By Lisa Hunter and Gail Bishop
Hospice care, palliative care, end-of-life care – no matter how the phrase is turned, it rings with finality.
For pet owners, the terminal diagnosis of a pet is fraught with conflicting emotions, confusing information, and confounding decisions that often are made within the walls of a veterinary clinic or hospital.
For some people, this burden may be eased with the option of caring for a dying pet at home. When the goal of treatment begins to shift from curing an illness to providing comfort, pet owners may consider hospice care. Hospice care is meant for pets that have three months or less to live; it is not intended for chronic, non-terminal diseases.
“Like the hospice model found in human medicine, pet hospice stems from the basic belief that death is not a medical failure. Rather, death is the normal and inevitable conclusion to life. The hospice philosophy teaches that, when all involved are properly prepared and guided, death can be experienced with dignity and compassion,” writes grief expert Laurel Lagoni on her Veterinary Wisdom website.
Pet hospice is a philosophy that emphasizes pain management and end-of-life care for companion animals so they may live as fully as possible within the comfort of their own homes.
For the pet’s family, hospice programs educate, prepare and provide support as people navigate the last phase of a pet’s life. The veterinary hospice team consists of the veterinarian and trained staff who provide expertise in palliative care and pain control for terminally ill animals.
CSU’s Pet Hospice Program
Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences developed the nation’s first pet hospice program based in a veterinary teaching hospital through a partnership between the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine and clinicians in the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
CSU’s Pet Hospice Program serves veterinarians and their patients within a 30-minute drive of Fort Collins. Student volunteers visit homes of terminally ill patients on a schedule created by the referring veterinarian. The hospice volunteers provide pain control and physical comfort, and assist with any prescribed therapies. A volunteer student case manager updates the referring veterinarian after each visit.
How does hospice work?
- Patients must have a terminal illness with a short life expectancy.
- Your veterinarian oversees the medical management of your pet’s illness, in partnership with a hospice team.
- The hospice team provides basic nursing services, quality-of-life assessments, end-of-life arrangements and emotional support.
- Hospice acts as a liaison between the client and the veterinarian.
What standards apply to pet hospice?
In response to the significant growth of pet hospice programs across the country, the American Veterinary Medical Association offers the following guidelines for veterinarians and potential hospice clients:
- Pet hospice should be consistent with and offered within the context of veterinary practice.
- The comfort of the animal must always be considered when veterinary hospice care is provided.
- Veterinary hospice teams consist of veterinarians and staff trained in palliative care and pain control for terminally ill animals.
- Family/household members must participate in the care of the animal patient at home.
- Hospice requires commitment to the medical needs of the patient as well as the emotional needs of the client and family.
How do you find and choose a program?
Ask your veterinarian if his or her practice offers hospice care. If not, ask for a referral to a hospice team, or browse the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care provider’s directory.
How much does it cost?
CSU’s hospice program does not charge, but referring veterinarians may charge for their services. Ask about charges up front so that you are financially prepared.
What about euthanasia?
The pet hospice philosophy acknowledges that euthanasia can be a compassionate choice when a pet is suffering.
Hospice team members may be present and supportive during euthanasia. However, they do not actually perform euthanasia; this typically is handled by a referring veterinarian. The hospice team is trained to help with decisions about euthanasia planning and timing, and how you and your family would like to say goodbye.
Gail Bishop is co-founder and adviser for the Pet Hospice Program Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital; she also is clinical coordinator for the Argus Institute, which provides a variety of counseling and support services for hospital clients and pet owners in the community. Lisa Hunter is a licensed social worker and a clinical counselor with the Argus Institute.