By Dr. Dawnetta Woodruff
If you have ever cared for a geriatric or terminally ill pet, then you know that the process often feels as if you are riding a difficult emotional roller coaster. You may also know what it’s like to hear those dreaded words, “There is nothing more that we can do;” or to hear your veterinarian simply say, “Call me when it’s time….” But how do you know when it’s time?
Pet Hospice is an emerging field in veterinary medicine and a unique approach to your pet’s end-of-life needs. It focuses on maintaining comfort and quality of life for your pet, not on finding a cure for his or her disease. Veterinary hospice also includes end-of-life visits, when appropriate, and many people are now choosing to say goodbye to their beloved pets from the comfort of home.
As a veterinarian that practices in-home hospice and euthanasia, I have been given the unique privilege of helping families during very tender times. It is a difficult time, but I believe it is also one of the most important times they have with their pet. When a family receives news of their pet’s terminal illness, what they need most is time: Time to think, time to adjust, and time to make decisions. Veterinary hospice care offers both time and support for pets and their people. Making a decision for end-of-life care for your pet will never be an easy decision, but the process of saying goodbye can be a peaceful experience that celebrates the bond you share.
Here are four important things to know about in-home hospice care for pets:
1. The first and most important step in hospice care is educating yourself about your pet’s medical condition. Some conditions progress quickly from diagnosis to end-of-life care. Other times, a family may have months with their pet after they receive a diagnosis. You need to know what to expect in those last few months, weeks, and days in order to make the best decision for you, your pet, and your family. Knowing what to expect, and knowing how to recognize signs of pain or discomfort, can help you intuit when your pet is tired of fighting his or her battle.
2. The second step is making sure your pet is treated palliatively. Palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms rather than curing the disease. This means that you are keeping your pet comfortable by giving medical treatments for comfort or anxiety. Veterinary hospice is not about giving our pets high doses of strong medication; instead, it’s about making sure they feel good throughout the day and have a comfortable and full night’s sleep. The focus is on maintaining good quality time for as long as possible.
3. The third step in hospice care is evaluating quality of life. This can be very subjective and is highly dependent on the specific disease your pet is experiencing. It is also dependent on your pet’s personality and your own personal beliefs. Determining quality of life is easier when you have a scale and diary to help guide you—you can find our Quality of Life scale and Pet Hospice Journal available online, free of charge at lapoflove.com and pethospicejournal.com. After answering a few questions and giving your pet a grade, you can determine where they are, track their progress over time, and decide if medical intervention or even euthanasia is appropriate.
4. Pet hospice is not synonymous with euthanasia, but euthanasia should be discussed, and is often a part of the hospice program. We all wish for a peaceful natural passing, but a natural death is not always simple, fast, or painless. As our pets’ caregivers, we are responsible for making sure they do not suffer—even if that means we have to suffer a little ourselves.
As a hospice veterinarian, my goal is to help families though this difficult decision making process, guiding and supporting them along the way. If you have any questions about veterinary hospice or in-home end-of-life care, please feel free to give me a call or send me an email. You can also find answers to many common questions online at LapOfLove.com
Dr. Dawnetta Woodruff graduated from Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005. She started her career as a Mixed Animal Veterinarian and also has experience as an Emergency Room Veterinarian and as a Small Animal Practitioner. Throughout her veterinary career, she has focused on client education and preserving the human-animal-bond. In mid-2012, Dr. Dawnetta founded the St Louis Area branch of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice & In Home Euthanasia. She knows that families are never truly ready to let go of their pets, and that euthanasia is never an easy decision – however she believes that a familiar, comfortable environment can make the process less stressful and more peaceful for everyone. Her mission is to provide a listening ear, professional advice, and a compassionate experience for pets and their people when the time comes to say goodbye.