Whether a cat is in its prime, middle-age, or entering the golden years when serious illnesses may need attention, its never too early to consider options for care during the final chapter of life.
One option is home-hospice care for terminally ill and dying pets, provided in a familiar setting by the human companions the animal has come to know and love. While not an alternative to euthanasia or the continuation of stressful, often futile curative treatments, hospice care is another option gaining acceptance by more and more pet owners and veterinarians.
Home-hospice care – spending the last days or weeks with you and his human family without too much pain or discomfort – might be exactly what your cat would prefer, says Philip Padrid, DVM, midwest regional medical director of Veterinary Centers of America in Chicago, Illinois. But its not always appropriate for every situation – depending on the nature of the illnesses, the willingness of your veterinarian to support this endeavor, and the ability of people at home to provide skilled care during what can be a very difficult time for both people and pets.
Death with dignity
It can also be a very meaningful time for all members of the human family and a compassionate opportunity for youngsters, in particular, to learn more about all stages of life, says Eric Clough, VMD, medical director of National Veterinary Associates in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and advocate of home-hospice care for pets. Death isnt losing the game, Clough likes to remind the human companions of dying pets. Death is unavoidable. Its part of life! If you can somehow make death a safe, comfortable experience, then youve won the game.
If that philosophy sounds familiar, its because advocates of hospice care for humans share that viewpoint. A controversial movement when it began in the 1960s, hospice for terminally ill people offers the alternative of death with dignity, free of pain and futile medical treatment in hospitals, and assisted by specially trained medical professionals in the home or in hospice facilities.
For pets, there are few institutional hospice facilities and thats probably just as well. If a cat hated leaving home when it was young and healthy, a life-threatening illness will not change that predilection. Instead, you may be bringing a different kind of medicine home to the cat (see Palliative Care: Providing a Good Life to the End, CatWatch, February 2002).
Palliative care, which is defined as active total care of patients whose disease is not responding to curative treatment, may include administering antimicrobial or anti-inflammatory medications, nutritional support, pain relief, or fluid therapy.
Unless youre a veterinary medical professional, youre going to need training and supplies from your veterinarian, Padrid says. Thats all the more reason to make sure, well ahead of time, that your veterinarian is on-board with the idea of hospice care. I would ask my veterinarian right now: When the time comes, I want to do whats best for my pet. Do you think were good candidates for hospice care, and if so, will you support us all the way?
In addition to routine prescription drugs and other supplies needed for palliative care, some hospice caregivers prepare an emergency kit – with advice from veterinarians -to administer whatever is needed for anticipated and unanticipated events. Pre-loaded syringes of medications, stored in zip-lock bags in a safe location at home, may be part of the hospice emergency kit. Special cleaning supplies also may be needed because terminally ill pets can lose control of their functions in a home environment that was not designed for clinical care.
Cats cant tell us when
One final step in the hospice-care plan should not be neglected, says Padrid: Of course you might wish for your pet to go peacefully in its sleep. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Health and quality of life could continue to decline, and you cant expect your pet to tell you when.
By engaging in hospice care, as an alternative to immediate euthanasia, you may be postponing the inevitable, and now its up to you to make the call, Padrid says. You know your pet better than anyone else in the world. And usually, when the time comes, in your heart of hearts you will know.
But that decision – to ask that your pet be humanely put to sleep – could be a little easier because of the hospice experience.