Pet owners are often faced with a dilemma when a beloved companion is nearing the end of his or her life. Pursuing aggressive diagnostics and treatment in the face of a poor prognosis and/or advanced age may not seem like a reasonable course of action. On the other hand, most owners still want to do “something” to improve their pet’s quality of life and, if possible, maximize the amount of time they have left together. The “something” that owners are looking for goes by the name “hospice.”
The term “hospice” usually brings to mind end-of-life care in the human medical field. Veterinary hospice is a little different. Most owners eventually do chose to euthanize their pets when quality of life can no longer be maintained. What veterinary hospice care does is delay the need for that decision.
Hospice focuses on palliative care. In other words, the goal of treatment shifts from directly addressing the patient’s underlying disease process towards simply keeping him or her comfortable and content. Treatment options depend on the patient’s individual situation but often involve some combination of the following:
- nutritional support
- ensuring adequate hydration (e.g., subcutaneous fluid administration)
- assisting urination and defecation
- keeping pets clean and well groomed
- helping pets safely move around their environment (e.g., by providing non-slip surfaces)
- pain relief
- providing mental stimulation and loving contact with family members
Veterinary hospice also addresses the needs of the patient’s human family members. Preserving the bond between people and their pets is essential during this difficult time. The grieving process typically begins while hospice care is still ongoing, and owners may need a break from care-giving to recharge their batteries. Friends, family members, spiritual or religious personnel, and people trained in pet-loss support should be available to help those bearing primary responsibility for a patient’s care.