It is an unfortunate fact that our pets do not live as long as we do. In the course of our lifetime, we may have several pets, each as unique and special as the last, holding an individual place in our hearts. There may come a time when one of your beloved pets is diagnosed with a terminal disease. In these situations, Northland is here to help guide you through the difficult decisions of a hospice care plan.

Northland Animal Hospital views your pet as a member of the family. We understand the difficult decisions that come with having a four-legged family member. It is both a blessing and a challenge that we are able to make end of life choices for our pets. There may come a time when your family experiences the hardship of a pet with a terminal disease. In these situations, pets can become ill and uncomfortable. Sometimes, a cure is no longer possible and you may be faced with the question of quantity of life versus quality life. When extraordinary measures are no longer reasonable, the veterinarians and staff at Northland are here to formulate a plan that allows your pet to be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible, before making the difficult decision say goodbye. Often, trips to the veterinarian for tests, exams, and treatment cause stress and anxiety for pets. A hospice care plan alleviates that stress by eliminating veterinary visits in favor of care at home, provided by your family.

Our hospice service offers an approach that is personal and comfortable for the whole family. Hospice is focused on giving pets a safe, caring, and intimate end-of-life experience in their familiar environment. It is not geared toward curing a pet’s disease, but rather toward keeping the disease from causing the pet discomfort. The goals of hospice care are primarily pain control and emotional comfort.  To prevent the anxiety of hospital visits and to allow pets and owners the maximum amount of time together, open lines of communication between you and your veterinarian are maintained. This is to allow you and your family to manage care for your pet at home, rather than at a veterinary hospital. In this way, owners are given tools to understand and 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.

Though it can be extremely rewarding, hospice care requires preparation and work from the family. The family will learn 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 family and the veterinary staff can make a plan for the pet’s treatment, to be adapted as needs change.

After instruction and training from the veterinarian, the family will have the responsibility of the day-to-day care. One of their most important responsibilities is giving medication. It is much easier to prevent pain than to relieve pain that it is already present. In hospice care, pain medication is often given preemptively, before pain actually starts. Medication is generally given on a regular schedule, rather than in response to symptoms of pain, in order to keep the pet comfortable. It therefore becomes the caretaker’s responsibility to monitor their pet closely for signs of pain, such as agitation or vocalization. These are signs that pain management is not working and that a new plan needs to be discussed with the veterinarian. Caretakers also need to observe and monitor their pet’s behavior and physical state. They become the eyes and ears of the veterinary team, recording any changes in their pet’s weight, temperature, eating habits, mobility, and other characteristics. The family needs to remember, most importantly, the need to stay flexible. Hospice is an ever-evolving process. 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.

Our goal is to limit hospital visits as much as possible which means caretakers may also have to take over medical tasks that make them uncomfortable. Sometimes pet owners are nervous about handling medications, blood, or feces. We will work with the family to develop a treatment plan within their comfort level. Often, as pet owners adjust to their role as caretaker, they find that they can handle more than they thought and may even come to appreciate the physical intimacy of caring for their pet. If the pet’s illness ever becomes more than a caretaker can handle, our veterinary staff is available to help.

Though 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 a transitional stage between treatment and death. It can be a hard 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. Dr. Robin Downing recommends in Pets Living With Cancer: A Pet Owner’s Resource (AAHA Press, 2000) 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 often 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. To continue the hospice experience, we will do our best to make arrangements to have the euthanasia process occur at home, allowing pets and family to experience death in safe, familiar surroundings.

Hospice can be a wonderful 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 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 the veterinarian about what is right for them.

Whatever decision pet owners make, it is good to know that hospice exists as an option. Should it not be the right choice for your family, euthanasia services can still be offered in your home, to allow pets to pass away feeling safe and loved at home. In the words of Dr. Clough: “Death isn’t losing the game. Death is unavoidable; it’s a part of life. If you make death a safe, loving, comfortable experience, then you’ve won the game.”