Over the years I’ve counseled many thousands of clients as they’ve struggled with end-of-life decision making for their pets. For many of those years, clients who expressed opposition to humane euthanasia for moral, philosophical, emotional, or religious reasons created quite a conundrum for me: my professional obligation to ease patient suffering seemed incompatible with their convictions. Fortunately, over time, I’ve become wiser, and have embraced the means to reconcile what is best for the patient when euthanasia doesn’t feel like the best or the right choice. The resolution for this moral/ethical dilemma is hospice care, also referred to as palliative care. In fact, nowadays, I discuss both hospice care and euthanasia as reasonable options whenever helping a client figure out what makes the most sense when their beloved pet’s life draws to an end.
Just as in human medicine, veterinary hospice care is selected for patients with terminal illness. And just as in human medicine, veterinary hospice care emphasizes physical and psychological comfort for the patient along with emotional support for the family caring for their loved one.
The venue for veterinary hospice is within the home with family members and friends providing the bulk of care. Typical tasks include turning from side to side, assistance with urination and bowel movements, carrying, frequent bathing, preparation of special diets, and administration of medications and supplemental fluids. Hospice can be a monumental task as round-the clock care is usually necessary. And for larger immobile dogs, a team effort is necessary for lifting and moving, and to keep them clean and free of bed sores. Terminally ill pets are quite capable of “lingering” so it is not uncommon for hospice care to last for weeks or even months.
Health care professionals- veterinarians and veterinary technicians- pay visits as frequently as needed to ensure that that the patient is relaxed and pain free, provide moral support for family members, and coach care providers on various tasks including how best to recognize symptoms of pain and anxiety.
While providing hospice care can be emotionally and physically draining, it can be a richly rewarding endeavor, especially when pain and suffering are well managed. This period of “closure” can create precious memories that feed and nurture the soul, giving everyone involved the strength to withstand that final goodbye.
If you are interested in hospice care for your pet, be sure to spend some time selecting the veterinarian to guide you on your journey. He or she should be a super compassionate person with a large arsenal of pain management options and a willingness to come to your home as often as needed. Be aware that some hospice vets firmly believe in “until natural death do us part” whereas others support their client’s choice for euthanasia should it arise during the course of hospice care. When hiring a veterinarian to assist you with hospice care for your pet, be sure to sort this issue out in advance.
To learn more about hospice care for pets I encourage you to check out The Nikki Hospice Foundation. Their Third International Symposium on Veterinary Hospice Care will be held later this month (July 20-22) at the University of California, Davis. This is a conference geared for veterinarians and nonveterinarians alike. If you are interested in increasing your knowledge about hospice care for pets, this is the place to be!
Another awesome resource is the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care . Their annual conference will take place in Denver in early November. Can’t make it to Denver? Take advantage of the webinars offered by this terrific organization.
Have you ever been involved in hospice care for a pet? If so, I would love to hear your impressions.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.