When the end of your beloved pet’s life is approaching, what are your options? How do you handle the decisions, the uncertainty, and the grief? This time may be extremely difficult, but it can also offer some of the most beautiful moments you will ever share.
Human hospice—a compassionate approach to end-of-life care—is a concept that many people are familiar with. Veterinary hospice, on the other hand, is relatively new.
What does it mean to consider hospice for your pet? Some people may be scared to even utter the word because it can feel like giving up. However, hospice can be a gift. It is a shift in focus—a mindset centering on quality of life rather than curing disease. The goal is allowing our sweet companions to be as comfortable as possible, free of pain and anxiety, so that they can live each day as fully as possible.
Many people are unsure how to approach the idea of hospice with their family or veterinarian. Instead, they may continue with diagnostics and procedures they believe are not in their pet’s best interest. It’s important to remember that you need to be an advocate for your pet—an open line of communication is key to making his final days or weeks as enjoyable and comfortable as possible.
Many hospice veterinarians work together with your regular vet to learn your pet’s history and help you move forward with their care. A discussion with the members of your pet’s healthcare team allows you to gather information and develop a plan. This can bring peace and comfort in the midst of otherwise difficult and uncertain days.
Making a plan
A hospice care plan takes many things into consideration. Pain control is the main goal, possibly involving multiple medications working together to bring comfort. Stress relief is also quite important—environmental changes and anti-anxiety medications may help your pet rest more fully and have more energy during their awake time.
With a care plan in place, you can focus on making your pet’s final time with you as enjoyable as possible. What brings you and your pet joy? Do you love sitting in the shady backyard, watching the birds together? Is a gentle brushing therapeutic for both you and your cat? Does your dog love car rides or watching you cook a special treat? Do those things! You may wish to have professional photos taken, or take videos of the special things you do together. Whatever you do, allow each family member quality time to connect with your pet, in his or her own way, cherishing the quiet time and creating memories.
Hospice is not synonymous with euthanasia, but deciding when and if humanely ending your pet’s life makes sense should be part of the hospice plan. We may envision a peaceful natural passing, but in reality, that may not always be the kindest, quickest, or most painless option. We are responsible for making sure our companion animals do not suffer; unfortunately, that sometimes means making tough decisions with their best interests in mind.
Your pet’s strength, mobility, and preference all play a role in your options and in the timing of your decision to say goodbye. Some families enjoy one final car ride to the vet’s office because Rover loves car rides and is eager to greet everyone at the clinic. Others may choose to say goodbye from the comfort of home where their pet can relax in a familiar space.
It can be difficult to plan for your pet’s final day, and anticipatory grief can be just as real and difficult as the actual loss itself. Do not feel embarrassed about seeking out help. Your veterinarian can offer referrals for trusted counselors, grief support groups, and pet loss hotlines. Taking care of yourself allows you to be fully present with your four-legged family member, celebrating each blessed moment you have together.
Dr. Dawnetta Woodruff graduated from Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005. In 2012 she founded the St. Louis Area branch of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice & In Home Euthanasia. 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.