“The test results confirmed what I suspected. Callie has pancreatic cancer. It is very aggressive. I’m sorry, but there is no cure.”
I can still remember every one of those words spoken by my veterinarian inside the exam room as I held Callie, my sweet 15-year-old calico, in my arms. I didn’t try to stop the tears.
I already knew far too well about terminal diagnoses. Both of my parents died from cancer, and I was there when each received professional hospice care. The time I spent with them in their final days made me realize the importance of making every moment count for the short time I had left with Callie.
To cope with this jarring news and to try to help others who have terminally ill pets, I decided to chronicle Callie’s final weeks in a nine-part YouTube video series called Callie’s Ninth Life. The final episode covers the actual euthanasia being performed in the exam room. Callie passed away on Oct. 8, 2009, surrounded by those who loved her the most, including my other pets at the time.
At last count, more than 167,000 people have viewed this video. Many reached out to me about how this series helped them deal with a diagnosis of terminal illness of their pets. In my own way, I was staging an informal hospice care for Callie without really realizing it. The only medications she received were to manage her pain and make her comfortable.
Pet Hospice Care Is On the Rise
Fortunately today, professional hospice care for pets is becoming more available and more recognized for the invaluable benefits it provides to dying pets and their owners. By definition, pet hospice focuses on providing comforting veterinary care for pets in the end-of-life stage, as well as counseling pet owners on what to expect and addressing their emotional needs.
Let me identify three pet hospice resources for you:
- The American Association of Feline Practitioners published veterinary hospice care guidelines in 2012.
- The ASPCA has posted a detailed end-of-life care guide for pet owners that includes an entire section on pet hospice care.
- The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care is regarded by many pet professionals as the clearinghouse for resources and support on this powerful topic.
Pet hospice care centers are popping up across the country. In doing my research for this article, I immediately gravitated to Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, a veterinarian and author who joined Paws Into Grace in 2013 as a pet hospice advocate. She is also a certified pet loss bereavement counselor. The San Diego-based Paws Into Grace provides pet hospice care and in-home pet euthanasia.
Hospice Helps The Cat And You
Vogelsang emphasizes that pet hospice is not simply about providing pain medication to a dying cat.
“The key component of hospice care is helping the family for what is to come,” she explains. “As important as the medical care we provide for the pet, we are there to provide emotional support and strength for the people.”
She continues, “It is so hard with cats because their failing health signs can be very subtle.”
Look for these signs:
- Decreased appetite
- Howling in pain
- Inability to sleep soundly
- Severe weight loss
In working with hospice clients, Paws Into Grace provides a variety of services, including a one-hour quality-of-life assessment that centers on discussing the cat’s diagnosis, prognosis and what is likely to happen in the upcoming weeks or months.
Other services available include:
- Two-hour pet hospice consultation that includes a specific palliative care plan for the dying cat (who may need pain medicine), recommendations for at-home nursing care (to help people learn how to give subcutaneous fluids) and assistance in pre-planning memorial services.
- Hospice care that includes in-home follow-up appointments and assistance via emails and phone calls.
- Euthanasia appointment.
In her role, Vogelsang has witnessed many powerful changes in the way loving pet owners cope with having terminal pets.
Celebrate Your Cat’s Life
“There are now parties, ceremonies, poetry readings and other events designed to celebrate the pet’s life,” she says. “It has changed my view for [terminally ill] pets and for people. I am passionate about helping people understand the lessons that pets teach us even in their last moments.”
What I really appreciate is that places like Paws Into Grace also offer free online hospice guides that address such common questions as:
- What is pet hospice?
- Is my pet a candidate for hospice even if I don’t believe in euthanasia?
- How will I know if it’s the right time to say goodbye?
Paws Into Grace offers a free e-book hospice guide to download.
It’s hard to fathom that Callie has been gone for six years. Seems like yesterday, she was making her sweet mew on the stairs to direct me to the special jar harboring her favorite treats inside. This special calico that I rescued from the streets when she was just 2 months of age gave me 15 years of wonderful memories. And, like my deceased parents, I am grateful that I got to spend quality time with her during her final days.
Pet hospice care is a veterinary medical specialty that is fast becoming recognized for its special role for those of us blessed to share our lives with pets who give us love each and every day.