While euthanasia was long considered the most humane option for aging or terminally ill pets, the growing fields of veterinary palliative care and pet hospice provide pet owners with options that can extend both the quality of life and the time spent with beloved companions.
What is hospice and palliative care?
While the terms hospice and palliative care are often used interchangeably, pet hospice focuses more on managing the process of dying.
Palliative care focuses on relieving pain and other disease signs. It starts when the focus shifts from trying to cure an illness or extend the length of a life to helping the pet stay happy and comfortable. This is done through medications, therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic care or laser therapy, dietary therapy, and home care such as administering fluids or applying heat therapy. The goal is to help pets do more of what they enjoy for as long as they’re able to enjoy it.
Hospice takes over when palliative care has done all it can do and is no longer effective. The goal of hospice is to provide pets with a dignified death that’s as peaceful, humane, and pain-free as possible. That might mean managing pain and making the pet comfortable during a natural death or providing relief for unmanageable suffering via euthanasia.
What ailments can be helped with hospice and palliative care?
Palliative care is not used only in cases of terminal illness. Pets with any type of painful or limiting illness or condition can benefit from comfort care, even if the condition is not life-threatening. Conditions that might benefit from palliative care can include:
- Arthritis and joint pain - supplements, pain medications, physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, cold laser, , mobility support, and hydrotherapy are just a few of the options available to ease pain and suffering
- Vision and/or hearing loss - modifications in the environment can be extremely beneficial to help these pets navigate in their world
- Incontinence - this may require diapers, incontinence pads, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and skin care to prevent scalding
- Cognitive dysfunction - supplements, dietary therapy, environmental modifications, mental stimulation, and re-training can help
- Kidney, heart, liver, respiratory, and gastrointestinal diseases - dietary modification, supplements, fluid therapy, and acupuncture can help keep these diseases stable
- Cancer - many pet owners will not opt for surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, making hospice and palliative care attractive options to keep pets comfortable
Who can provide hospice and palliative care?
Not all veterinarians have advanced training in hospice and palliative care, however more and more often, we are seeing staff members wanting to provide supportive care for aging or terminally ill pets. The IAAHPC (International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care) is open to veterinarians, licensed social workers, licensed mental health professionals, pet loss professionals, chaplains, aftercare providers, veterinary technicians, and students in those fields.
Pet parents can provide much of the necessary care at home; limiting trips to the veterinary office will decrease stress for both the pet and the family. Providing care in a home setting can help decrease costs involved in care, once the pet parent feels comfortable providing care at home. Most pet parents can learn to give injections, administer subcutaneous fluids, and monitor vital parameters such as heart and respiratory rates, body temperature, and blood glucose. The most important aspect of hospice care is education about your pet’s medical condition.
For more information on providing palliative care for your own pet, educational courses are available: An integrative approach to hospice and palliative care for dogs.