Pet Hospice: Saying Goodbye with No Regrets
BY ELISABETH DANIELS
How do I know when it’s time?”
That’s a question Dr. Mary Gardner, DVM, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, hears all the time. Anguished pet owners, knowing their fur babies are nearing the end, want to be sure they’re saying goodbye at the right time – and as painlessly as possible.
Pets, like humans, are living longer these days because of advances in nutrition and diagnostics. Unlike humans, they can’t articulate how they’re feeling or how they’d like to spend their last days. That falls to us.
“They’re so dependent on us,” Dr. Mary says, “that we have a great responsibility to take care of them from cradle to grave.”
A movement grows
Vets have been providing hospice care for years, but it wasn’t always called that. With the rise in popularity of the human hospice movement, now there’s a name for it, making it easier for people to request this type of care for their pets.
Demand has grown significantly since Lap of Love launched in 2010. The organization now has 70 vets providing hospice care for pets in more than 40 locations in over 20 states. They help about 15,000 families a year.
“For the last 20 years, the mindset of pet ownership has definitely shifted: from the barnyard to the backyard to the bedroom to in the bed,” says Dr. Mary. “We treat our pets as family members now.”
Despite the similarities, there’s a key difference between pet hospice and human hospice. “They’re our children that we’re actually saying goodbye to,” Dr. Mary continues. “It’s a very different emotional concept from human hospice, which is usually for older people.”
All the comforts of home
Caring for the pet is the ultimate goal, and sometimes that means keeping them at home. Multiple trips to the vet’s office can be stressful and make a pet’s last days anxious instead of peaceful. It can also be hard to transport a pet if they’ve got numerous health issues. There’s a lot a vet can tell about your dog or cat’s health, too, when they see them at home. How are they managing in their environment? How do they greet people at the door? “The pet might appear better than they are in the clinic,” notes Dr. Mary, “because of the adrenaline rush.” These are all reasons why Dr. Mary and her partner only do house calls.
Be choosy about choosing hospice care for your pet
Hospice offers a variety of benefits for both the pet and those left behind, but how do you find the most appropriate hospice for your situation and animal? Dr. Mary has some tips:
- Look for someone who knows your pet. If you’re comfortable with your vet, start with them. They know you and your pet and your history.
- Make sure the vet will spend at least a half hour with you. You don’t want the process to feel rushed, and there needs to be plenty of time to go over everything. Dr. Mary, for example, spends an hour in the home with the owners and the fur baby.
- Find a vet that’s not judgmental and in alignment with your wishes for the end. Remember that the vet takes an oath to prevent and end suffering.
- The vet should talk to you about options for euthanasia: Do they come to the home? How much lead time is needed?
- Ideally, if the vet isn’t comfortable with end-of-life care, he or she will refer you to another one who is.
Once more before I go
Animals have no sense of tomorrow. They live in the moment, so honor their last days by making the transition as good as it can be.
To make them more comfortable, consider adjusting things in the house or changing their eating situation. Maybe they need baby food for extra calories if they’ve lost weight. Or, if they’re having trouble navigating a step, add an extra light.
As the end draws near, reach out to a pet photographer in your area. A professional photo shoot can be a great way to capture those tender moments so you have something to look back on.
If they’re well enough to travel, a final trip to a well-loved location, like the beach or the park, may be in order. Dr. Mary has even euthanized pets in those favorite spots, including the car.
A good day to say goodbye
Pet owners want to maintain the human-animal bond at the end-of-life. The vet can’t always cure an illness, but they can help you and your pet make the most of the time left.
As animals become sicker, there are good and bad days. When a pet is fine one day and not so good the next, it can be hard to know what to do. The Lap of Love website provides quality of life criteria, which helps, but it’s still difficult to decide that the time for euthanasia has come.
The timing always remains with the pet’s family, but Dr. Mary notes, “I would rather say goodbye today, on a good day, on a day the pet is not suffering.”