Health Section 4 Journey's End
The end of life is inevitable, much as we may resist and deny it. We can make the final days easier or harder; its in our hands.
Not all sick pigs are elderly, but most seem to fall into the senior and elder groups. With elders, these can be the best times you and your pig will ever have. Pigs are very independent and never need a lot from us. As they age, they gracefully accept the special foods and show real delight in what you bring for breakfast. A freshly laundered or fresh hay bed is greeted with much "plumping" as they nestle down into it. From what I have seen with the end of life days that come to all these elders, they accept death without any fear or foreboding. It is the machinations of us humans and our medical processes which sometimes make matters more difficult. Quietly explaining the need for the shot before giving it can go a long way. They DO understand the tone, the body language and the faith they have in you. A few general suggestions:
Quit worrying about balanced diets and calories.. Unless the vet has isolated a particular dietary problem, fix him meals that you would enjoy. Mashed potatoes and gravy and mushy peas and soft bread with butter, a little cooked spinach and some pudding.. and vary it every day. He has little interesting stuff in his life any more.. mealtimes can fill his whole day with anticipation. And a little special time. My old boys get covered up and a cookie every night. When they hear my step on the stairs they stretch out for a little belly rub and without ever opening their eyes, open their mouths for the cookie. Then the covers are pulled up and they are "tucked in for the night" I tell them. It is the high point in their day. I know their days are few.. and for me as well as for them, these are the best moments we will have.
Pain is not required. Ask your vet to provide the necessary drugs to keep pain at bay. Injections of Banamine allay most pain. This drug does create GI problems and cannot be used long but for a few days it will give great relief. And morphine, injected by your vet or in oral form will give all day pain relief. If your vet does not make house calls and cannot prescribe this restricted drug he may have a vet tech or nurse who can come and administer it. Someone with Hospice might even volunteer to do it. Ask. Keep asking until you find them what they need.
If pain is to be the every day life, it is time to consider the quality of that life. If he is not going to get better, it may be the most loving act and perhaps the hardest, to euthanize him. And this last act should be painless and without fear. First, a sedative to put him COMPLETELY under so he is fully unconscious when the euthanasia serum is injected. Don't let anyone have any say in this matter.. you do not want to send him on his journey in fear or pain. Give him the easy out, for your sake as much as his. Your vet may have to do this at home for him and this is the best way. The desire to keep him in your life for the last few weeks and lavish him with attention is a normal resistance to the end. If the vet says those last weeks or days will be full of pain for him, letting him go is the kinder way. It will never be easy.
Slowing down is normal, but certain behaviors indicate other issues. Aging does bring physical and mental changes but nobody dies of "old age". They die of age related diseases. Diseases can be (sometimes) cured, (often) controlled and (always) managed. Some body parts simply wear out, like their teeth. Left un-addressed, bad teeth can kill, either thorough direct infection or infection that spreads to the bones or further, by malnutrition or even starvation.
As the senses become weakened their behavior will show changes. They will not be willing to compete for food. As the sense of smell declines they will push food around and seem very "picky". With declining sight, they will shy from objects that are not threatening. They will refuse to walk up and down stairs or ramps that they have used for years. They will touch their dish of food and jerk back like it was hot or something hurt them. All these are signals of failing senses. But sometimes these are also signs of particular illnesses. Becoming sedentary, refusing stairs and ramps, not being willing to get in the piggy pool.. these are all things a pig with arthritis will do as well. Once arthritis sets in , or any disease that makes the pig feel less than "whole" and "competent", it affects his behavior. He feels at risk doing things he used to do, uncertain of his stability, and won't take any chances on not being able to get out of the pool or slipping on the ramp, or being unable to get back to his "safe zone", his bed. Physically he is able to do these things but his worries overtake him. No amount of encouragement will change a pig's mind. You may force him but you won't change him. A pig who ducks from a stationary object, avoids the sunshine or jerks back from food may have neurological problems or even a bad headache, like a migraine. As boys age many of them experience less than vigorous urination. They stand and wait.. and wait.. and wait.. for that pump to start. While it may start and after a 2 or 3 minute drip, then a dribble, a stream of some sort will follow. BUT if he is really blocked, the stream will never start and the straining will be indicative that this is more than a tired urethra.
