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How to Stay Emotionally Healthy When Your Dog Is Terminally Ill

To make the most of whatever time you have left with a beloved pet, you must take care of yourself as well.

Chris Corrigan Mendez  |  Nov 30th 2016


You may feel sorrowful, defeated, confused, and perhaps alone. Your canine best friend has received the diagnosis of “terminal,” and you have made the difficult choice of palliative care. And while you believe it is the right path to follow and are committed to making your devoted friend’s remaining time the best it can be through a Palliative Plus approach, this cluster of negative feelings may be sickening you inside.

As a guardian who has experienced a pet’s terminal illness and palliative care journey and also as a licensed professional counselor who speaks with suffering pet guardians every day, I know that these difficult emotions, while natural and expected in response to a pet’s illness, can be overwhelming. And if left to smother you, they can lessen the quality of your remaining time together.

But there is hope. You can, while accepting and understanding the presence of your negative feelings, also invite in those that are more positive, supportive, and comforting. By taking the following steps, you can move toward regaining your emotional health and strengthening your pet relationship during this crucial period.

1. Allow yourself to be present and take in wonderful moments

As Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains in his book, Just One Thing, people tend to pass over life’s good moments without giving them the attention and importance they deserve. Our minds zoom in on unpleasant past events and threats expected in the future. So your ailing pooch may still be experiencing fun walks with you, enthusiastic mealtimes, and exciting adventures to the park, but you may not be really “there,” enjoying them with him or her.

However, you can become part of those positive times and make them resonate. If you stop, take some slow, deep breaths, and use our senses and mind to really pay attention to and appreciate what is happening, and as Dr. Hanson explains, “take in the good,” you will be more able to find the emotional place that can improve your pet connection.

Hand and paw by Shutterstock.

Hand and paw by Shutterstock.

2. Remind yourself that you have always done and are continuing to do the best for your pet

Too often, a terminal diagnosis starts pet parents on the desperate search for a reason why, leading to the irrational answer of, “It’s my fault. I must have done something wrong.” It can be difficult to accept the terrible illness as a “no fault” occurrence or mystery. However, you can divert yourself from this path of self-blame. You can think honestly and positively about how you prioritized your beloved pet through caring actions: the medical care, quality food, exercise, socialization, affection. And then give yourself credit and use specific affirmations to strengthen this way of thinking.

Five to ten times each morning, midday, and evening, speak words such as, “I am continuing to do the best I can for my beloved pet,” or “I am a loving pet parent. I am making our remaining time together the best it can be.” As a result of these affirmations, you may find your self-judgment softening and the belief in yourself as a supportive pet parent strengthening.

3. Take the time each day to meditate and really breathe

As you progress through your pet’s palliative care, you may find your mind buzzing and your body scrambling to keep up with ongoing hospice duties. This can result in losing touch with yourself, your physical sensations, and the appreciation of just “being.” Taking even a few minutes each day to do diaphragmatic breathing exercises and guided meditations may bring you back to the present moment, reduce stress, and positively change your brain connections.

4. Consult and connect with pet illness, loss, and grief resources

As a result of the growing social understanding of the importance of pets in our lives, an increasing number of veterinary hospice services, articles, books, and websites are available to help you feel more informed and supported as you move through the illness period with your beloved friend, arrive at the final journey decision, and then grieve, mourn, and heal.

5. Express your thoughts and feelings about this experience

Feelings journal. (Photo by Chris Corrigan Mendez)

Feelings journal. (Photo by Chris Corrigan Mendez)

For many pet parents, keeping everything “inside” significantly contributes to emotional distress. Processing your negative thoughts and feelings by sharing them in a journal, with family and friends, in a support group, in an online chat room, or with a counselor may help you gain understanding, acceptance, and space in your mind for the positive beliefs and emotions that also deserve to be included. And with strengthened emotional health, you will be better able to fill the time you have left with your beloved friend with true connection, love, and joy—making it the best it can be.

About the author: Chris Corrigan Mendez, M.Ed., LPC, NCC is currently the proud guardian of three rescue pooches and a licensed professional counselor in private practice. Chris leads a monthly pet illness and loss support group and provides individual counseling to pet guardians. Follow her at www.ccmcounseling.vpweb.com and www.facebook.com/ccmcounselingstl.