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Pet Hospice: A Challenge for Owners and Veterinary Professionals

By Steve Dale, CABC

It’s sadly too routine and happens every day that veterinary professionals diagnose a condition which quickly forces a pet family to become caretakers. However, this doesn’t happen daily to pet parents. The stress can be insurmountable on both the human family and the pet, other animals living in the home, and often forgotten – the veterinary professional as well.

Companion animals are family members – the good news and bad news all at once – maybe the heartbreak and devotion to required caretaking. Twenty years ago, who would have thought pet hospice could be a viable option.

The list of life altering changes may be long for the human family – everything from learning how to administer sub-Q fluids to having to haul a large dog up and down stairs. How does an elderly pet parent even do either of these? Scheduling visits to see the general practitioner and/or a specialist might strain an already busy family. The pet’s condition could mean a child missing band practice or cancelling family or business travel plans.

Changing life plans can be financially costly and so obviously can treatment.

All of this and more may put a strain on you – the veterinary professional. While some incredible human beings are natural caretakers, and able to deal with all this in stride, most clients aren’t quite so malleable. It’s also no fun communicating a difficult prognosis and describing a long series of pharmaceuticals which can be “alphabet soup” in clients’ heads.

A normally amiable client might transform to being testy. It’s human nature to push back – however, this is where your patience, empathy and professionalism is put to the test. And remember, whatever is said is rarely personal.

Attempting to remember which meds to administer and when to give those drugs is tough enough. Also, consider some clients may simultaneously be dealing with health challenges of their own requiring meds or dealing with illness of another family member.

Now, add day to day difficulties, like pilling that dog or cat. When the well-meaning pet parent goes to a counter where the meds are and the fragile cat manages to make a break for it, it’s heartbreaking (and sometimes physically challenging) to push the pills.  Sometimes meds aren’t given because the pet parents feel “guilty,” or sometimes can’t get that pill into the animal.

Not only are human family members stressed, so are pets. The once beloved human family members are doing things which may cause temporary discomfort for the pet. Any chronic pain issues are likely being addressed but many studies demonstrate that pain can cause changes in mood, potentially even aggression and also might cause behavior changes like accidents outside a litter box.  All this can profoundly impact both sides of the human-animal bond.

It’s obvious an animal not feeling well can feel anxious. After all, no one can explain to that animal what the medical condition is. What’s more, we know that pets, so closely bonded, will pick up on the stress of human family members. Anxiety is contagious.

Other household pets sense that stress as well. And they may exhibit behavior changes because of what’s going on. For example, if one dog has an accident indoors, a second dog might too. Life changes quickly from having fun with multiple pets to feeling frantic.

All this sure isn’t easy – and in many ways not so different than caretaking for a sick human. Except the good and bad news is the option of euthanasia when the time is right.

But how do pet parents know when the time is right? How many times have you been asked, “If this was your pet….?” And many clients do seek the professionals’ unbiased opinion, which can be exceedingly valuable, particularly with long-time clients. However, that question isn’t an easy one to answer, even if the answer is obvious to you.

To a great degree, also understand all situations are different. Some clients are ready because they simply can’t continue to cope dealing with caretaking or perhaps the expense. Or frankly, just too many accidents in the house or perhaps – out of character – the dog has bitten a family member. When the human animal bond is fractured in a terminally ill animal, isn’t euthanasia a reasonable expectation?

Other clients can’t let go, as their bond is so intense and maybe even intensified through the process of caretaking – they simply can’t bear the notion of euthanasia. And you suggesting the truth is met with defensive resistance, though the client said, “I want an honest answer.” However, the client really only wants an answer to support a predetermined opinion.

Your guidance through this entire process begins with being available and expressing empathy.

Human physicians never deal with all the emotions and issues regarding euthanasia. I’m doubtful all human physicians could easily step into the shoes of a veterinary professional.

And as I’ve said and my friend in the UK Dr. Dave Nicol has also said (and I suspect others), “Pet owners do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Recommended reading for veterinary professionals and/or clients:

Dr. Mary Gardner, author It’s Never long Enough: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Dog or Nine Lives Are Not Enough: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Cat.