Hospice is defined as “rest or shelter after a long journey.” Veterinary hospice care has much to offer pets who have been diagnosed with a terminal disease or are simply fading towards the end of a long journey through life.
From the American Veterinary Medical Association:
[H]ospice care focuses on providing the best quality of life possible for a pet with a terminal disease or condition until the pet dies or is euthanized. Hospice care also helps you [owners] by providing you with time to adjust to the coming loss of your companion. The care is tailored to the needs of both you and your pet.
The goals of pet hospice care are relatively straightforward and include:
- Maintenance of an acceptable quality of life for as long as possible
- The prevention of patient suffering
- Support of the family and the pet through natural death or euthanasia
- Preservation of the human-animal bond
Veterinarians and owners need to work together to reach these goals.
Animals can experience many discomforts near the end of life. Conditions such as pain, anxiety, difficulty breathing, and gastrointestinal distress must be addressed, not ignored. Nutrition, hydration, hygiene, mobility, and mental stimulation are all important regardless of a pet’s age and health status.
Preventing pain is a very important part of hospice care. Animals experience pain much like humans, but they may not display it in the same ways.
Signs of pain in pets include pacing, excessive panting, hiding, reduced appetite, aggression, grumpiness, and/or reduced interaction with family members. Options for pain control include oral medications, injections, and transdermal patches. Acupuncture, laser therapy, massage, and other complementary treatments can provide additional relief from pain.
Effective treatments are also available for the many other types of discomfort that pets may experience at the end of life. These include such things as anti-nausea medications for vomiting, diuretics to reduce the build-up of fluid in the lungs, and mobility assistance devices that help dogs get outside to urinate and defecate.
One of the best ways to monitor a pet’s quality of life is by keeping a daily diary that helps identify changes affecting the pet’s comfort and happiness. Jot down the good and bad events of the day and give it an overall rating on a scale of 1 to 5. If you start to notice a downward trend, it’s time to make changes to the treatment plan.
Together, families and veterinarians can develop an individualized strategy for the final stages of the pet’s life and death. In some instances, the pet may experience a comfortable, natural death, but euthanasia often becomes the best option to eliminate suffering. The details of the euthanasia procedure and body care (e.g., cremation or burial) can be worked out ahead of time to reduce stress.
With veterinary hospice care, a pet’s final days don’t have to be filled with suffering and regret, but instead can be a time of great love and celebration of a life well-lived.