How Does Hospice Care for Pets Work?

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Every pet parent knows the joys and having a pet or two (or three) to brighten their day when they come home from work. Especially when they get to wake up to cuddles, purrs, licks, and meows, and having life made better by their fuzzy, furry friends.

While having a pet brings joy to our hearts and smiles to our face, at some point, all pet parents have to face the reality that their precious pets won’t always be around.

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When your pet gets to the end of their life and you’re looking for ways to help them live out their final days as happy and comfortable as possible, pet hospice may be the answer.

Similar to human hospice, pet hospice can provide your pets with end-of-life care focused on comfort and help you come to terms with saying goodbye.

What is Hospice Care for Pets?

Pet hospice care is similar to human hospice care in that the goals, methods, and focus are the same. Human hospice care focuses on helping your loved one remain at home while living out their days as comfortably as possible.

The primary goal is to help them have the best quality of life possible when treatment has been exhausted or there is no further desire to pursue treatment for an incurable illness.

With human hospice care, there is a time when people go from seeking curative treatment for a disease that will eventually end their life to transitioning to end-of-life or hospice care. The same is true for the animals we love as well.

Purpose

Just like humans, all animals grow old, contend with disease, and encounter a life-altering condition. Whether it be old age, cancer, or another issue that will eventually bring about their death, there will be a time when you need to decide what to do for your pet.

The purpose of hospice is to help pet parents determine the final steps for their furry family member. Deciding how to help your pet live out and finish their days on earth isn’t an easy choice and it’s something most try not to think about. However, thinking about it is exactly what the decision to place a pet on hospice encourages.

Hospice helps pet families face the reality that their pet’s time may be limited. It also offers the ability to enjoy the remaining time together by providing a comfortable environment for their pet.

History

The modern human hospice movement began around the mid-1900s. Inspired by the benefit to patients and family alike, veterinarians took note and in the 1990s, began their own movement for animal hospice.

Beginning in the 1990s, the concept for animal hospice began to be spoken about by veterinarians and shared at conventions. By the early 2000s, the idea had grown so much that the American Veterinary Medical Association crafted formal guidelines for veterinary hospice care.

During the next ten years, training centers popped up, formal pet hospice programs were introduced at Colorado State University, and an international symposium for veterinary hospice care was held at UC Davis.

Today, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association and the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care both strive to bring attention, guidance, regulation, and training to this growing area of animal care.

Is There a Difference Between Hospice for Pets and Euthanasia?

When determining necessary steps for end-of-life care for your pet, you’ll be faced with three choices: palliative care, hospice, and euthanasia. Saying goodbye to a pet is never easy and the choice between hospice and euthanasia should be decided carefully with the help of your vet and each family member.

Palliative Care

Palliative care includes changing the environment to help your pet along with a veterinarian-prescribed treatment plan which includes curative medications in addition to medications that make an animal more comfortable. You may want to choose palliative care if you are still interested in pursuing treatment for your pet’s diagnosis.

Hospice Care

Hospice care comes into play when you choose to no longer pursue treatment for a terminal illness or there is nothing more that can be done. Pets can also be placed on hospice if they’ve reached old age and their health is rapidly deteriorating.

By placing your pet on hospice care, the hospice vet will work with you to determine adjustments that can be made to the home environment to make it more comfortable for your pet.

They’ll also provide you with medications to help keep your pet as comfortable and happy as possible. While receiving hospice care, pets stay in their home with their humans. Curative medications are not part of a hospice plan.

Choose hospice if nothing more can be done medically, or you’re ready to stop pursuing medical treatment.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a medical procedure that humanely and painlessly ends an animal’s life. The process consists of two injections. The first injection is a sedative and puts the pet into a peaceful sleep. The second injection is a medication that will lead to the animal’s death. 

The entire process is painless and is much the same experience as a human who undergoes anesthesia for surgery. In the same way that when we wake after surgery, we remember nothing and feel no pain, your pet will feel nothing of what occurs after they go to sleep. 

Euthanasia is most often chosen toward the end stage of hospice care or before hospice when a veterinarian determines that nothing can be done for your pet. It’s also chosen if you decide to stop pursuing medical intervention for your pet.

