Pet Hospice: A Compassionate Option

By Dr. Gina Johnson, Happy Pets Veterinary Center >>>


Recently the veterinary field has expanded to provide more services for pets as they reach the end of their lives. Pet owners may not yet be aware that there are now more options than ever to take care of our furry family members.

In the past, owners may have thought their only option was to take their pet to be euthanized at the family vet or at the shelter when they started to show signs of illness or aging. However, many conditions can be treated with medications. Even illnesses which cannot be cured, such as arthritis, can be greatly improved by pain medications or alternative treatments.

Pet hospice is starting to be utilized by more hospitals. When a pet enters hospice, it is understood that the pet has an incurable condition that is terminal. Hospice focuses on treating the symptoms of the condition, as well as any of the pet’s other problems, so that he or she experiences as little pain and discomfort as possible. It allows the pet owner to work with the veterinarian and vet clinic to make an individual plan tailored to their pet. The goal is to provide a good quality of life for as long as possible.

Signs that a pet may be developing a serious condition can vary widely, but may include subtle signs like unexplained weight loss, lethargy, loss of appetite, or hiding. Changes in thirst and urination can also be the first sign something is wrong. More severe signs include growing masses, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty walking, or difficulty breathing.

A common example is an old, large dog with inoperable cancer, such as a tumor of the spleen that has spread to other parts of the body. Hospice would focus on treating the dog on multiple levels. While specific treatments to stop the cancer may no longer be an option, a diet plan and supplements that help reduce the speed of cancer growth could be started. If the tumor is at risk for bleeding, certain herbs can reduce that possibility. If the tumor causes nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting, medications can stop the nausea, or a liquid diet could be attempted.

If that dog also struggles with other problems, like arthritis or incontinence, the veterinarian can work with the owner to make simple adjustments in the home. Padded beds can help arthritic dogs feel better, as can pain medicine. Frequent nail trims can help old dogs find their footing, as can caps that fit on the claws for traction, or using yoga mats on hardwood floors so dogs don’t slip. Medications can help reduce incontinence, and waterless shampoo can make it easier to clean a pet if an accident has occurred.

Cats can also benefit from hospice care. Some felines with chronic kidney issues can benefit from fluids being given in the home, as well as medicine to reduce nausea. If an old cat has trouble in the litterbox, puppy training pads are another option to keep the home clean. If a cat is difficult to give medication to, some medications can be liquefied, powdered to put in the food, or compounded into a gel that is rubbed on the skin.

The main goal of hospice is to allow pets their final days in dignity and comfort. An important part of this is the owner’s observations of the pet in the home environment, making sure that the animal remains comfortable. Your pet’s quality of life is determined by freedom from pain, discomfort, or fear; ability to perform normal behaviors; ability to eat and drink; and ability to urinate and defecate. Household pets should also be able to experience positive relationships with family members. Owners can log in their pets’ behavior and habits in a journal and share this with the hospice team, allowing them to work together to target problems, or determine if the pet is beginning to decline.

If a pet is close to death, euthanasia (putting a pet to sleep) is an option. Euthanasia is a great kindness we can give our pets to prevent suffering; the word itself means “good death.” Owners may be present with their pets for the procedure, and sedatives are usually given to the animals so they experience no fear or discomfort. House call euthanasia is also available from many clinics, allowing pets to pass in a familiar environment with their families.

However, if a natural death is preferred, the hospice veterinarian can also discuss what to expect in the dying process, and advise the owner about how to keep the pet free of pain or distress so that death is as peaceful as possible. Dying naturally can be painful, frightening, or disorienting, and there are options available from your veterinarian that can make the process easier.

One of the greatest challenges in pet ownership is in knowing that our pets do not live as long as we do. We can reduce the pain of having to say goodbye by working together to provide comfort and care until the very end. If you are interested in establishing a hospice program for your pet, consult with your veterinarian about the options available.