Hospice: Ending Life with Compassion

Pet LossAnyone who is caring for a pet who is very elderly and frail, or is in end-stage terminal illness, probably has some level of understanding of what it means to provide hospice care. Hospice is focused on giving pets a safe, caring, intimate end-of-life experience in their familiar environment. As such, it is not geared toward curing a pet's disease, but rather toward keeping the disease from causing the pet any discomfort. Essentially, hospice means providing palliative care (comfort-oriented rather than cure-oriented) until the animal passes away or until the caregiver makes the very difficult decision to euthanize their beloved pet. Pet hospice focuses on caring, not curing.

Hospice is not a specific place, but rather a philosophy that end-of-life care can and should be provided by the patient's caregiver and family, in comfortable and familiar surroundings. It functions on the principle that death is a part of life and terminal illness and death can be experienced with dignity, as an animal rests at home with its loving family. Hospice is about quality of life, not quantity of life.

The Goals of Hospice

Pet LossHospice care focuses primarily on providing pain control and physical and emotional comfort to the pet. To prevent the anxiety of hospital visits and to allow pets and owners the maximum amount of time together, pet owners provide as much care as possible at home. Owners are trained to attune themselves to their pet's physical and emotional needs, and often find that the increased attention and physical contact allows them to feel close to their pet at the end of its life. Owners are given one-on-one time to come to grips with their pet's progressive disease and can say good-bye in their own way. Hospice helps to make a pet's death a kinder, more intimate experience for both pets and owners.

Your veterinarian should be your partner in hospice care. If your pet becomes terminally ill, you and your vet need to develop a care plan for your pet's specific needs, particularly if and when it becomes difficult to bring your pet to see your vet for care. When this happens, you should work with your vet to get whatever training you need in caring for your pet's medical and comfort needs, and you should arrange for regular phone calls either with your vet or with one of the veterinary technicians on his/her staff, so that you can update them on the animal's condition and seek advice when needed. Veterinarians and technicians teach owners how to administer medication, feed their pet, keep it clean and comfortable, and monitor and document the pet's pain and general health. Working as a team, the pet's family and their veterinarian and veterinary staff can make a plan for the pet's treatment, to be adapted as the owner's and pet's needs change. Sometimes medications, feedings, and other treatments are not effective, and they need to be changed by the veterinarian and the family until the pet is comfortable.

The Euthanasia Decision: When Hospice Comes to an End

Pet LossThough it provides a valuable alternative to end-of-life hospital care, hospice is not a substitute for euthanasia. Though pets are sometimes able to die comfortably at home, often hospice works as an intermediate stage between treatment and death. It can be an extremely difficult decision for caretakers to make. After months or more of caring for a progressively worsening pet, it becomes difficult for owners to choose a final ending point. It is recommended that pet owners establish a bottom line for their pet's quality of life before the time comes to make the decision about euthanasia. At what point is their pet's quality of life no longer acceptable: when the pet can't control its elimination, when it can no longer stand or walk, when it becomes disoriented and no longer knows where it is, or when its pain is out of control? With this bottom line established ahead of time, owners can know they will make the right decision when it comes to the sad and stressful final days of the their pet's life. The act of euthanasia can become a final gift of comfort to an animal in a great deal of pain.

Hospice can be a wonderful, caring option for terminally ill pets. However, pet owners should keep in mind that pet hospice care may not be for everyone. Some owners may not be ready or able to take on the often painful, emotional, and time-consuming work of the day-to-day care for a sick pet. Hospice may not be the right decision for owners who live alone, have a heavy work schedule, or are not in good health. Owners should carefully consider whether they have the resources necessary to care for their pet at home and talk to their veterinarian about what is right for them.

Whatever decision pet owners make, it is good to know that hospice exists as an option. Hospice allows pets to pass away feeling safe and loved and gives pet owners a chance to say good-bye at their own pace. It can transform the frightening circumstances of terminal illness and the loss of a beloved friend into a life-affirming opportunity.

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