Imagine that your best friend of the past 15 years, your beloved dog, has been slowing down, breathing more heavily, barely eating, and having restless nights. After a visit to your veterinarian and a barrage of tests, you get the dreaded news.
Your dog has cancer; it has spread to her liver and lungs, and there is nothing else they can do for her. This is where Bill and Linda Meyers recently found themselves with their Shepherd mix, Lucy.
In years gone by, this would have been the end of the story. The Meyers would have brought Lucy to their vet’s office for that last tearful goodbye. But Bill and Linda had a feeling that Lucy wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Although she didn’t have that old spring in her step, she still had quite a few wags left in her shaggy tail and a sparkle in her brown eyes. Lucy never gave up on anything – whether it was chasing the tennis ball or making it to end of her daily walk in the hills behind their house. The Meyers didn’t want to give up on Lucy either. So they decided to do what many others have recently done – they chose in-home hospice for Lucy’s final days, however many they might be.
A relatively new development, pet hospice is modeled after a similar practice in human health care. It can provide a safe, intimate alternative to immediate euthanasia or a painful, protracted death. Based on the principle that death can be experienced with dignity, hospice allows a pet the pleasures and comfort of spending final weeks – even months – at home with family. It is not about treating disease, but rather about minimizing discomfort while preparing caregivers for the end of their friend’s life. With improvements in pain control as well as an increase in the availability of hospice, more veterinarians and animal guardians are seeing that a terminal diagnosis may lead in more than one direction.
As is now frequently the case with people, most animals in hospice remain at home for the entire process. A familiar environment means less stress, more comfort, and usually a better end-of-life experience. What’s more, caregivers often find that caring for their terminally ill pets at home fosters an even deeper intimacy.
Although pet hospice has been modeled after human hospice, there are some important differences. First, the canine patient cannot choose hospice. Human caregivers must make that difficult decision, keeping their pet’s best interests foremost in their thoughts. Issues to consider include whether pain can be controlled, what procedures guardians are willing and able to perform, and the availability of family resources such as time, money, and psychological support.
Another crucial distinction between human and pet hospice is that hospice for animals may end in euthanasia when there might otherwise be undue or prolonged suffering.
Fortunately for Lucy and the Meyers, her liver cancer was a condition for which hospice can be appropriate. Other conditions well served by hospice care include many other cancers, debilitating arthritis, kidney failure, and some neurological disease.
Like most creatures nearing the end of life, Lucy’s appetite decreased as the weeks went by. Linda bought gourmet dog treats, made trips to the deli for organic roast chicken, and even cooked special meals for her. (Bill likes to point out that Linda doesn’t even cook for him.) For several months after Lucy’s diagnosis, the combination of palliative medications, appetite stimulants, a special diet, and lots of TLC gave her a good quality of life and more time with the people who loved her.
Eventually, however, Lucy’s condition deteriorated to the point where the Meyers felt euthanasia was the most loving choice. Lucy was helped to pass away painlessly in the comfort of her home, surrounded by her family and friends.
The Meyers say that the extra time they got with Lucy was the most intense bonding experience in their entire relationship. They would definitely choose hospice again, should the need arise for another pet.
Increasing numbers of people are seeking hospice for their companion animals. Unfortunately, the number of veterinarians and other animal care professionals trained in providing this care has not yet caught up to the need. It is wise to discuss this option with your regular veterinarian before the need arises or to seek a referral.
The Nikki Hospice Foundation (www.pethospice.org) and the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (www.iaahpc.org) are excellent resources. Find additional information and links at www.rainbowbridgevet.com.