Paw Prints: Growing trend: Hospice care for pets

An article in “Market Watch,” written by Kristen Gerencher, revealed the growing movement toward hospice (or “pawspice”) for aging or terminally ill pets. 

With cats and dogs living longer, pet owners are being faced with the difficult decision of when to end their pet’s suffering through euthanasia. More pet owners are demanding options for emotional support and care for the end of their pet’s life such as pain management, alternative medicine and radiation treatments for cancer (although animals probably do not have remission rates comparable to humans). Pet owners want more home care and instruction for the pets that are treated like family.

According to Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinary oncologist and director of Pawspice in Hermosa Beach, California, “Many times hospice is as much about serving humans’ needs as those of the animal. People really want to have an extended farewell just like they did with family members and parents.” Often pet owners want quality time with their pets at home before they go. Pet hospice typically offers pain control and sometimes life-extending hydration.

In March 2008, 135 veterinarians, vet techs, grief counselors, hospice volunteers and human medical experts attended the first international symposium on veterinary hospice care at the University of California-Davis. Scott Darger, an attending veterinarian said, “The human-animal bond is powerful, sometimes persuading people to put their pet’s health care needs before their own. If they’re hurting it’s no big deal, but if their pet’s hurting, it’s unacceptable.”

People are often encouraged to make life decisions as a family before a crisis. Decide when is the end: For some it’s when a dog cannot get up and walk or refuses to eat. Hospice-like programs help pet owners deal with their grief. Euthanasia is an option to help prevent suffering and often making the decision when to do it is the hardest part.

If a pet becomes terminally ill, the pet owner and veterinarian need to develop a plan to care for a pet’s specific needs. It will become necessary to work with the vet to get needed training to care for the pet. It may be necessary to make regular phone calls to update the pet’s condition. It may also become necessary to find a vet who makes house calls. Your veterinarian will be an important part of the support system. Hospice pet care is emotionally and sometimes physically challenging. Talk to family and friends or find a support group of other pet caregivers.

In order to help pet owners with grief, some vets are making euthanasia less clinical by encouraging pet eulogies, etc. Villalobos says the pet hospice movement encourages veterinarians to develop bedside manners. “There’s more instruction to apologize when a pet is having complications, to acknowledge this is not going well and we’re sorry this is happening. That’s many times what the person needs.”

An SPCA pet loss support group counselor and author of “Grieving the Death of a Pet,” Betty Carmack tells people to honor their timelines. “The people who allow themselves to be pushed into something too soon have regrets later.” Keep in mind that not everyone is going to understand your decision to provide your pet with hospice care, but don’t let other people’s opinions discourage you from what you believe is best for you and your pet.

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