I’ll admit it: I’m terrible when it comes to taking care of a sick friend or relative. I’m the last person you want to call for TLC if you get the flu, have an accident or are recovering from surgery. You’ll never confuse me with Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa. I lack patience and have little tolerance for the perfectly reasonable — I suppose — whining of a person in pain who can probably take care of herself. Call it a character flaw but that’s me!
It’s a whole different story where animals are concerned. For my furry, feathered and scaled friends, I have learned how to tube feed, give fluids, administer shots, remove stitches and keep wounds infection-free.
When my fabulous ferret, Shakira, was recently diagnosed with lymphoma, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to give her home hospice care. I don’t know how much time we have together, but I want to keep her comfortable at home and give her a compassionate end.
Shakira came into my life as a rescue 10 years ago. She was about 2 years old and had been living chained up in a filthy cage before I brought her home to join my menagerie of rescues. She’s an awesome girl that gets along great with all the dogs and cats and has a very special place in my heart. I’ve come to know her so well and all her daily routines, like cleaning and rearranging the furniture in her den. I’m sure you’re asking why a ferret needs furniture. Because she loves it! She has a Barbie bed where she actually sleeps, a beanbag chair and, her favorite, a mini banana hammock where she curls up. And she’s a better housekeeper than I am. I was quick to sense when something was wrong with her.
When the vet told me she had lymphoma, I thought he was wrong, that she just doesn’t clean well enough under her arms and her sweat glands are clogged. After consulting with three other ferret specialists — yes, there are vets who specialize in ferrets — there was no denying that a painful decision was nearing.
More than one vet suggested chemo, but I refused to put Shakira through that at the advanced age of 12, when the life expectancy of a ferret is about five years. I’m fine with prednisone, electrolytes and other medications that will help her stay more comfortable and have quality of life.
So Shakira is still at home, and I’m making her special blended meals and weighing her every day. She’s only 1-1/2 pounds to start with, so she can’t afford to lose weight. I monitor how much food she eats, water she drinks and the electrolytes she’s getting. Twice a week I give her subcutaneous fluid, which is fluid given with a needle inserted just under the skin.
I’m watching her closely, and she’s still tending to daily housekeeping and keeping up her grooming routine, so I know she’s feeling OK. I might be spending a little too much time petting her, kind of like the parent who knows his or her kid is going away to college and is too clingy. If she could talk, Shakira would probably say, “Cut it out!”
If she doesn’t pass on her own, I know I’m going to have to make that most horrific decision — a grown-up decision about putting her to sleep. The only comfort I have is knowing that I outlived her. I will know how her life ended and won’t have to worry about her care if she were to outlive me.
If you think you want to provide home hospice to your animal, don’t be intimidated. First, read up clinically what the disease or condition is and how it progresses. You need to know what it does physically, how it tears down the body and the pain that might come with it — it’s your animal’s pain, not yours. Once you face those issues, you can begin making a plan with your vet and family. There are also people who provide palliative care who will come to your home and help you do it.
If you do home hospice care, you will find something in yourself that you never knew existed. There is something very powerful in being able to provide comfort and ease the passage of animals. You can see the gratitude in their eyes when they look at you or feel it when they nuzzle your hand.
Providing hospice is challenging but so rewarding and loving. If your household includes children as well as pets, it’s truly amazing to watch kids become involved, leaving their phones and video games to spend time with a loved one. You can’t teach compassion, but this is one way you can show it.
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