Peaceful Endings: Help Your Pet Through Her Final Days With Comfort and Care

Petting a cat
The cornerstone of hospice care is pain management. Chronic pain is a universal experience at the end of life.

Your veterinarian delivers the worst possible news: Your pet is terminally ill. Will she live for days? Weeks? Months? In most cases, there’s no easy answer to this question. Ushering your beloved pet through a terminal condition can be heartbreaking, particularly for owners who view their pet as a cherished family member or best friend. The good news: Your veterinarian is prepared to guide you through the many difficult end-of-life decisions, including your pet’s hospice care options.

Formulate an Individualized Plan

Many of us are familiar with the concept of human hospice care, or supportive care that focuses on comfort rather than a cure for patients in the final stages of a terminal illness or disease process. Hospice care helps ease pain and other symptoms and offers support for both the patient and the patient’s family through a person’s end-of-life process. With pets, the prospect of euthanasia can make this phase of life somewhat more complicated. Owners may wonder: How do I know when it’s time? What if I choose to do it too soon, or too late? Will my pet suffer? If not addressed ahead of time, these questions can lead to guilt and regret.

Working closely with your veterinarian is the best way to get answers to these questions and to make informed decisions about your pet’s end-of-life care — decisions based on facts rather than emotion alone. You may still second-guess your choices, but that’s often a normal part of the grieving process.

Would your pet benefit from hospice care? That depends on many factors, including the diagnosis and your pet’s temperament. Palliative care, for example, may require daily medical intervention in the form of injections, oral medications, or other nursing care. If your pet doesn’t tolerate these well, you and your veterinarian may not be able to provide a good quality of life using only those methods.

After 16 years, I still painfully remember trying to help my cat, Cleo, with her chronic kidney disease. The last few weeks of her life were spent trying to administer daily subcutaneous fluids and oral blood pressure medications and searching for palatable food to tempt her taste buds. My baby, who was once my shadow, ran from the sight of me. Sadly, my attempt to bring her comfort at the end of her life backfired because I hadn’t considered her personality and tolerance for treatments.

Work with your veterinarian to develop a care plan that addresses your pet’s medical needs and temperament, as well as her future needs as the disease advances. And make sure that you’re comfortable providing the necessary nursing care and administering the treatments or medications. Practice these tasks with your veterinary team, and ask questions if you have any problems or concerns. You can also look for a veterinarian who specializes in end-of-life care through the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.

How Hospice Helps

The cornerstone of hospice care is pain management, says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director of Windsor Veterinary Clinic and The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. “Chronic pain is a universal experience at the end of life,” she says, “whether it’s the result of the disease process or treatments your pet may undergo to slow down the process.”

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