Casting: one common physical difficulty that comes with back problems, leg problems and loss of strength is the inability to rise without assistance. The casting about, trying to get traction is frustrating and scary to a prey animal. He knows how very vulnerable he is. To help him rise you can brace him with your leg and shove him with hands against his shoulders to an upright (sternal) position from which he can then rise. For a very large pig stand slightly to one side (if he accidentally hits you with his
head in mid cast, he can break your leg) and grasp his ears near the base and gently but steadily pull his head toward you so that you are pulling it at an angle to his legs. It takes very little force and it will not hurt him. All you are doing is keeping his balance steady while he does the work of getting his body up. Keep his feet trimmed as this can make casting even worse.
It is always better to take a little blood and check out what can be checked without putting him at risk to find out if he is acting "normal" for his age or is dealing with an illness. With old pigs ask your vet to use Midazolam to tranquilize him so sedation won't be necessary. He will nod off like a good nap and wake up as easily as it wears off, without stress, without fear.
Rule of tranquilizing: Give the shot and leave the pig alone in a quiet place for 40 to 50 minutes. (If you stay with him he may never get tranquil enough) Leave him in the car or in the trailer and let him nod out. The blood can usually be drawn without ever moving him and he will sleep until you get home and can unload him.
Certainly dying is a border crossing. But if a pig (or other being) is in the final days of a fatal disease such as cancer or heart disease you may witness one of nature's more gentle hands as the lights of life go out one by one. In these cases the pig slowly falls into a deep sleep, and body functions begin to cease. His extremities will become cold and the rest of his body follow as less and less oxygen reaches where it needs to go to sustain life. In these cases it is sometimes very difficult to know when he has crossed the bridge and left our world. A vet may be needed to be sure he is not simply in a comatose state.
Once death occurs, rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body in response to enzymes released at the time of death combined with the cease of others to be manufactured , will begin slowly as the body cools and it may be many hours before you recognize its presence. Once rigor has set in it will reach its maximum at about 12 hours and then reduce over the next 2 days.
If the decision to euthanize has been made, the vet needs to know your wishes on how to proceed. Unlike many animals the simple pinprick injection is not an option with pigs. They KNOW and they fight. It is very, very hard to kill a pig and the dosage is massive, comparable to a dosage sufficient to kill a horse 4 or 5 times the pigs size. Don't put yourself in that place or the memory will never leave you. Request your vet to fully sedate the pig first, and this may take several shots, so he is completely out when the euthanasia serum is injected. A pig who has been recumbent for a long time, crippled or with a back injury has a reduced peripheral blood supply so sedating is sometimes complicated. A heart stick is direct and quick at that point. Injection in the ear vein is slower and more difficult to accomplish with such a large dosage.
Disposal of the body. Burying is most common as many people live where crematoriums are too small to handle a pig. The pig, due to his proportion of normal fat can "supra-heat" in the creation process and the crematorium chamber explode. So do not be surprised if the local crematorium refuses to cremate a pig. If you bury your pig you can add a bag of hydrated lime from the farm supply to the grave site to hasten decomposition and reduce any possibility that wild animals may find a scent and dig in the grave site.
If you have made it through the prior sections dealing with the technical and practical sides of these sad times, you will probably cope without much help. For some people the wound is one that won't heal. My many years of talking with these people has indicated these two keys to make the healing easier.
Getting another pet during the grieving process is not a good plan. A pet should have all the benefits of planning and a joyful beginning that your lost friend had. Starting off trying to fill a painful hole in your heart with another life is not in the best interests of the new friend. Let time heal the loss, then decide if a new pet is for you.