Doggy Bucket Lists: Pros, Cons, Do's and Don'ts

golden retriever at beach for doggie bucket list
Credit: Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
This picture was taken on Emmett's bucket list trip.The beach was always one of his favorite places and remained that way until the end.

The images are hard to beat: a happy person and even happier dog, grinning into the camera as they enjoy the beach or a snack or a walk. The caption is what really tugs at the heartstrings: “This was Buster’s final time to smell the ocean air.”

Doggy bucket lists have been around for some time, but with a plethora of photogenic pets going viral on social media, they’ve become more and more popular. It’s a lovely idea: Knowing that our beloved companions have a finite time on this earth, why not embrace the time we have left and make sure that  when they depart it’s with no regrets?

Just in the past year, we’ve seen  several pets’ final days of exploration and adventure in the news:

The dogs above had a few things in common: They were all afflicted with cancer, the sort of terminal disease that really seems to add a strict deadline to things, and they all had humans who loved them very much.

With all the stories we’re seeing about doggy bucket lists, I can see how tempting it would be to do one for your own pet. Heck, I’ve done it myself. That being said, I caution owners to be careful when planning these sorts of adventures, as your pets really can’t give a whole lot of input into what they feel like doing. And after all, you're doing this for them.

Why Some Items Should Be Left off the List

Having worked in hospice exclusively for several years, I know that by the time most pets receive a terminal diagnosis, they are feeling pretty crummy. The type of symptoms they are most likely experiencing varies depending on the diagnosis and will have a lot of bearing on which activities are most appropriate.

For example, osteosarcoma — bone cancer — is a very painful diagnosis. Though many pets afflicted with this may have a normal appetite, a lot of physical activity may not be the best choice for them. Other diseases, such as kidney disease, may cause nausea and sleepiness. These pets may not truly enjoy extended road trips.

The Right Question to Ask

It's easy to come up with things you want to do with your dog, but that's not the question you should ask yourself. The right question is, what would she most enjoy?

Earlier this year, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, and I immediately jumped into action planning a bucket list trip to Orlando. She had always wanted to see Harry Potter land. We can have nurses on call! Family there! It will be great! She smiled but had zero interest in a cross-country trek. We spent two days at the local beach instead, and that was just fine for her. In retrospect, I’m so glad we made that choice.

When my dog, Kekoa, was diagnosed with bone cancer, I found myself listing all the things I had wanted her to try, like kayaking and beach walks. Then, I made a list of all the things she enjoyed the most: Food. Food. Cuddles. Food. So that is what we went with: a bucket list full of dog-safe delicacies. We started with kale and worked our way up to some of her favorite meats; we even had a dog treat company make her an alligator muffin. We never left the neighborhood. She was very happy. On the day she died, she ate ice cream.

Years ago, when my dog, Emmett, had lymphoma, his appetite and energy were low. His favorite place on Earth was Dog Beach, so we made a final, low-key trip and sat on the sand, the place he used to tear up and down just a few months prior. We stayed for 20 minutes, side by side, his tail wagging as we watched other dogs jumping in the waves. It was perfect. He died two days later.

The Right Bucket List for Your Dog

Truth be told, the best way to live out a grand bucket list is to do it before your pet gets ill, while she is still healthy. And if that doesn’t happen — life gets busy, right? — make sure the list is about your pet, right at that moment in her current state, and not the regrets you might feel about what you missed your chance to do.

If you are dealing with a terminally ill pet and want to come up with a bucket list of your own, first, let me offer my condolences. These situations are always tough no matter the circumstances. Here are some of my personal favorite bucket list items:

  1. A family photo shoot. It may seem odd to want professional photos or video of your pet in these last days, but they genuinely turn into treasured memories down the road.
  2. A commitment to cuddle. Whatever form of physical contact your pet likes best, be it pets or grooming or cuddling, make time each and every day to do it.
  3. Throw a going-away party. Have the people who love you and your pet come by to say goodbye. It’s amazing, after a pet is gone, how many friends and family express regret that they didn’t get that chance.

For some of the most popular bucket list items, your first step should be to ask your vet for guidance. Here's why: 

  1. Travel. Even if your pet seems to be ready for a car ride right now, check with your veterinarian to make sure your pet’s condition is truly conducive to road trips, both physically and mentally. Your pet may be in need of medications to manage symptoms, and you don’t want to fall short in the middle of a trip.
  2. Special foods. Some disease conditions make pets less able to tolerate the special treats (even if they are pet safe) mentioned in some bucket list stories; you don’t want to take a pet who is already feeling nauseous and add pancreatitis to the list. 

To be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with the dogs and owners I listed earlier, and I’m certainly not intending to critique their choices. We will assume these were activities done with the blessing of their medical advisors. But before you follow in their footsteps, please make sure that the activities you choose are the right ones for your own pets.

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