Every pet Guardian is aware that there are three stages in the life of our cherished pets: puppy/kitten, adult, and senior. There is another phase in every life that we often fail to realize until it is upon us: the “end-of-life” phase.
For some, the end-of-life is the point a pet dies, but for most, it actually begins when a pet is diagnosed with a terminal or incurable disease. It can be a very short period or a much longer part of the pet’s life.
Some of the more common conditions that can move a pet toward the end-of-life phase are:
- Cancer is the most common cause of death in older pets
- Organ failures such as kidney and heart disease
- Severe arthritis is progressive, debilitating, painful, with no cure
- Neurological disease that disrupts or paralyzes normal nerve function
- Senior pets that are typically moving into their end-of-life phase
If diagnosed soon enough, most of these conditions can be treated, and their progress can be slowed for a time, but the condition will most often take the pet. During treatment and even after treatment has stopped, pets receive palliative care.
What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a commitment to enhancing comfort and improving quality of life. While a pet is being treated, palliative care will focus on the common symptoms or side effects that come with each of these diseases or their treatment, including pain, nausea, lack of appetite, labored breathing, diarrhea, depression, etc.
After treatment has stopped, is no longer working, or making a difference, palliative care must continue to maintain the pet’s best quality of life and comfort for as long as possible.
This is a difficult period for the Guardian family because, with their trusted veterinarian’s help and advice, they have made the tough decision that treatment is no longer working. There is often a period where the Guardians feel they have given up, but they have made the best decision for the quality of life of the pet, and now the focus is on, dignity and comfort for as long as possible.
For some, this is the time to consider letting go, the last great kindness a Guardian can provide for their beloved companion. For many, this is a time to reinforce an active commitment to the comfort and dignity of the pet and cherish the additional time for as long as possible.
Hospice is a term most are familiar with, and many have experienced with a family member. Hospice is palliative care after treatment options have been set aside. It is truly the most important part of the end-of-life phase for the pet. Over time our pets give us so much and ask for so little; this is the time we can provide them with the love and commitment they have given us every day for so long.
Only a few veterinary facilities offer the team hospice care as we know it for humans. For most pets and their Guardians, it is a close working relationship between the Guardian family, their veterinarian, and other resources that may be available.
Hospice focuses on multiple critical management areas that assure the pet’s dignity, quality of life, and happiness during a difficult time. For the family, it can be an intense time that requires physical, mental, and financial sacrifice for days, weeks, and even months.
There are support groups on the internet and locally in some areas to help Guardians. One such group is the Kali’s Wish Cancer Foundation which focuses on assisting the Guardian family with the emotional stresses associated with their end-of-life commitment. They offer education and emotional support from Guardians that have experienced the challenge of end-of-life palliative care. They are also continually updating financial resources available for many types of cancer and have a panel of veterinarians ready to answer questions.
Needs and Resources
The needs of each pet and the resources at hand are essential in planning and executing the efforts.
- Education about the disease process and what to look for is key to supporting the pet, staying positive, and catching changes quickly.
- Symptom management is all about recognizing the things that detract from the quality of life and comfort and having the knowledge and tools to overcome the problem.
- Pain is a constant threat for an older pet with a terminal condition. In many cases, pain medications provided by the veterinarian can be stronger since there are no long-term side effects to consider.
- Supplementary nutrition and medication to stimulate appetite are often necessary. Cancer cells love carbohydrates, so ultra-low carbohydrate and high animal protein and fat recipes can make a difference. Fresh raw food recipes are hard for any pet to resist. Supplements that support the immune system, reduce inflammation, and enhance a pet’s life can make a significant difference.
- Incontinence may become an issue, so appropriate bedding and even diapers will need to be considered.
- Environmental recommendations that provide a safe environment for a handicapped pet are always a consideration.
- Mobility support, depending on the pet’s size, may be necessary. Helping the pet get up and out to do the normal routine for as long as possible is important for most pets. It’s usually a feel-good time and a chance to smell the roses and scratch the ground.
- Love, attention, and positive interaction are critical for the pet. All pets thrive on attention, adoration, and positive, loving interaction.
- It is also vital that the Guardian family recognize when the pet’s quality of life has become less than acceptable despite their efforts. All should be aware, and all family members should have an opportunity to participate in making that decision.
The Final Decisions
The final family decision concerns how the pet’s last moments will be spent. Some would choose the last gift a Guardian can give their cherished pet, a peaceful passing at the hands of their veterinarian. Having a veterinarian comfortable with performing the tack at home is the least stressful on the pet.
There are those that have difficulty with euthanasia for religious or personal reasons and would prefer the pet to pass naturally at home. The veterinarian can help those Guardians better understand what a natural unassisted death may mean for the pet.
When it’s all over, Guardians who commit to palliative and hospice care for their pet during the end-of-life phase can rest easy knowing they gave their devoted pet all the care, respect, dignity, and quality of life they deserved throughout the time they shared.
Many believe the true reward will come at the “Rainbow Bridge” when they pass, and their cherished pets will be there waiting and wagging their tails.