The vital role of pets in end of life care and planning

Dandelion

Famous author Charles Yu once said, “If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am”. Pets play such a significant part of family life and are often such a huge source of comfort and love. It is therefore unsurprising that animals can play a vital role in end-of-life care and planning, offering a wide range of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits.

From providing companionship and reducing stress, to assisting with therapeutic interventions and disability, animals can greatly enhance the quality of life for those needing help on a daily basis or for those nearing the end of their journey.

Our furry friends provide a great source of comfort, companionship, and emotional support

Two of the most significant benefits animals offer is comfort and companionship. As individuals begin to face their own mortality and approach the end of their lives, feelings of loneliness and isolation can become incredibly overwhelming. Pets such as dogs and cats provide consistent companionship that can help to alleviate such feelings. In a time when people feel so out of control having consistent friends, furry or not, around them is vital.

Animals are a great comfort in silence and their presence can offer support, whilst reducing anxiety, and create a sense of normalcy and routine, which is especially valuable during such a troubling time. Animals also have an innate ability to sense human emotions; and often respond in ways that provide comfort and solace for example by lying quietly next to someone who is feeling anxious or distressed, offering a calming presence. This emotional support can be incredibly therapeutic, helping individuals cope with their impossible circumstances better.

What physical health benefits do our furry friends provide?

Interacting with animals can also have several physical health benefits. Studies have highlighted that stroking animals can lead to lower blood pressure, a reduced heart rate, and decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.1 These physiological responses can contribute to an overall sense of well-being and help manage the physical symptoms associated with comorbidities and other end-of-life conditions.

Additionally, studies have also shown that animals can detect illnesses in people long before medical diagnoses. Notably, dogs have been known to smell various cancers in patients2. This highlights the truly fascinating and magical relationship between humans and animals. Their intuitive senses are remarkable, demonstrating the extraordinary bond they share with us.

For those who are still mobile, taking a pet for a walk can be a great way of maintaining some structure and responsibility, as well as maintaining mobility and improving mental health. For those unable to leave their bed, the act of stroking or holding an animal can promote relaxation and comfort.

Animals can also provide psychological and cognitive support

Animals can also offer significant psychological support as they can serve as a distraction from pain and discomfort, allowing people to focus on the happiness and companionship their pets provide. This distraction can be a powerful tool in managing pain and improving overall mental health. Alternatively individuals with cognitive impairments, such as dementia, can benefit from interactions with animals as it can help to stimulate memory and cognitive function.3 The repetitive and familiar actions of caring for a pet, such as feeding or brushing, can provide a sense of purpose and routine, which is crucial for cognitive stability.

Animals are also frequently used for children and adults with learning difficulties and cognitive impairments. For example, children with autism have been shown to benefit greatly from interacting with animals, frequently improving social behaviors and overall mental wellbeing.4 Additionally, in times of grief or depression, spending time with animals can be relaxing, encouraging the release of endorphins, which can improve mental health.5

Did you know animals can trigger social interactions and communication?

Animals, particularly dogs and cats, can act as social catalysts, encouraging positive interactions between individuals in end-of-life care and their family members, friends, or caregivers. Often during this time, finding the words to speak can be incredibly taxing. Animals are able to provide a common ground for conversation and engagement, helping to bridge gaps that might exist due to illness, emotional strain, or simply not knowing where to begin. This increased social interaction can foster stronger relationships, creating a more supportive environment for both the patient and their loved ones or carers.

Use of therapy animals in hospice settings has also been known to be a great way of facilitating social interaction and communication. Trained therapy animals visit patients, bringing joy, comfort, and encouraging conversations about pets, which can be a pleasant and harmless topic for those in difficult or emotionally challenging situations.

Animal assistance with end-of-life planning

Animals can also play a role in the practical aspects of end-of-life planning. For example, therapy dogs are sometimes present in legal offices or planning sessions to help ease the anxiety that can accompany discussions about wills, advanced directives, and funeral arrangements.6 Their calming presence can make it easier for people to focus on the important decisions at hand, providing emotional support and comfort.

Additionally, for those that own animals, it can be hard to think about making arrangements for their pets’ future care, though considering the logistics of this is a crucial aspect of end-of-life planning. It is important to recognise that their beloved animal companions will be taken care of, providing significant peace of mind. There are also organisations and services that exist to help individuals plan for their pets’ care, ensuring they will be placed in loving homes or cared for according to the owner’s wishes after they have passed. To find out more you can visit the Blue Cross website.

Losing your pet and grief support

Animals are often considered a person’s best friend, and for those who have had to part with a beloved pet as they approach the end of life, animals can also provide crucial support in dealing with grief and loss. The bond between humans and their pets is profound, making the loss of a pet incredibly painful. Support animals and therapy pets can also serve to offer comfort during this grieving process, providing a sense of continuity and connection.

Hospice and palliative care programs often include pet loss support as part of their services, recognising the importance of addressing the emotional impact of losing a pet. These programs can provide resources and counseling to help individuals cope with their grief and find ways to honour the memory of their pets. Your local hospice provider can provide you with further information on these services.

 

Organising funerals for our beloved pets

Funerals for pets have become an important ritual for many people, offering a way to honor and remember their beloved animal companions. These ceremonies provide a sense of closure and allow pet owners to express their grief, acknowledging the deep emotional bond they shared with their pets. Losing a pet for many is no different than losing a family member.

Pet funerals can vary widely in format, from informal backyard gatherings to more formal services at pet cemeteries. Many people often choose to bury their pets in their gardens or in designated pet cemeteries, marking the spot with a headstone, a special plant, or an apple tree. Others may choose to opt for cremation, keeping the ashes in a decorative urn or scattering them in a place that held significance to them.

During the funeral, pet owners may share memories, read poems, or play music that reminds them of their pet; others might create a photo collage or a video tribute to celebrate the pet’s life. Involving family and friends in the ceremony provides additional support and creates a communal space for sharing grief and fond memories.

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As humans we understand the profound love between ourselves and our furry friends. They play a pivotal role in our lives but are also key members of our families. Animals offer a unique and invaluable form of support in end-of-life care and planning; their ability to provide companionship, emotional and physical comfort, and even assist in practical planning makes them an essential part of holistic care approaches.

As we continue to recognise the profound impact animals can have on our well-being, integrating them into every aspect of our life but most importantly end-of-life care strategies is not only beneficial, but necessary. Through their unconditional love and companionship, animals help ease the journey toward the end of life, offering comfort and solace when we need it most.

1 News In Health, 2018. The Power Of Pets. Last accessed July, 2024.

2 Medical News Today, 2024. Can Dogs Detect Cancer. Last accessed July, 2024.

3 Klimova B, Toman J, Kuca K. Effectiveness of the dog therapy for patients with dementia – a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2019 Sep 6;19(1):276. doi: 10.1186/s12888-019-2245-x. PMID: 31492131; PMCID: PMC6731615.

4 The Adult Autism Center, 2024. Animal-Assisted Autism Therapy: The Social, Emotional, and Physical Benefits. Last accessed July, 2024.

5 American Heart Association, 2020. Owning a Pet Can Change Your Life. Last accessed, July 2024.

6 Funeral Guide, 2019. Dogs at Funerals: Grief-Therapy Dogs and Pet Therapy at Funerals. Last accessed July, 2024.