Hospice Care for Ailing Senior Pets
As loyal and loving companions, pets deserve the best care throughout their entire lives—from puppy- and kittenhood to their twilight years. This is especially important when their quality of life is diminishing due to illness or advanced age. Hospice and palliative care can ensure that your pet is as comfortable as possible until the time when you look back and celebrate your cat or dog’s well-lived life.
Hospice and palliative care is intended to provide your pet with comfort and support in its final days. And it’s important that these two types of care are considered together. Hospice care strives to help those near the end live comfortably and with dignity. Palliative care focuses on pain relief and leaves open the opportunity for treatment to enhance your pet’s comfort. A good example of this is radiation therapy applied to a cancerous tumor to decrease pain or the size of the tumor. It’s not intended to cure the tumor in this case, but it can delay deterioration and provide tremendous pain relief.
The primary focus of the comfort component of hospice and palliative care is pain management and relief, which can be accomplished in different ways. Many medications are available to alleviate pets’ pain, and your veterinarian will prescribe the one that’s best for your pet’s unique health status. Other strategies for relieving and controlling pain include acupuncture, myofascial trigger point release, medical massage, low-level laser therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, chiropractic therapy, and various physiotherapy techniques.
Finally, hospice and palliative care may involve modifying your pet’s environment to maximize comfort. Basic nursing techniques like emptying your pet’s bladder, cleaning urine and stool off the pet’s fur, and turning your immobile pet to prevent pressure sores are all examples of day-to-day hospice care.
Your veterinarian will help you decide when to begin hospice or palliative care. It’s often started when the veterinarian determines that the treatment of a disease process is no longer effective, for example when chemotherapy for cancer is unsuccessful. Another time to begin is when your pet is being successfully treated for a condition, such as diabetes mellitus, but the end of your pet’s life is still approaching due to natural causes.
While your veterinarian will likely assess your pet’s readiness for hospice and palliative care during an in-office visit, much of the actual caregiving can take place in your home. You can give your pet most medications yourself, and your veterinarian will work with you to choose the formulations that make the dosing process as easy as possible for you and your pet. Your veterinarian may offer specific treatments like acupuncture and low-level laser therapy in your home. If not, he or she may be able to recommend a house-call veterinarian. And certain common palliative care techniques, such as administering fluids under the skin of chronic renal disease patients in order to support failing kidneys, are easy for most pet owners to learn.
Even though you might be providing some care yourself, your veterinarian will stay closely involved. Your pet’s doctor will need to periodically assess your pet’s health and circumstances. It’s the veterinarian’s responsibility to provide updates and modifications to your pet’s pain management plan, and these adjustments are best made in person, whether during a house call or a visit to the practice. For additional support, a qualified veterinary healthcare team member should be able to help answer questions about administrating medications and offering nursing care. What’s more, technology has opened doors for creative solutions to pet care. For example, some veterinary practices offer video-conferencing to join you, your pet, and its healthcare team together via a webcam.
It’s critical to understand that unlike hospice and palliative care for humans, which nearly always leads to natural death, your veterinarian can and should exercise the option of euthanasia when your pet’s life quality becomes unacceptable. Ask your pet’s doctor to explain the criteria used to help you assess your cat or dog’s quality of life. As hard as it is to think about, when your pet’s quality of life slips below a certain level, you may need to consider relieving it of its suffering. That unacceptable level is different for every pet and pet owner, so you must thoroughly and honestly discuss your feelings with your veterinarian. It’s important that you be comfortable with whatever decision you reach.
Obviously your pet is helped by hospice and palliative care, and you benefit too. Such care can preserve the precious relationship with your pet for longer, allowing you and your family to come to grips with the idea of saying goodbye to your cat or dog. And participating in your pet’s day-to-day hospice and palliative care procedures, such as massage, cleaning, combing, and hand feeding, can strengthen your bond with your pet.
Providing hospice and palliative care can seem daunting, but the most important requirement is commitment. With dedication to compassionate care, along with a bit of unfettered imagination and the help of a dedicated veterinary team, all pet owners have what it takes to maximize comfort for these special patients. When your time together is limited, pets deserve these gifts.