In a post entitled Navigating End-of-Life Care and Decision Making, Dr. Lisa Moses, a veterinarian and the chair of the Dog Aging Project Animal Welfare Advisory Board, discussed the ethical and scientific underpinnings of the End of Life Survey. As a palliative care specialist, Dr. Moses hopes that the information gathered by this survey will help veterinarians support and guide dog owners as they navigate end-of-life issues with their dogs.
Our research team also hopes that what we learn from the End of Life Survey will help us understand how various medical conditions affect quality of life in our dogs and influence decision making by dog owners. As with all of the research conducted by the Dog Aging Project, the ultimate goal is to help dogs live longer, healthier lives.
We asked Dr. Kellyn McNulty, a veterinarian and part of the team that developed the End of Life Survey, to take us inside the survey so that members of the Dog Aging Project Pack have a better sense of what to expect when they are invited to complete it.
What is the End of Life Survey?
The End of Life Survey was created to accurately and respectfully capture essential details about a dog’s death. When combined with the information we collect about health and life experiences through our other surveys, the details surrounding a dog’s death can help inform our understanding of the aging process and identify key targets to improve the quality and length of life for future generations of dogs.
Who will be invited to complete the End of Life Survey?
As a longitudinal research study, the Dog Aging Project wants to build and maintain lifetime relationships with our Pack members and that includes through the heartbreaking end of these dogs’ lives. When a Pack member dies, participants can use the “Report a Major Event” button in their personal research portal to let us know. We will update the dog’s record, send a bereavement message, and also invite the participant to complete the End of Life Survey in their personal portal. Another way that participants can let us know of a dog’s passing is through the Annual Follow-Up Survey.
What if I don’t want to participate?
Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, the End of Life Survey is entirely optional. If the time is not right when the invitation is first sent, the task will remain open in the participant’s portal for forty days in case they change their mind. We know it can be painful to revisit a dog’s final days so no one is obligated to participate.
However, during the development of the End of Life Survey, we found that many people valued the opportunity to share the story of their dog’s death in this way. It seemed to offer some emotional relief and to add meaning during a time of grief. We can gain a wealth of information from the End of Life Survey, and we encourage everyone who feels able to consider completing it.
What kinds of questions are on the End of Life Survey?
First, the End of Life Survey gives the participant a chance to update their dog’s health history and report any medical conditions that have arisen since their last update on either the Health and Life Experience Survey or the Annual Follow-Up Survey.
Second, the End of Life Survey asks specific questions about old age characteristics and medical signs and symptoms during the weeks preceding death, including whether or not the dog was seen by a veterinarian and given any diagnosis, prognosis, or medical care. There is also an opportunity for the dog owner to assess the factors that may have affected the dog’s quality of life in their final days.
Third, the End of Life Survey asks participants to give detailed information about the cause of death and whether or not they decided to pursue euthanasia. As discussed by Dr. Moses in the post, Navigating End-of-Life Care and Decision Making:
The Dog Aging Project wants to understand how people come to a decision about euthanasia, and the team supports the decisions of dog owners, regardless of the path chosen, without judgment or reservation.
Finally, the End of Life Survey gives participants an opportunity to share a written narrative of their dog’s final days. This can be a powerful way to process a very difficult experience.
NOTE: If the participant has previously uploaded veterinary electronic medical records, they will have the opportunity to update these records after the completion of the End of Life Survey.
Why is the End of Life Survey important?
At the Dog Aging Project, we are committed to finding ways to help all dogs live the longest, healthiest lives possible. Understanding more about the circumstances surrounding a dog’s final days will help us achieve this goal. Responses to this survey are vital because much of this information can’t be learned in any other way.
For example, neither a veterinarian nor a post-mortem examination can reveal the behavioral changes a dog may have been experiencing at home, which could have contributed to their death or to their decline in quality of life. Additionally, only a dog owner can fully explain the reasons that factored into the very difficult decision to pursue euthanasia.
Ultimately, we hope that our research will provide veterinarians the knowledge and tools to intervene more effectively to prolong the quality and quantity of life for all dogs as well as support owners through this difficult time.
I’m struggling with grief and loss. How do I navigate this incredibly painful experience?
One of the hardest things about the discrepancy between human and canine lifespan is that all dog owners will likely experience the loss of a canine companion during their lifetime. It’s an inevitable reality of having these wonderful dogs in our lives, and it is heartbreaking every single time.
At the Dog Aging Project, we often focus on and celebrate the joy our dogs share with us, but we also stand with our participants through the experience of loss and the journey toward healing.
If you want to connect with others, all Dog Aging Project Pack members can join the Dog Park, our online community, at any time. There is a discussion forum dedicated to the topic of loss and grief with others who are also bereaved.
The bond with a dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be.
— Konrad Lorenz
Kellyn McNulty, DVM
Feature photo by Xan Griffin