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Veterinary Talk by Dr. Jim Humphries

The “Covenant of Compassion”

Sometimes making a decision to put your pet to sleep seems like a simple decision. I’ve heard it discussed by pet lovers and even veterinary professionals, using a common sense statement like ìyour pet will let you knowî or ìyou will know when the time comes.î After almost 40 years in veterinary practice, I can tell you they donít often let you know; and the real answer is more complex ñ- medically and psychologically. This is not a decision you cannot take back, so to arrive at a serious answer for such an important question, you need to consider several factors, some of them not so obvious. Iíd like to say something like, ìI hope you never have to make this decision.î However, if you love dogs, or feline friends are your fancy; you will be faced with this decision many times in your life.So, if this is true, you might as well learn (and teach your children) how to intelligently make this very difficult decision, and how to deal with and experience loss.There are four categories of factors that must be considered:

  1. Medical factors
  2. Family, physical, psychological factors
  3. Financial factors
  4. Finally The ìCovenant of Compassionî
Medical factors:Medical facts are probably the most important and usually the first factors that get us to arrive at this decision. Here, you need to rely on your veterinarianís assessment, as they are best suited to take into account all of your petís medical history and its current health status. This opinion should be based on the results of tests and X-rays, or perhaps from surgical findings. It is important to have a doctorís opinion of how your pet will do in the days and months ahead. Here is a quick look at medical factors that should lead you to a decision for a kind and compassionate end of life.Breathing: Just as in human hospice, this is the No. 1 consideration when assessing an animalís condition. They must be able to breathe; and, if they are gasping for air, or show open mouth breathing; if they canít sleep fully on their side for long periods and want to be upright all the time – they are having trouble breathing. Pain: Pain can come from many conditions, but the most common is debilitating arthritis. These dogs will show signs such as difficulty laying down or getting up, falling and a loss of muscle mass that goes along with not using the legs normally. Remember, animals are designed to mask their pain; and they often do not cry out, even though they are in pretty bad pain. Appetite: A fairly consistent sign when animals are near the end of life is the loss of appetite and/or thirst. You may have also noticed a significant weight loss over time, even if they are still eating. This is something I see reported very consistently near the end of life. House breaking schedule: As pets age, it may become more difficult for them to physically get outside to defecate, or it may be they are ìforgettingî to go outside; when, in reality they suffer from ìdoggie Alzheimerís disease.î In some cases, our pets are unable to get up because of pain or muscle weakness; it may also be too painful to posture to defecate, and some fall over trying. Laying in urine/feces may lead to serious skin infections and pain. Remember, they have dignity, and we do not want to rob them of that. This is part of our Covenant of Compassion. Our ìdealî with them is to not let them suffer or be miserable or lose dignity. Family, social, psychological and physical factors:Besides the obvious medical issues, there is the harsh reality of what it takes to care for a disabled or immobile pet. In some cases it is overwhelming ñ- especially if you are dealing with other stress and medical problems in your own life or family. You have to consider everyone in your home environment and even home obstacles such as stairs or backyard decks. Financial factors:Medical care and nursing care, physical therapy and long-term medication is expensive; and, if you do not have your pets insured, it is sometimes simply impossible for you to cover bills into the thousands of dollars. Few want to make a decision to put a pet to sleep purely because of money. Having pet medical insurance is one thing that can be the difference between successful treatment and euthanasia.The Covenant of CompassionI’ve coined this phrase to indicate the ìdealî we have with our pets. It is an agreement, a contract if you will. It is our promise to our beloved pets that we will not let them suffer, we will not do things to them ìjust because we can,î and we will only do things that help their struggle and nothing that prolongs it. It takes real compassion to make this covenant because it means that when the relationship is no longer fitting the agreement, then YOU must decide to end it. That makes the covenant very hard, but it is the purest of love. Sometimes, to end a pet’s suffering, we must begin our own. It is the most unselfish act of love that we can ever offer or experience.Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian and provides hospice and end of life care for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as a Visiting Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.

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