Friday, April 11, 2014

Do pets have bucket lists?

Phil at the beach.

We hadn’t considered the question until this week, when we were forwarded links about a woman (Riina Cooke) who drew up a bucket liston behalf of her dog (Romeo) when he was diagnosed with cancer.

The concept of a bucket list is very odd when you think about it. The assumption is that most days we go about our routine lives being unfulfilled. But the threat of impending death tends to focus our priorities and, if we have time, we can do all those things we wanted to do…typically bungee jumping, learning to cook marshmellows or writing a note to someone who changed our lives [NB these aren’t from my list, there’re from here].

Once we’ve done it, it is ticked off the list – and we move onto the next item.
When you think about it, it’s a very bizarre take on life. The value of living, it suggests, is in those intermittent peaks that can’t be anything more than transient. The meaning of life is reduced to ticking boxes. And what happens if you get to the end of the list – can you die happily? I’m not sure there’s any evidence that someone who skydived, learned to iron underwater and met Bill Clinton/the Queen/insert influential figure here dies any more at peace than someone who didn’t.

The concept of a bucket list applied to animals is interesting and dare I say controversial. How do we know, as proxies, what our pets would include on that list? (Do you really know for sure what would be on your best friend or mother’s bucket list? What about your partner’s? You might be able to write a list, but check yours against theirs.)  

Items on human bucket lists tend to be things we’ve never done before – but how do we know a pet will enjoy something they’ve never done before, except by extrapolating from what we do know? Would your cat really love to run free in the bush? Not necessarily. Does your dog want to travel? Not all of them do.

I had some wonderful clients whose dog was diagnosed with a brain tumour. They were offered radiotherapy but the prognosis was very poor. Instead, his owners decided to make several trips to his favourite beach and enjoy quality time with him until it was time to go. It wasn’t a list as such – more like a plan.

In Romeo’s case the bucket list was a way for his owner to structure and record their time together before he was euthanased due to advanced metastatic cancer. They enjoyed breakfast in bed and she spent time giving him massages. A lot of dogs would enjoy those experiences – and many would be happy to do that every day.

But there are one or two things on the list that a dog might take or leave. Having your photo in a fire truck or police car. Most pets aren’t big on having their picture taken. So seeking an elaborate photo opp may not be ideal (if it involves time spent together, and a car trip which the dog happens to love – which I suspect it did in Romeo’s case - that’s a different story). The point is that it’s about the journey, not ticking the box. It would be unfortunate if copy-cats tried to out-Facebook each other by posting pics of terminally ill pets posing in novel settings without considering the animal’s experience.

One other item that was controversial was the feeding of a cheeseburger to the dog knowing diarrhoea would be theresult – but the eating would be enjoyed. If we’re feeding a gourmet food item that a dog’s gastrointestinal tract will tolerate, that’s one thing. But if it’s going to cause discomfort, should it be on the list?

There are positive spin-offs to the bucket-list approach – in this case Romeo’s owners made an attempt to think about all of the things he enjoyed, and prioritised spending time with him. Clearly they had a close bond and focused on his quality of life.

But it raises the question of whether we really capable of generating a suitable “bucket list” (if such a thing can ever be suitable) for non-humans? When you think about what might be on your pet’s bucket list, the activities they most enjoy, you might come up with some odd entries. Given the chance, Phil delights in sniffing and snorting the excretions of any other dog and he will do it for hours. If I am honest, I am pretty sure he would prefer that to some of the activities I would pick for him.

Cooke is honest: she admits that the bucket list was a coping mechanism for her.

“I was just so upset for the first few days [after the diagnosis], I needed to do something to occupy my mind. I decided to put together a list of fun things for us to together,” she said.

In Romeo’s case, despite all of the elaborate arrangements his owner made, she felt his favourite activity was eating a steak dinner. And that is just it. Making your pets happy doesn’t need to involve an event manager – the simple, routine things are probably more important.