ELMSDALE, N.S. -- We only want our family pets to stay healthy and comfortable -- but what do we do when they’re at the end of their lives?

Dr. Juanita Ashton, a veterinarian at the Elmsdale Animal Hospital in Elmsdale, N.S., has been taking care of cats and dogs for 17 years.

Ashton says, if your pet isn’t acting the way they normally do on a day-to-day basis, it can be a cause for concern.

Symptoms can include the following:

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Reduction in appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting on a regular basis
  • Lack of grooming
  • For cats, vocalizing at night, sometimes called “kitty dementia” in older pets

Ashton says vocalization happens because your cat gets confused and wants to know where their “human” is. A simple call-out so they know where you are will usually calm them down.

She stresses that the only way to alleviate fears about your furry friend’s health is through a proper examination by your vet.

One of Ashton’s patients is “Patches,” a 19-year-old cat. Patches has been in renal failure for over a year. Owner Heather Helpard is always keeping a close watch on him. Lately, he has lost weight and is sleeping more than usual.

Patches the cat

Helpard brought Patches into Ashton’s office on Wednesday to ensure he’s not in any unnecessary discomfort.

“Because the pet gives them unconditional love, they want to make the right decision,” says Ashton. “A lot of people are at home getting sick to their stomach, thinking I’m going to tell them to put their cat down, when there are things we can do to help.”

After an examination, a small gum infection seemed to be the issue for Patch’s lack of appetite. After some antibiotics, he was good to go.

“He seems to be doing fine, but I was worried because of his weight loss,” says Helpard. “I know that the time is coming that I will lose him, but thankfully we’re not there yet.”

But if that time has come, what can owners expect when they have to say goodbye?

Ashton says that everyone grieves differently, but if they choose euthanasia, she guides them all through the same process.

“First, a conversation on the phone -- we walk them through what will happen when they come in so there are no surprises,” says Ashton.

Legal paperwork has to be signed by the owners.

When the family is ready, they will be asked to come into the room where their pet is resting.

Not everyone wants to be in the room, but Ashton says that “it makes their pets more comfortable.”

When the owners are ready, Ashton will begin to administer an intravenous overdose of pentobarbital. What owners will sometimes see is their pet take a breath, and then fall to sleep and never wake up. Ashton says that the pet’s eyes usually stay open.

Time is given to the bereaved to say their goodbyes. The whole process takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Some families choose to take home a memento to remember their pet, usually a lock of fur or a plaster paw print.

At Ashton’s Elmsdale clinic, a candle is lit in the reception area, as a subtle reminder that a family is grieving over their pet and may need a quiet moment.