Anyone who is caring for a pet who is very elderly and frail, or is in end-stage terminal illness, probably has some level of understanding of what it means to provide hospice care. Essentially, hospice means providing palliative care (comfort-oriented rather than cure-oriented) until the animal dies or until the caregiver makes the decision to euthanize the animal.
Pet hospice is a relatively new concept, and is modeled on the human hospice movement. A “hospice” is not necessarily a particular place; it is a philosophy of care that is founded upon the principle that end-of-life care can and should be provided by the patient’s caregiver and family, in comfortable and familiar surroundings. Hospice is about quality of life, not quantity of life.
When my little Major Barbara was fighting her last battle with FIP, it was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Caring for her consumed my focus, my energy, and my time. The two of us came to live in our own special little world during the last months of her life. It was richly rewarding in one sense, because our bond deepened to something far beyond anything that I have ever experienced with an animal. However, it was also difficult – I dealt with stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, guilt, anticipatory grief, the cost of ongoing veterinary care, no time for a social life, and difficulty in focusing on my job. Was it worth it? Absolutely, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. To me, it’s simply a part of the deal when one makes a lifetime commitment to a companion animal. But it is not a responsibility to be assumed lightly.
There are a few key things to consider if you want to provide hospice care for your pet.
Plan ahead. Don’t wait until your pet is ill or very old and frail to begin to make plans and decisions about its end-of-life care. As with euthanasia decisions, it’s going to make your life a lot easier if you think about end-of-life issues for your pet long before it becomes a reality for you and your pet.
Involve your vet. Your vet can and should be your partner in hospice care. If your pet becomes terminally ill, you and your vet need to develop a care plan for your pet’s specific needs, particularly if and when it becomes difficult to bring your pet to see your vet for care. When this happens, you should work with your vet to get whatever training you need in caring for your pet’s medical and comfort needs, and you should arrange for regular phone calls either with your vet or with one of the veterinary technicians on his/her staff, so that you can update them on the animal’s condition and seek advice when needed. You may also want to investigate the possibility of finding a vet who specializes in end-of-life care and who makes house calls, to partner with you in your pet’s hospice care. If you are looking for a house call vet, check the American Association of House Call Veterinarians member directory.
Develop a support system. Your vet should be an important part of your support system, but he/she should not be the only one. Talk to your family and friends about your plans for hospice care for your pet, or find a support group of other caregivers. Providing hospice care for a pet is emotionally and sometimes physically challenging, and having people you can talk to and even ask for assistance is going to make the experience easier for you as the primary caregiver. Just remember that not everyone is going to understand your commitment to providing your pet with hospice care and not everyone is going to support it. I have had more than one person in the past say to me “Why don’t you just put your pet out of its misery?”. It’s very likely going to happen to you, too. Don’t take it personally and don’t let it upset you, but also don’t let other people’s opinions deter you from doing what you think is best for your pet and for you.
There are not many resources specifically for pet hospice, but there are plenty for human hospice, and many of the basic concepts are the same, or similar.
The following web sites provide some general information about human hospice care and the hospice movement.
- Philosophy of Care for the Dying
- “On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying” is an excellent PBS series on dying and end-of-life care.
The following web sites specifically address pet hospice.
- Veterinary Hospice – from the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians.
- The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets
Books on hospice and end-of-life care can be found on the Reading List.