It’s no secret that with advancements in veterinary care, spaying and neutering initiatives and improved dietary options, dogs and cats are living longer than ever before. A pet ownership survey by the American Pet Products Association estimates 77.8 million dogs in the United States, and as many as 85.8 million cats, making the estimated population of geriatric pets at any given time quite high. Just as with humans, an ever-growing number of aging companion animals has spearheaded the need for emerging veterinary specialties, particularly end-of-life care.
Helping Dogs And Owners Deal With Illness
Kathleen Cooney, DVM, owns Home To Heaven, in Loveland, Colorado, which specializes in in-home pet hospice care. Cooney also serves as the president of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, and said that as pets continue to live longer, they are afflicted with changes, including mobility issues, cancers, organ disease and metabolic diseases like diabetes or Cushing’s disease. Many of these ailments can be medically managed, and a greater number of pet owners are seeking ways to keep their aging pets comfortable through the end-of-life process.
“The field of animal hospice is growing tremendously,” Cooney says. “Today’s pet parent is more devoted and more willing to provide advanced care in the face of life-limiting illness. The beauty of hospice is that it provides both the care needed to maintain comfort for the dying pet AND support for the family during such a sad and emotionally charged time. Hospice is giving the family options including palliative — noncurative — care, natural death support, euthanasia if needed, pet loss support, and aftercare service preparations for cremation or burial.”
How Dog Hospice Helps
Pet hospice care involves therapies such as pain management, nutritional support, wound care, household modifications to make daily living easier, and anxiety control above and beyond what a traditional veterinary clinic might be able to provide.
“All of these things benefit the pet by providing comfort and quality days right up until the end,” Cooney says. “Death itself can come naturally with amazing support, or euthanasia can be chosen if it becomes clear that suffering cannot be controlled.”
Tammy Wynn, MHA, LISW, RVT, is founder and owner of Angel’s Paws in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as education chair for the IAAHPC. She said that creating different options at the end of a pet’s life has been long overdue for pet owners, but that now education and emotional support is readily available through hospice.
“Pet hospice gives pet parents an option to also enhance the quality of their pet’s life at the end, and gives them an element of control they have never experienced before through symptom control and pain management for their pet,” Wynn says.
Helping Owners To Help Their Dogs
While pet hospice is designed primarily to provide care and support for an ailing, aging pet, it can also relieve a huge burden on owners struggling to make decisions on behalf of another living being.
“We often say that 50 percent of what we do in pet hospice is for the family,” Cooney says. “Education is key, and we inform families about all the changes their pet will go through as their pet’s condition advances. We talk about signs of pain and crisis so they know what to look for. We go over the home care so families can provide as much as they can themselves. It’s part of what makes hospice time so enriching. A good hospice provider will also offer pet loss support and help in the emotional preparation for the loss itself.”
This process of empowerment is comforting for many pet owners.
“Owners are integral in the care,” Cooney says. “They provide much of the daily medications and treatments in the home, and they can track daily changes and report it to their case leader. Above all, creating a calm and peaceful home makes all the difference in the world.”
Having access to round-the-clock advice and support is one way that Wynn’s hospice offers an increased level of support so owners don’t have to face the journey alone.
“The veterinarian, registered vet techs, mental health professionals, spiritual advisors and volunteers round out the team,” Wynn says. “The end of a pet’s life can impact the human family members on many levels when they are asked to step up and care for a pet with special needs. The level of overwhelm adds a new dimension of difficulty in dealing with the pet’s new life stage. The level of engagement with the pet tends to escalate during this phase as the pet parent’s personal life begins to revolve around the pet’s need for supervision and medication schedules. Support for the pet parent is a critical feature.”
Assessing Quality Of Life
As the end of a pet’s life approaches, Wynn said the million-dollar question is, “How do owners know when a pet’s suffering is too much?”
“It is important to know that pets mask their pain,” Wynn says. “Pet parents are often not equipped to recognize signs of pain. As a result, their pet may be suffering silently. For some pet parents, if they knew their pet was suffering silently, that level of suffering is too much. Other pet parents need to see outward signs of physical pain before they can step in and humanely end their [pet’s] life.”
Helping owners navigate their pet’s symptoms by using a quality-of-life scale to assess a pet’s overall well-being is an important tool. More than 10 years ago, Alice Villalobos, DVM, coined the phrase “pawspice” to introduce the idea of end-of-life care for pets. Her quality-of-life scale allows owners to assess seven qualities of life: hurt, hunger, hydration, happiness, hygiene, mobility and number of good days versus bad days. Each quality is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and based on the results, a veterinarian and owner can together decide if continued hospice care is helpful, or if humane euthanasia is warranted.
Wynn has also published a similar scale.
“It is the Rainbow Quality of Life Scale,” Wynn says. “Using the acronym of RAINBOW, we teach pet parents how to assess for significant changes in: routine, attitude, incontinence, nutrition, breathing, obvious pain, walking — and mobility issues.”
The Growth Of Pet Hospice
Though many general veterinary practitioners offer pet hospice care, there are veterinary practitioners and support groups across the nation that specialize in pet hospice.
“Ten years ago, you might have found five to 10 services offering exclusive end-of-life work,” Wynn says. “Now, the IAAHPC has over 450 members working in the hospice field.”
Pet owners can check the IAAHPC directory for a provider near them.
“Pet parents do not want their pet to suffer,” Wynn says. “Providing them the tools to manage their pet at home is important, but hospice is not just about the medical treatment to keep their pet comfortable; it is also about providing emotional support and education to pet parents, allowing time for education, planning and adjustment.”