Case of the Week - Dief's story

Diefenbacher (or Dief to his friends – of which he doesn’t count me one!) is a four year old Malamute cross who has been battling epilepsy for the last 18 months. It’s been a real balancing act trying to get his medication right, but his owner Klare Maggs has been unbelievably conscientious and as a result of her dedication, up until now he’s lead a normal active life. Last month Dief started to vomit. What cleared up quickly with symptomatic treatment returned within a couple of weeks, and during exploratory surgery Klare was told the devastating news that Dief had terminal pancreatic cancer. Since Dief’s signs could be controlled with medication, Klare took the decision to wake him up to take him home and spend time together for the last weeks of his life. This is their story.

The care of someone with a terminal disease is called palliative care, and something most of us will do at some point, whether it’s with dogs, cats or family members. It’s tough enjoying the days and not just focusing on the end. I asked Klare how she coped:

The diagnosis was a real shock and I was angry, shocked, and really upset. Devastated to hear my boy had cancer- this was so unfair. We had rescued Dief after he was unwanted by his previous owners, he was then diagnosed with hip dysplasia shortly followed by idiopathic epilepsy. He really didn’t deserve this at all. After crying for 2 days and trying to find something to blame this all on, I realised that actually this meant he needed me even more now and I had to be strong for both him and my other dog.

I read up on Cancers in Dogs & did some research on alternative therapies which would work along side the meds he was on (CBD oil , turmeric, Life Gold, mushroom supplements and reiki), I asked for support and advice from a group on social media which I had joined after Dief’s epilepsy diagnosis and the response was amazing. I listened to people’s stories who had been in my situation and were going through it just like me. It really helped to know we weren’t alone.

Dief doesn’t know that he has cancer. Dogs live for the moment so why should his time he has left be steeped in sorrow? So whilst he still wants to play and eat and go walkies who am I to stop him? Nobody really knows how long he has left but staying positive and doing everything I possibly can to keep him pain free and happy – means that when the time comes for him to cross the bridge (as heart breaking as it will be ) I will know he will go peacefully knowing I love him. My advice to anyone going through this is to ask your vet questions – talk to others in the same situation, don’t be afraid to try alternative therapies just because the prognosis isn’t good doesn’t mean you have to give up. Being positive and optimistic doesn’t mean you aren’t being realistic. It just means your furbaby is going to be happy for the time he has left and you will make some wonderful memories.

Lin runs free sessions where she chats to people in Klare’s situation. Anticipatory grief is different to the grief of a sudden loss, but it bears the same symptoms of┬ásadness, anger, isolation, forgetfulness, and depression. It can be hard to feel like we’re making the most of the days left, that we’re making the right decisions, not to obsess over the eventual end and not fall victim to overwhelming anxiety. So what can we do to help?

  1. Accept that it’s normal. Sadness at an impending loss is normal- don’t let other people tell you how you should feel. We all deal with loss in our own ways, and it’s important we’re allowed to be true to ourselves. It’s not giving up to accept a terminal diagnosis.
  2. Acknowledge the loss. Don’t minimise the loss by letting people say “at least he’s still here”. Try to acknowledge the emotions around the loss of a future and acceptance that all life comes to an end. Reflect on the time you still have together.
  3. Connect with others. Whether personally or on social media, compassionate support from people who have gone through similar situations can be a real help. Communication really helps us to understand our emotions.
  4. Relief is normal. When your loved one finally passes on, it can be associated with a feeling of relief and this can create feelings of guilt. Watching their health deteriorate can be exhausting and overwhelming. Feeling relief after an anticipated death doesn’t mean you loved them any less
  5. Assume nothing. Don’t assume how long your grief will last, or how it will affect you day to day. Everyone grieves differently.

Klare is doing an amazing job of looking after Dief. She has steeled herself for the most difficult decision of all- she’s going to let him go when his quality of life deteriorates. This is something we all have to do with much loved furry family members when their time on this planet is coming to an end, and it can be really hard to know when this point comes. When we live day in day out with slowly deteriorating health that seems to get worse then slightly better then worse again, we can find it hard to make that final decision. We always hope that tomorrow will be slightly better. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can anything else be done? Is there any form of medication or support that can be given to allow them a little more quality of life?
  2. Do they have a life worth living any more? Can they go out for a walk? Can they eat and drink normally? Can they keep themselves clean? Are their pain levels acceptable?

If the answer to these questions is no and no, then it’s probably time to make one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make. And, yes, it is the worst part of the job- but it’s also a huge privilege for me to help out amazing people like Klare who face this decision with such strength and compassion.