17 Jul When Your Pet is Critically Ill: Seven Ways to Navigate Uncertainty
by Sarah Chauncey
Few things are scarier than hearing that your beloved cat or dog has an illness that could be terminal. It’s a gut-punch that can leave us reeling. The bonds we share with the animals in our lives are unlike any other; they love us regardless of whether we’re on top of the world or stuck under the covers. I say this often, but animals see the aspects of ourselves that we wouldn’t dare show our closest friends—the ugly cries, the dancing that rivals Elaine from Seinfeld, the off-key belting of show tunes (okay, they might not like the latter very much…)
We’re so immersed in day-to-day life that we often lose perspective. As Joni Mitchell poetically wrote, “We are stardust.” So are our animal friends. There are central organizing principles to nature, and one of those is that everything that is born eventually dies. Fortunately, we don’t have to think about this fact every moment of every day. When a pet is diagnosed with cancer (or any potentially fatal illness), it’s like falling into a nightmare with a gasp. There’s no more room for denial. The good news is that this can be a gift. Not in the material sense of the word. It’s an opportunity to discover the depth of this life, rather than just the breadth. It’s also an opportunity to deepen our bonds.
Don’t get me wrong: Having a pet with cancer sucks. It’s scary and not something any one of us would choose, for our pets or ourselves. I’m not talking about denying the fear—any emotions you push down will just come back up with a vengeance, often at the most inopportune time. Allow the fear. Allow that you and your friend are living with uncertainty right now. Allow that that’s a scary thing. And make the most of the time you have together.
Focus on the breath
One of the best tricks for calming down (regardless of stressor) is to focus attention on the breath—after all, it’s always there, whether or not we’re paying attention. When we’re stressed, our breath tends to be shallow, and only to our chest. But deep, mindful breathing calms the physical body along with the mind. Like everything else in this article, this is not a technique to “get rid of” the thoughts and emotions you have around your pet’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, in her book Real Happiness, writes, “Connecting to your breath when thoughts or images arise is like spotting a friend in a crowd: You don’t have to shove everyone else aside or order them to go aware you just direct you attention, your enthusiasm, your interest toward your friend. Oh, you think, there’s my friend in that crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, among those thoughts and feelings and sensations.”
Serve from your saucer
You know what they always say on flights, about putting on your own oxygen mask first? The same goes for helping your animal friend through a health challenge or crisis. Take care of yourself first, or as I’ve heard it said, “Serve from your saucer.” That is, fill your own cup first, so that you don’t burn out, and do the most emotionally difficult tasks when you have some overflow. What you’re going through is hard, and this is a time to treat yourself as you would a friend in the same situation.
Those of us who love animals tend to know other people who love animals. If there are people in your life who have the archaic attitude of “it’s just a cat/dog,” do what you’d do on social media, and mute them IRL for a while. Surround yourself with as much support as you can find, whether that’s friends, family, people online, or a support group for humans whose pets are going through treatment. The Brodie Fund Instagram page has thousands of followers who understand what it’s like to have a seriously ill companion.
Our minds can be our worst enemies during our companion animal’s health crises, and as the saying goes, the mind can be a dangerous neighborhood to wander alone. You will second-guess yourself (and possibly your vet). You will have to make decisions without full use of your brainpower. People will say triggering things to you. You will cry a lot. That’s all okay. That’s to be expected. It’s not pleasant, yet trying to bury your emotions will only cause them to leak (or explode) later, often at an inappropriate target.
Focus on just this moment (as much as possible)
You don’t need to know how you’re going to cope with the entire trajectory of your pet’s illness. You only need to make it through this moment, just this moment.
Although animals have strong survival instincts, they don’t lie in the sun contemplating their own mortality (at least, I don’t think they do). Animals may sense that they’re unwell—dogs are more open about this than cats, because they’re more domesticated—but they’re not wondering, “am I going to die?” They just know that, in this moment, they don’t feel great.
One of the gifts they give us is being an example for living in the present moment. We never know what the future holds. None of us is guaranteed even to make it to the end of this day. When we remember and can accept that, every moment becomes a gift. That could be interpreted as a dollar-store platitude, so let me clarify:
I don’t mean that cancer, or any serious illness in any animal (including humans), is good. Rather, I mean that if we’re living too much in our anxious or sad thoughts, we’re missing the opportunity to connect the animal who is by our side right now. Still living. Still breathing. Still loving you.
