet hospice last year.
Hunter, their rescue Weimaraner, was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 13. The Olsens used a six-week treatment that put the dog into remission for 11 months. But when Hunter’s cancer came back, Olsen and his wife, Kim, decided to contact CSU’s pet hospice service. The couple, who have two young sons, Henry and Tate, wanted to do what was best for the dog and the rest of the family.
The vet students who were assigned to their case met with the family and talked about end-of-life planning. “They got us to understand that not having a plan, is a plan. It’s just a bad plan,” said Nik, the assistant director of administrative communications at CSU.
The family euthanized Hunter in May 2017. Almost a year later, they faced a similar challenge when their other rescue Weimaraner Evie developed cancer.
Evie had survived a previous cancer scare 10 years ago, but when it came back, the family had little choice. They applied the lessons they’d learned with Hunter and recognized Evie was in pain and could no longer take her beloved neighborhood walks.
In mid-June, the family let Evie go.
“You have to discover what it means when a dog is not living his best days,” Nik said. “It’s hard, but if you’re going to be an adult, you have to make adult decisions.”
Losing a pet is painful and difficult, but it’s also part of the pet owner contract, said Nik, who plans to wait awhile before adding another dog to the family.
“That last day will always come, but you don’t have to make it a crushing blow. You need to know what to expect so you can handle it,” he said.
“Pets die. If you don’t like that part, you shouldn’t have a pet.”
Sara B. Hansen is a former editor for the Coloradoan. To comment on this article, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.