Dog and Cat Hospice Care May Be the Best Choice for Your Ailing Pet—and You
Whether you're a first-time pet owner or an experienced animal lover, few things prepare you for the realization that your best fuzzy friend is nearing the end of their life. Maybe they received a terminal diagnosis. Or perhaps your senior dog or elder cat displays signs that suggest they're about to cross the rainbow bridge. No matter what, you never want them to suffer—and long for just a little more time together.
Fortunately, you and your beloved can benefit from pet hospice care for both dogs and cats. Sometimes called palliative care or end-of-life care (just like options for humans), hospice can be described as a combination of compassionate veterinary services intended to preserve the quality of life for your animals, according to Jenna Stegowski, RVT, Daily Paws' health and behavior editor.
"Pets with terminal illnesses or degenerative diseases receive supportive care from veterinarians to manage their symptoms. This includes reducing pain, increasing mobility, stimulating appetite, and boosting energy level," Stegowski says. "The goal of treatment isn't to cure the pet, but to make the remainder of the pet's life as comfortable as possible while enabling the family to spend precious extra time with them."
What Should Pet Hospice Care Do?
Stegowski adds that hospice is considered a bridge between veterinary wellness care and euthanasia. In the past, fewer treatment options were readily available for sick or aging pets, so euthanasia was considered the most humane option. "However, advances in veterinary medicine have made it possible to extend life while maintaining comfort," she says.
Shea Cox, DVM, is medical director of BluePearl Pet Hospice. She's also a certified hospice and palliative care veterinarian, veterinary pain practitioner, and pet loss professional. She says at its core, cat and dog hospice care is all about living, not just for the final days of life.
"There's a myth of needing to 'turn off' one sort of care in order to 'turn on' hospice. However, hospice shouldn't be viewed as an intervention when we're out of options, but instead, as the continuum of a great care experience," Cox says. "And when you provide advanced symptom and pain management through hospice care, quality of life skyrockets, and the time to euthanasia is generally much farther out than what their pet's diagnosis would dictate."
Professional hospice care for dogs and cats, she adds, also helps you and your family understand what's happening through education, problem-solving, and advanced planning. Remember, part of the concern over your pet's welfare is tangled up in the initial grieving process. Maybe you're also trying to find just the right words to talk with your kids about the fate of their fuzzy playmate. Hospice care, Cox says, offers an extra layer of support based on the needs of pets and their loving humans.
What Does Pet Hospice Care Include?
Not a one-size-fits-all package, Cox says the types of hospice services offered for pets largely depend upon the veterinary practice providing the care or the individual veterinarian. "Services vary widely from something as 'simple' as a quality-of-life discussion—which is then referred to as hospice care with no actual medical care delivered—to progressive medical care delivered in the comfort of home."
Stegowski outlines some of the most common methods used in palliative care for cats and dogs:
"Pet hospice involves close communication between the vet and pet parents to develop a care plan and adapt it over time according to the needs of the pet and their family," Stegowski adds.
Pain management is a vital part of cat and dog hospice care—but of course, it's often quite challenging for us to know exactly how our pet feels. "For example, 92 percent of cats over the age of 12 have some form of arthritis or joint disease, yet most cats go untreated because families don't always understand the signs of pain in their pets," Cox says.
How Much Does Pet Hospice Care Cost?
Cox says just like the types of services delivered, pet hospice costs range widely depending on location and level of support offered. Here are some examples:
- At BluePearl Pet Hospice in Baltimore, Md., $500 covers a 2-hour in-home evaluation, the development of a medical plan, and a month of ongoing medical management including adjustments to treatment plans, and daily support from a staff of specialists.
- At Compassion Pet Hospice in Northern California, services such as quality of life assessments, consultations, various treatments and procedures, and follow-up visits might start at $195 and advance to $550, with additional visit fees.
- Dale Krier, DVM, CHPV of Creature Comforts in New York and Connecticut offers phone and at-home cat and dog hospice consultations and services ranging from $75 to $275.
Ask your veterinarian for further resources, or consult the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care provider network.
Can You Get In-Home Hospice Care for Dogs or Cats?
Stegowski points out that many pet parents prefer the last few weeks or months of their pet's life to be happy and comfortable at home, rather than spent in a clinical environment. So to avoid additional fear and stress, they request in-home palliative care for their cats and dogs, especially when end-of-life is imminent. Many hospice care providers factor this option into their service plans, including euthanasia at home, if necessary, to ease the transition for both pets and their families.
However, at press time, the pandemic presents challenges to full at-home care. Make sure to discuss all alternatives with a provider before securing services.
When to Consider Dog or Cat Hospice Care
Without a doubt, this is probably the greatest challenge to overcome, as we often feel the process should be more natural and not left for us to decide. Here's when consulting with a pet hospice professional provides a clearer picture of your pal's quality of life.
"It's best to begin this relationship at the first signs of clinical decline or when a life-limiting diagnosis is made," Cox says. "Old age, or a 'geriatric status', allows another opportunity for a pet to benefit from hospice care."
She says key medical conditions include:
- An incurable illness such as cancer
- A progressive or long-term disease such as heart failure, kidney disease, or liver failure
- A disease for which diagnostics or aggressive therapy options have been declined in lieu of comfort care
- A long-term disability such as neurologic disease or advanced arthritis
Additionally, your pet might be in a tremendous amount of pain. For example, Cox says the most common signs of pain in cats are subtle, such as being hesitant to jump up to higher surfaces, a decrease (or increase) in grooming behaviors, or becoming a little more disengaged in their surroundings. Learn more about the pain scale in both dogs and cats—and how to make the final decision.
If reading all of this makes you teary-eyed and choked up, it's understandable. Fortunately, you don't have to deal with the loss of your pet alone.
"It's difficult to watch a beloved companion suffer; it can be even harder to say goodbye. However, it may be helpful to remember that you're the center of your pet's life, and your presence offers comfort and security to them in the end," Stegowski says. "Lean on the veterinary team to help you get through it. They can help you choose the right time and place to say goodbye."
More importantly, trust that you're making the best decision for your devoted pooch or kitty, celebrating your time together with just a few more ear scritches and cuddles so memories are less bittersweet.
"People often say they wish they had known about this service sooner, and this is something I'm working diligently to change through education and awareness," Cox says. "I want every family to know this type of care is available, and what an impact it can have as a pet nears the end of life."