One of my favorite ways to come into the present moment is to focus on sensations: Gently place the palm of your hand on your animal friend’s side, and focusing all your attention on the sensations in your hand. Feel the texture of their fur. Feel their belly rise and fall. Feel their heartbeats. If your mind runs away with you (and it very well may), redirect your attention to the sensations in the palm of your hand.
As humans—and especially as humans responsible for a given animal’s welfare—we have to make decisions and strategize. Those activities, while necessary, also take us back into the mind and can lead to cascades of thoughts that evoke grief. This is totally typical, and not something to beat yourself up over.
Lean into mystery
Bodies comprise a vast number of processes in constant, delicate balance, from the rhythm of heartbeats to pH levels. If any one of these millions of processes break, the body dies. From that perspective, it’s a miracle any of us (by which I mean all beings) live longer than a few seconds.
In the busyness of our daily lives, we often forget that we’re part of a vast galaxy that the human mind can’t fully comprehend. We forget that our bodies are temporary. We forget that, as I once heard someone say, we’re already ghosts, wearing meat suits and hurtling through space. So are our companion animals. Yet the first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy can change form, but it can’t be created or destroyed. There is something in us and in the animals we love—something we can’t possibly comprehend through the mind—that is as old as the universe and as poetic as stardust. And that doesn’t die.
Transform home care into quality time
Most of us have happy rituals when our pets are healthy. Walks to the park. Playing fetch. Wand toys. Mealtimes. Our bond grows deeper through these shared activities, and deeper still when they’re repeated daily over many years.
When an animal friend has a serious illness, usually there are changes to the routine, and/or frequent vet visits (for chemo or other treatment). While these aren’t as “fun” as puppy playdates, for example, they’re also an opportunity to deepen the bond between you and your cat or dog. Bring your full attention to every interaction with your animal friend. As you drive to the vet, for example, talk to them about why you’re going there and what will happen.
Make sure home-treatment time is uninterrupted. Put away your phone, close the door, and create space for quality time. Especially if your pet is not a fan of treatment, take time to explain why you’re giving him subcutaneous fluids, pills, or sprinkling supplements on her food. They may not understand the words, but speaking them brings you into the moment, and in turn, that will help to calm you down (which can help the animal you’re treating remain calm…ish). Try repeating, “You are safe, and you are loved.” (And remember that applies to you, too!)
What you’re going through is difficult and painful. There may be fear, anger, deep sadness, resentment that your animal friend—and you—have to go through this. Self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness you would treat a child, or kitten or puppy. It means saying, “This hurts.”
Here’s the weird thing about dealing with painful emotions: If you can accept that an emotion is there, if you can really stay in the moment and feel it without resistance—without thoughts like “this shouldn’t be happening” or “I should have noticed sooner,”—the emotion will move through the body. Emotions are energy forms, and like all energy, they’re kinetic (not static). The need to be acknowledged and expressed is inherent in their form.
Accept the things you cannot change (easier said than done)
When it comes to feline or canine cancer, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other serious illnesses, we can set the intention for our animal friend to heal. We can take every possible action to make that happen, from veterinary treatment to surgery to nutrition to PEMF and Reiki, yet the outcome isn’t fully up to us. To paraphrase Ellen Carozza, the most popular licensed vet tech on Instagram, animals live their lifespans, not ours.
Most of us don’t like feeling out of control, especially when the situation is as emotionally fraught as having one of our most beloved companions fall seriously ill. You don’t have to like it, but the treatment period will be a whole lot easier on you (and therefore your animal) if you can accept that this is the situation that exists right now.
The definition of uncertainty is that we don’t know the outcome. As I wrote in a guest post for The Conscious Cat, when we recognize that our animal friends’ time on this planet (as well as our own) is finite, suddenly our time together becomes even more valuable, because of the human tendency to value what’s scarce and take for granted that which is abundant.
I sincerely hope that all of you reading this will have many more years with the animals in your lives. If, after all you and your veterinary team have done, it becomes clear that your animal friend is not going to recover, talk to your vet about switching to palliative care, and create space in your schedule to make sure the remaining time you have together is as meaningful as possible.
Sarah Chauncey is a nonfiction writer/editor and the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving the loss of their companion cat. She manages @morethantuna on Facebook and Instagram.