When I remember Phineas, our 14-year-old orange tiger striped cat, I recall memories of him as a kitten snuggled in my jacket during weekly road trips to visit mom. I remember how Phineas loved licking Fudgsicles®, stealing chicken fingers right off our plates, and retrieving plastic ping pong balls.
I also remember Phineas at the end of his life. Not because of his battle with inoperable nasal cancer but because in spite of it he continued living every day to the fullest. Always content as an indoor cat, Phineas suddenly began scratching at the sliders to go outside, so we took him on a harness and leash. Some days we walked deep into the woods, other days he simply lounged in a pile of crunchy fallen leaves with the late afternoon sun beaming on his face. Phineas feasted on a bounty of various canned food and an endless supply of tasty treats. When the time came for the difficult final decision, we let him go wrapped in a special fleece blanket, surrounded by his human loved ones and two favorite catnip stuffed dinosaur toys.
Quality of life made as physically comfortable and pain free as possible during the final stages of an incurable disease or condition is what palliative care, or hospice is all about. Veterinary hospice is not a specific place but is a care program of medical and support services designed to assist pets and their owners through a period of time – typically days, weeks or months – as the end of life (via natural death or euthanasia) approaches. Although human hospice is widely recognized, the field of veterinary hospice has been slowly gaining acceptance as an important component of the human animal bond. The American Veterinary Medical Association approved its first Veterinary Hospice guidelines in 2001, with revisions made in 2007, to ensure a number of issues are addressed appropriately. In 2010, the American Association of Feline Practitioners released a full position statement in support of Veterinary Hospice Care for Cats. A nationwide hospice program listing can be found on the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) website at www.iaahpc.org. If your veterinarian does not offer hospice services they may work with you to locate an appropriate referral. Keep in mind that mobile veterinary clinics provide in-home euthanasia even if they do not participate in an official hospice program.
Pet hospice patients with life-limiting situations that no longer respond to treatment may continue living at home and receive care from loved ones with the assistance of a veterinary hospice team. In their own home environment family members have an opportunity to adjust to their pet’s condition, prepare for their eventual passing, and learn coping mechanisms throughout the caretaking and grieving processes. The team consists of veterinarians and veterinary technicians available on call for urgent needs including pain management and in-home euthanasia. This is especially beneficial for cats who often suffer extreme stress within a hospital setting. The care team delivers personalized education for attending to the pet’s ongoing medical needs at home which may include administering oral and or injectable medications, nutritional supplements, subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids and information on proper nutrition and hygiene. Resources are provided for specialized equipment such as heated beds, waterproof blankets, and assistive devices for walking or lifting – harnesses, braces, carts, and ramps.
Pet loss and grief counseling is offered by the veterinary team or referred to mental health professionals skilled in pet hospice. Complementary veterinary medicine- acupuncture, massage therapy and pet physical therapy – may be advised to relieve pain and stress. Some pets may gain return to a good quality of life for many months, however the hospice focus remains on palliative care, not curing. Veterinary hospice provides a loving and gradual transition for you and your pet, however if your pet is suffering, experiencing unmanageable pain, or is otherwise not suited for hospice care, then timely euthanasia is the best gift you can give them at the end of their life.
A friend of mine once said, “Everyone gets a turn. We just don’t know how or when we’re going to die. We need to live and enjoy every day.” And so it is for our animal companions too.