Hospice for Animals?
By Cheryl Cuttineau, Ed.D.
When a pet has been diagnosed with a life-diminishing or terminal disease, the decisions facing the animal’s caregiver can seem epic. Advances in veterinary medicine have helped animals live longer lives, but debilitating conditions such as arthritis, organ failure and cancer are now more common. If an animal is in pain or suffering, euthanasia is a merciful and humane means to honor a cherished pet’s legacy and end any further discomfort. If the condition is long-term and manageable, the caregiver is faced with decisions about the extent of medical care, intrusive treatments that may negatively impact the animal’s quality of life and cause stress, and considerations involving expense and the caregiver’s financial resources.
As a grief counselor the most common problem I encounter from clients is the guilt they feel when, given a choice between euthanasia or curative treatments beyond their ability to pay, they choose to euthanize their beloved pet. This is a heart-wrenching decision that can have long-term emotional repercussions for the pet guardian and family. Fortunately, another choice is available that may bridge the awful gap.
Borrowing from the hospice care model for humans facing terminal disease, animal hospice and palliative care are becoming more accepted and available. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care defines animal hospice as “living life as fully as possible until the time of death [with or without intervention] and attaining a degree of preparation for death.” Veterinary Hospice “focuses on giving pets a safe, caring end-of-life experience in their familiar environment . . . and is not geared toward curing disease. Its purpose is to alleviate the physical discomforts and emotional stresses of dying” (American Animal Hospital Association, 2009). In general, hospice care is typically short-term care for pets with 3 months or less to live.
Palliative care refers to longer-term care provided to pets that have a life-limiting illness that is not responsive to curative treatment. “The goal is achievement of the best quality of life for patients and their families and may continue as long as needed” (Shanan, 2014).
Hospice and palliative care programs may consist of a team of professionals: a veterinarian to diagnose and prescribe treatments, a veterinary technician to administer injections or assist the pet owner with other treatments, and a grief counselor to help the family prepare for the death of the family pet and provide support after the fact. The team typically meets with the family in their home following the initial diagnosis. Services vary between animal clinics so it is best to research ahead of time.
The end-of-life phase is something we all face, but when it comes to our animal companions, it is something we particularly dread. Saying good-bye to the friend we have known and cherished is an experience we never forget. Such friends deserve to live out their last days as fully as possible in comfort and peace. Hospice for animals is an idea whose time has come.
American Animal Hospital Association (www.aaha.org)
Argus Institute Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine (www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu)
International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (http://iaahpc.org)
Shanan, Amir (2014) http://iaahpc.org