Dancing to the End of the Song:
Reflections on Animal Hospice
Tom Wilson, Ph.D.
A presentation delivered at the
Second International Symposium on Veterinary Hospice Care,
University of California, Davis, on September 6, 2009

The title of my presentation today is Dancing to the End of the Song: Reflections on Animal Hospice. We’re all here at this most important symposium on animal hospice because we share a common aspiration to bring more dignity, more loving care, and the very best approaches to assisting our animal companions in the final days, weeks, or months of their life’s journeys. We’re here to reflect on the state of animal hospice today, to explore what works and does not, and to sculpt new ideas, new understandings, and a vision of how to make hospice reflect our highest values of compassionate care for animals. We’re here to reflect on how to make animal hospice better.

So this morning I’d like to share with you some of my reflections on animal hospice through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I’ve had the honor of working with critically ill, aging, and dying animals for over ten years in my role as student, teacher, and practitioner of TCM and other Asian and Western therapies. The modalities I work with include Acupressure, Jin Shin Jyutsu, Tui Na (Chinese Massage), Thai Belly Massage, Zen Shiatsu, Qigong, Chi Ne Tsang, Polarity, Reiki, and CranioSacral. With the exception of the Western newcomer, CranioSacral, these ancient healing modalities have been the cornerstones of health and wellness for centuries in many countries around the world.

All of the modalities I work with involve the compassionate touch of the practitioner’s hands to help regulate and balance Qi, that invisible life-force energy that flows through every thing in the universe. Working with Qi, TCM allows us to address all aspects of a whole being—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—in gentle, non-invasive ways. With its focus on the whole being, TCM has shown me ways to assist animals and their guardians in all stages of critical illness, aging, and hospice care. Thus, the intent of the first part of my presentation title, “Dancing to the End of the Song”: I’m saying that when done well, animal hospice can be, in the midst of inevitable grief, a celebration of life and the passage of death. When there is no hope of a physical recovery, our animals still have a journey to make. They still have mental, emotional, and spiritual journeys to make as conscious beings moving toward physical death. There needs to be more awareness in hospice care of the conscious lives of animals. Accordingly, my reflections on animal hospice today center on ways in which we can enrich the last stages of a life’s journey for the animals and their guardians.

It has been my experience that when fear and powerlessness are replaced by a compassionate continuity of care that involves the animal, its guardian and family members, there is a strength that emerges. When death is accepted as an inevitable and meaningful part of a life and a soul’s journey, coupled with a courageous and loving commitment to dance to the end of the song with our animals, there may be sorrow but there will not be regret for how we walked every step of the way together with our animal friends.

If I have a thesis to put forward on animal hospice that encompasses all of the individual reflections contained in this presentation, it is this: Like the journey of a thousand miles that begins with one step, I believe it is time that we retrace all of our steps and reevaluate all of our models of animal health care and wellness from birth to death. There are culturally accepted tenets of our health care models that need radical reevaluation, most notably our beliefs about nutrition, immunizations, and euthanasia. The number of animals entering hospice with a panoply of advanced degenerative diseases as early as four or five years should set off alarms and a corresponding call to right action.

We need a wellness model that brings the best of Eastern and Western medical approaches together. As the line up of presentations here at this International Symposium clearly reflects, a movement toward that synthesis of East and West has been taking place and is making great strides. The way to get there successfully is to view ourselves and all other creatures as a community of conscious beings, a family that supports each other. If we can unite the caduceus with the taiji (yin-yang) symbol—that is, the synthesis of Eastern and Western healing traditions into an integrated medical model—we will bring the invaluable gifts of both traditions to our relationship with animal.

A Commitment to Altruism

For the good of the animal community, we will need a new commitment to altruism. We need to work together for the good of animals and not let animal health care go the way of the current debate (or is it debacle?) over health care reform in this country, which is shamefully entrenched in politics, money, power, and turf. In a recent article, Deepak Chopra urges us to shift our focus from the trappings of our health care systems to the healing system inside our own bodies.[1] Accordingly, we need to defend, strengthen, and preserve the healing systems inside our animals’ bodies. Our health care systems need to align themselves with the natural healing processes of the body itself. The key is to remove the toxins and to strengthen natural immunity. We need to drop old paradigms such as the war on cancer, which has led to a lesser of two evils approach that ultimately weakens the immune system.

Animal hospice care needs to embrace a wellness model, not just a pathology model and an end of life strategy. Just as with our American health-care system that is breaking under the weight of diseases engendered by poor lifestyle choices, our animal hospice work is witnessing a staggering number of our animal friends leaving us at four and five years old with cancers and other debilitating diseases that began escalating in the middle of the 20th Century. If we don’t address wellness strategies from the cradle forward, we are going to watch the bodies piling up in hospice at an ever alarming rate.

