When your companion animal has been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, it can be very overwhelming.

Strong emotions of shock, disbelief, sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and helplessness are normal responses to the realization that your special friend is ill.

Everyday activities can seem difficult when you have so much on your mind. People in similar situations often report they cannot think straight and feel as if they are in a fog. In the days and weeks to come, you will likely face stressful situations and tough decisions.

Strategies to consider when receiving a diagnosis:

  • Take notes while hearing all the treatment options and write down questions and concerns you have. Remembering everything can be very difficult, especially if you are in an emotional state. Writing down topics you’ve discussed and concerns you have will help you keep things straight. Discuss them with your veterinarian.
  • Bring a friend or family member with you to appointments to help you hear what is being said. Emotional situations can blur one’s perception of information.
  • Ask if a decision of treatment needs to be made immediately. If it doesn’t, allow yourself some time to make sense of what is happening and discuss options with supportive people around you.
  • Reflect on how you’ve made difficult decisions in the past. Who supported you through those times? Call on those people to help you now.
  • Do research on your own. Ask your veterinarian for trusted and reliable informational websites and resources to help you gain additional knowledge.
  • Define what are your greatest hopes and your greatest concerns? Discuss these with your veterinarian.
  • Consider treatment expenses and realistically identify how this will financially impact your life.
  • Consider your pet’s quality of life. How will treatment options impact your pet’s quality versus the quantity of life?
  • Consider your own quality of life. It is important to ask yourself:
    • How much of my time will go toward taking care of my pet? How much time do I have to spare?
    • What cost will I incur to take care of my pet? What other financial responsibilities do I have?
    • What other responsibilities do I have in my life (job, parenting)? Who else do I need to consider (partner, children, other pets)?
    • Who can help me?
    • What other stresses and obligations do I have in my life right now?
  • Take care of yourself. Be sure to eat healthy meals and get enough rest. It is important to care for yourself as you prepare to care for an ill pet, often an emotionally and physically demanding endeavor.
  • Remember, when you consider what is best for you, your family, and your pet, any decision you make will be the right one. There are no wrong treatment options.

Anticipatory grief

When you have learned that your beloved animal friend has a terminal illness and may soon be gone, it is very natural to experience grief while your pet is still with you, prior to his or her actual death. This is called anticipatory grief. When deaths occur with some forewarning, it is often during this period of anticipation that people begin to experience the various feelings and manifestations commonly associated with grief.

One of the most common feelings during this period is an increase in anxiety. For many people, anxiety increases and accelerates as the time of death draws closer.

When there is some anticipation of death, it is common for people to mentally “rehearse” the event and its aftermath. Typically, people may ruminate on questions like, “How will I handle the death?” “Will I make mistakes?” and “What will it be like for the one who is dying?” This is called the “work of worry” and, when used in appropriate ways, it has been found to play an important role in peoples’ overall ability to cope.

During these times, it can be helpful to discuss your feelings with the people around you who understand your relationship with your pet. Making plans for the death of a pet can help to ease some anxiety and allow you to focus solely on loving your pet.