Choose euthanasia if you’re ready to say goodbye to your pet, need to stop hospice, and want to give your pet a dignified end of life.

Pros and Cons of Hospice 

Hospice can be an excellent choice but it’s important to determine whether this choice is best for you and your pet. Here are some pros and cons to consider when making the decision.

Pros

  • Extends the time you have with your pet
  • Offers a supportive and beneficial environment
  • Provides counseling and grief support for pet parents
  • Provides a dignified end of life for your pet

Cons

  • The pet no longer receives treatment for a terminal diagnosis
  • May cost more than pet parents can afford
  • Could make the process of saying goodbye harder on the family

Pros and Cons of Euthanasia

The decision to euthanize a pet can be made with your veterinarian when determining what is best for your pet and your family. Here are a few things to consider.

Pros

  • Ends a pet’s suffering with dignity
  • Is a peaceful process and the pet feels no pain
  • Is highly affordable and carried out by the pet’s veterinarian

Cons

  • May cut a pet’s time with its family short
  • It may be difficult on younger family members
  • Taking your pet to the vet might be stressful

What Typically Happens in Hospice Care for Pets?

Hospice care begins when you have a conversation with your vet and decide to cease treatment for terminal disease or they’ve reached the stage in life where they need extra care due to old age. If you place your pet on hospice care, you can expect the following to take place.

Vet appointment

Hospice care begins with an appointment with your pet’s veterinarian. Together, you’ll come up with a plan to provide the best environment and maximize your pet’s comfort. This plan will include things such as:

  • Medications
  • Alternative treatments
  • Nutrition 
  • Adjustments to their home environment
  • Grief counseling for pet parents and family members

Since pets on hospice stay with their humans, the veterinarian will tell you everything you need to know about medication doses and how to administer them, if necessary. 

Medications

A wide variety of medications will be available for your pet to make their final days as comfortable as possible. Medication a vet might prescribe include:

  • Appetite stimulants
  • Nausea suppressants
  • Pain medications

It’s important to note that the medications provided do not include curative medications or treatments for their terminal illness.

Alternative treatments

While curative treatments are not part of your pet’s hospice plan, alternative treatments are encouraged to help your pet during its final days. Alternative treatments include things like:

  • Hydrotherapy
  • Cold laser treatments
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage

These treatments are suggested to facilitate pain management, muscle stimulation, and the overall wellbeing of your pet during their final days.

Nutrition 

Your vet will help you put together a nutrition plan tailored to your pet’s specific dietary needs. This will likely mean a change away from the regular kibble you provided during their youth, but it’ll provide adequate nutrition to keep them feeling good for as long as possible.

Adjustments to their home environment

Depending on your pet, you might need to adjust their home environment to make it more comfortable to navigate. Your vet will help you decide what needs to happen but the following adjustments are common:

  • A ramp installed where there are stairs
  • Non-skid flooring put down
  • Restriction to the first floor in a two-story home
  • Furniture rearranged to create wider walkways 

Grief counseling

Veterinarians understand how devastating pet loss can be for family members. They are an excellent resource to turn to when navigating pre-death grief, coping with an unexpected pet loss, and dealing with grief after your pet passes away.

Many have connections with counselors who can help you and your family during this difficult time. They might also recommend some pet loss books for you to read. 

Caring for Your Pet’s Final Days

Pets often become just like a family member and when they become ill or show signs of their age, it can be difficult to say goodbye. Hospice provides an opportunity to give your pet a comfortable end of life while allowing them to remain surrounded by the warmth and love of their family.


Sources:
  1. “Are Palliative Care and Hospice Right for Your Pet?” Pet Health and Wellness, Billings Animal Hospital, 9 June 2020, https://www.billingsanimalfamilyhospital.com/are-palliative-care-and-hospice-right-for-your-pet/.
  2. “End of Life Care.” General Pet Care, ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/end-life-care.
  3. “What is Hospice Care for Pets?” Grey Matters, The Grey Muzzle Organization, https://www.greymuzzle.org/grey-matters/health-and-well-being-end-life-care-and-planning-care-end-life/what-hospice-care-pets.
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