Partnership with A Chance for Bliss Animal Sanctuary

To set the stage for my reflections on integrating the best of allopathic and natural modalities of animal hospice, I want to share with you how the evolution of my animal hospice work has expanded and deepened in ways I previously only imagined. I have taught in several acupressure schools, including my own Animal Acupressure Training Academy, this exponential deepening of my animal work and teaching was the result of meeting Deanna and David Woody Bartley, founders of A Chance for Bliss Animal Sanctuary in Penryn, California. Dee and Woody extended an invitation to teach healing classes for animals at their sanctuary.

The next step was to launch our 100 Hour Animal Acupressure Certification Program in 2009 at the Sanctuary. Think of it: our classroom blossomed from a single classroom into a six-acre animal sanctuary with 85 animals, including, but not limited to, dogs, cats, horses, steers, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, geese, ducks, and, yes, even chickens. (One of our students, Tana, told me firmly that chickens respond amazingly to energy work.)

A Chance for Bliss has anchored our school’s scholastic work in the real world, in real time, with the critically ill, aging, and hospice needs of so many of the residents of the sanctuary. A Chance for Bliss has become our classroom and hands-on animal clinic. Our affiliation with A Chance for Bliss gives our students a place to learn and practice their craft with animals with myriad health and hospice needs. In return, the 20+ students enrolled in our program assist with the health and hospice needs of all of the sanctuary animals.

This synergistic relationship of an animal sanctuary and animal acupressure program has created a very real sense of community for all involved, humans and animals. A Chance for Bliss Animal Sanctuary has become a second home for many of us in the program. That is because Dee and Woody have generously invited us into their family, and the family keeps expanding. The nature and scope of our work keeps revealing ways in which TCM can effectively address aspects of animal care that include but go beyond the physical.

Our animals are on courageous life journeys in which their original natures and ways of being in the world have been radically and often tragically altered to human purposes. Just like us, animals have mental confusion; they get lost. Just like us, they have emotional and spiritual needs. Our work attends to all aspects of their lives, not only the physical. In ancient healing traditions, the totality of a being was recognized by what is now referred to as the Mind-Body. Modern allopathic medicine is making strides in understanding the role the Mind-Body plays in health.

A Kinship With All Life

Perhaps most important, what continues to evolve from this sense of community at A Chance for Bliss is, to use John Allen Boone’s words, “a kinship with all life.” In essence, A Chance for Bliss has subtly enfolded or transported us into the force field of a community of animals, into a sense of oneness and kinship where words like “them” and “us” are meaningless. The animals have invited us in, and we are changed forever. That sense of kinship cannot be underestimated in its contribution to the healing effects of our acupressure work, and to raising the spirits of the animals in hospice situations. Listen to these words from Boone’s Kinship With All Life: “[P]eople of certain ancient times appear to have been great virtuosos in the art of living, particularly skilled in the delicate science of being in right relations with everything, including animals.…Life to these ancients was an all-inclusive kinship in which nothing was meaningless, nothing unimportant, and from which nothing could be excluded….Every living thing was seen as a partner in a universal enterprise….Everything lived for everything else, at all times and under all circumstances.”[2]

When you work closely and regularly with animals at the sanctuary, you realize the truth of Boone’s words because the animals invite you into that kinship. The animals have known this kinship all along. It’s there always. They know why we are at the sanctuary, what we are doing, and they let us know with no uncertainty that they appreciate that we are there for them. What you learn is that healing is inseparable from and enhanced by your kinship with them.

Animals that might have died alone or been euthanized before their time come to A Chance for Bliss and enter a community of animals that invariably raises their spirits and their wills to live. An ancient Nigerian proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It might also be said that the village and its kinship with all life remains invaluable in the time of dying. The average tenure of the animals at A Chance for Bliss is 15 to 18 months. While that may seem either a short or long time for hospice care, depending on your experience, the heart of the matter is that our concern is with the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the animals in the present moment. We do not worry about or try to predict how much time one of our animals might have left. Our touchstone resides in the ancient Taoist concept of Shen, or spirit. We look for that luminous radiance of spirit that can shine brightly through the eyes of a failing body. As Bernie Segal, the eminent cancer physician from Connecticut, has said—and I’m roughly paraphrasing here—that when dealing with the spirit, all bets are off on how long one with a terminal illness will stay with us.

