I am reminded while I watch a co-worker struggle with the difficult decision to decide when to take her much loved, but ailing, dog to be euthanized, how hard it is to be the one who decides on the time. This is truly one of the hardest aspects of pet and horse ownership.
Sometimes we aren’t the ones to say when it is decided for us. That has its own grief but in this post, I want to focus on when the vet tells you your horse or pet won’t recover but it isn’t time…..yet. The progression may be slow or it might feel like a fast decline. Your pet or horse is still mobile and eating, more or less but their quality of life slips away, day by day.
How in the world do you know? The advice I am going to share might feel cold, calculated or clinical, but I can assure you it will be helpful- especially if you think this thru before you need to decide. That is really key. Spend some time now on how you will know when it’s time if your vet is leaving the timing to you.
I am going to back step just a bit. Years ago I had to decide when it was time for our much loved and ancient, toothless pony. This poor little guy was a rescue. I found him while looking for a pony for my small daughter. I answered an ad for a pony and found Trixie tied to a lawnmower with overgrown hooves and so underweight his spine showed. He was already ancient when he came to our farm but he went on to live several more years as our ‘free-range’ pony. Our farm sat way off the road at the end of a dead end road. I couldn’t turn him out in our pasture with the full sized horses for his own safety, so he was allowed to be ‘free-range’ in our large yard. He did perfectly well just ambling around with our free-range chickens. He never covered much ground, but he walked and moved about during the day which kept him healthier. His arthritis was already so bad he could barely bends his legs but his ears were perked and he had a sparkle in his eyes. He was the perfect size and temperament to teach my young daughter ground handling and grooming. He wasn’t ridden but that was fine. We put weight on him and kept him reasonably healthy and happy for 7+ more years. We knew it was time when the sparkle was gone.
I had decided way before it was time, that mobility was a big factor in Trixie’s quality of life. I had visited a rescue that helped me cement in my mind what I felt was important for my pony’s life. The rescue had a couple minis that were stalled. They came to the rescue in terrible shape. The rescue had a ‘no-euthanize’ policy. The minis were severely foundered when rescued, with terrible hooves, as you can imagine. I am not here to fault or criticize the rescue. I am bringing them up because it helped to crystallize in my mind what my personal policy will be. The minis were restricted to stall rest with a restricted diet. I understand the reasoning behind that but it caused me to think thru what I would do with my own horses/pony.
Mobility, socializing, and grazing type behavior, in my mind, is pretty high on the list as to what adds to their quality of life. So those things became how I judged Trixie’s quality of life. All of those factors were already somewhat affected with Trixie, so I spent some time figuring out what the bare minimum would be necessary, in my mind, for him to still enjoy life- in addition to feedback from him and what he was telling me.
Some questions to ask yourself;
*Are they in pain? *Are they confused and fearful? *Are they needing to be so restricted, due to their deteriorating condition, that they feel punished or alienated? *Is the ‘treatment’ or care becoming so complicated or unpleasant, it is not benefitting the animal any longer? All medical care has a risk to benefit ratio. When the risks out weight the benefit, should it be discontinued? (Discuss this with your vet.)
Remember too, our pets and horses are experts in picking up our non-verbal, emotional messages. Be mindful of what you bring to them while you are in this process- as much as you can. I know its hard- no question about it!
One of the things I am in awe with when it comes to illness and death in animals- they (and this is my perception, obviously) don’t carry the same anxiety that we humans to do death and illness. I have seen animals make stunning recoveries and have seen them age gracefully and accept each stage with peace. I have seen them fight courageously for survival. Amazingly, they know instinctively when to accept their fate and when to fight. Above all, I try to honor what they seem to understand so much better than I.
May anyone at this difficult stage of pet and horse ownership, enter into it with a sense of peace.
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