Hospice Care for Dogs

By Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

Hospice Care for Dogs

The ability to euthanize a pet in pain is one of the greatest responsibilities and burdens veterinarians take on in their daily practice. While there are many instances in which the need is clear, there are just as many times when the issue is not as cut-and-dried. What are you to do when you are not ready to say goodbye to your dog?

Over the last decade, as pain management in veterinary medicine has made leaps and bounds, the field has turned to human medicine for a health care model that has provided thousands of dogs and owners with a welcome solution: hospice care.

Dr. Jennifer Stewart, a veterinarian who runs the house call practice Ranch House Veterinary Services in San Diego, Calif., often finds herself suggesting hospice care services to clients who contact her for a euthanasia consultation.

“The majority of our patients that are in our hospice care programs are those that are geriatric and have ambulatory issues -- arthritis and/or neurologic deficiencies that make it difficult to remain comfortable and stay clean,” says Stewart. “Urinary and fecal incontinence are troublesome conditions, as most people exhaust themselves keeping up after their pets when these are present. Emotionally and physically, it is draining for them.” By addressing these secondary conditions with medications, appropriate bedding, and ambulatory support (e.g., harnesses), Stewart can improve the quality of life for both the patient and the owner.

Stewart also sees many cancer patients. “Cancer patients are often referred to me, and pain management and nutritional support are very important,” she says. “For the most part, we want to see the animal maintain hydration, prevent cachexia, manage pain and provide complementary therapies that provide comfort and pain relief.” The emphasis of treatment at this stage is providing patient comfort, not curing a disease.

For many clients, this service gives them the time they need to prepare for their pets’ eventual death. “I think they often receive affirmation that they are making the right choices for their companions. The owners often express that they are happier to see their pets more comfortable, and it reinforces the idea of spending quality time with their pets,” says Stewart.

She uses a chart to help people assess their pets’ quality of life over time, and if and when they are ready, the pets are peacefully euthanized at home. “Our clients often know in their hearts when they and their companions are ready. They rarely use the charting plan, but this is a good tool to have that they know they can use when they want and need to,” she says.

Like many aspects of medicine, a successful relationship between a hospice patient, owner, and veterinarian relies on good communication. “It really must be a collaborative effort between the owner and our nursing care to achieve the kindest result that comes from us understanding the desires of the owner and also clarifying what will and will not happen,” says Stewart.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a small animal veterinarian and pet aficionado from San Diego, Calif. When she's not at work or with her family of two and her four-legged creatures, you can find her blogging about life with pets at PawCurious.com. Dr. Vogelsang's articles have previously appeared in The Dog Daily.

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