In this spirit of kinship with all life, from this place of a deepened sense of animals as conscious beings, my central reflection on improving animal hospice is that we retrace all of our steps and reevaluate our models for delivering animal health and wellness from birth to death. We need a fresh perspective in which hospice is not simply an end of life form of triage, but part of a holistic system of wellness from cradle to grave that includes the vital component of spirits in transition. In the process of reevaluation, I believe that we must reawaken within ourselves our kinship will all life and see our animal brothers and sisters as conscious beings that need us to remain cognizant of our kinship with them in the death and dying process. They have been our loyal companions throughout their lives, and in hospice they need to know that we will dance to the end of the song with them. We want them to experience the highest quality of love, care, and quality of life on their journeys, including a dignified and gentle passage from this world.

The TCM Approach to Animal Hospice

Animal hospice for me is like human hospice. It makes the best of all medical models available. When a physical cure is beyond reach, and allopathic medicine has reached its limits to help, the TCM hospice model continues to focus on the physical immune system as well as other aspects of the animal as a conscious being. One of the tenants of TCM is that a being, animal or human, needs energy to pass over. Sounds ironic, but I have witnessed it. So we go to what are called the Zang organs—liver, kidney, spleen, heart, and lung—and work with their meridians (rivers of energy) and associated acupoints to strengthen the immune system. We perform acupressure massage to stimulate the flow of blood and lymph. TCM addresses the Mind-Body complex of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the being. It is a conviction of TCM that when the Mind-Body is balanced, brought into homeostasis, one is in touch with the unified core of his or her being which knows at some deeper level of consciousness that “all is well” in the mystery of existence.

We find that our animals become more peaceful, which opens the way for Shen, or spirit, to rise. When the Shen are awakened, you see the light in the eyes return, even as the body progressively and naturally moves toward death. This is the major contribution TCM makes in animal hospice by addressing all aspects of the being. It helps engender peace and often summons the life force of the animal stay longer than one might expect. Ruth, a Boston Terrier at A Chance for Bliss, is one of the stories. When she arrived at the sanctuary, no one expected her to last more than a few hours. That was four months ago, and she is still here with. When I last saw her, she was lying on the kitchen floor after a healthy home-cooked meal with legs splayed wide, her head resting between her legs, her tongue draped on the floor, looking up at me with enough Shen in her eyes to ignite the Olympic Torch and light Jonah’s way out of the belly of the whale.

What we also teach in our animal hospice work is working closely with the animal’s guardians and caregivers to understand the process of death and dying, to help them build a team of support, and to empower them to assist their animal companion with compassionate touch. The typical reaction of guardians when traditional medical care has reached it limits to heal their animal is that they feel powerless to help, and feel as if they have abandoned their animals. I think it is in that state of confusion and anxiety that animal guardians often prematurely elect euthanasia. A natural passage, if it is possible, awaits a conscious being, one in which the acceptance of the death and the connection to those close to them deepens. There are resolutions to the life that need to take place. For the animal and it guardian, the hospice and natural death process can be a time of deepening and, ultimately, a time of grace.

One of the things I tell my animal hospice guardians is that there is time for crying and grieving, but your animal needs you now. Grieve, but do not be undone by it. Don’t let your grief rob you of this time to be there for your animal. You can step up and walk the last part of the journey together. Remember, this is a conscious being with a journey to complete; the journey includes emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of life that are moving toward resolution and transformation. If euthanasia is appropriate, then you become your animal’s advocate. (Thank you, profoundly, Dr. Anna, wherever you are.) Yes, the end will bring a time of grieving, but you will have had this time together, and you will not have regrets about being unable to help, of not being there for your animal. Muster your courage and dance to the end of the song.

As practitioners, we’re there for support, perhaps with weekly or more frequent supportive work on the animal. If allopathic palliative care is needed, we have that available on our team. If euthanasia is appropriate, our team veterinarian will come to the house.

And this is where the amazing power of touch comes in. We teach animal guardians some simple and effective acupressure points and flows for their animals. They feel empowered by this. Feelings of helpless and fear dissipate. The journey is made together to the animal’s last breath.

It’s been a privilege and an honor to speak at this wonderful symposium. Thank you very much.

[1] Deepak Chopra. “Do You Want a Health Care System or a Healing System?” SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle), Monday, August 31, 2009. www.sfgate.com/columns/chopra

[2] J. Allen Boone. Kinship With All Life. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, pp. 7-8.

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© Copyright 2010 Tom Wilson, All Rights Reserved

© Copyright 2010 Tom Wilson, All Rights Reserved
P.O. Box 2278 Nevada City, CA 95959-1945
Phone: (530) 913.1309