by Christie Cornelius, DVM
We all want our pets to cross Rainbow Bridge peacefully and without pain. We hope this happens naturally, and we hope we are at home with our pet when they pass away. Unfortunately, disease, dying, and death are often unpredictable as our pets near the end of their lives. Unpredictability causes pet owners to experience anxiety, anticipatory grief, and confusion. These emotions can impair an individual’s ability to make appropriate choices in the best interest of their pet at the end of the pet’s life. Many caretakers do not understand their pet’s disease and what pain and suffering they experience as the disease progresses.
Hospice care aims to meet the physical and mental needs of a pet faced with a life-limiting illness. It begins the moment a pet has been diagnosed with a terminal condition and the family has decided not to pursue aggressive, curative therapies. Hospice exists to provide support and care for patients in the last phases of an incurable disease, or at the natural end of life. Pet hospice focuses on caring, not curing. Hospice care providers understand that a serious illness profoundly impacts not only the patient but family and loved ones as well. Patients in the last phases of life deserve such care so that they might live as fully and comfortably as possible, and that through appropriate care and the promotion of a caring community sensitive to their needs, patients and their families may be free to attain a degree of mental and spiritual preparation for death that is satisfactory to them.
Diseases or conditions that warrant hospice care:
• Incurable organ failure
• Neurological conditions, including dementia
• Senior pets reaching the end of life
Hospice care begins with formulating an individualized plan, based on a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s and family’s needs while taking into consideration the patient’s diagnosis, prognosis, and available treatment options; the family’s values, beliefs, and resources; and our hospice team’s philosophy and capabilities. Pet hospice team members provide their patients with a safe, caring, intimate end-of-life experience in a familiar environment, surrounded by loved ones. The team focuses on providing pain control and physical comfort to the pet, as well as educational and emotional support for the family until a natural death occurs or euthanasia is chosen. Families are given time to adjust to their pet’s progressive disease, and providers help prepare them to say goodbye in the comfort of their own home.
- Hospice services include, but are not limited to:
• Pain recognition and management
• Oral and injectable medications
• Fluid therapy
• Nutritional and dietary therapy
• Massage and physical therapy
• Wound care
• Reducing stress in the environment
• Household modifications
• Mental stimulation
• Recommending non-pharmacological therapies
• Educating family members on how to perform medical and nursing care at home
• Educating family members on how to assess and monitor the patient’s comfort level and quality of life
• Encouraging realistic expectations for the patient’s remaining lifetime and the process of dying
• Grief support
How do I know if hospice care is the right decision for me and my pet?
The decision to enter into a hospice care plan can only be made once an owner has consulted their regular veterinarian and carefully considered all the treatment options. Many pet parents choose hospice care in order to have the time to say goodbye to their companions, to plan for their death, and to ensure that all the decisions about the pet’s needs are guided by their view of the pet’s needs. If you have the resources to support comfort care, the time and desire to care for your pet during the last days or weeks of their life, and a good support team in place, then hospice care may be the right choice for you and your pet.
Christie Cornelius, DVM, is the head veterinarian at Last Wishes In-Home Pet Hospice and Euthanasia (lastwishes.com) in Houston.