The term "palliative care" is frequently used when discussing end of life care. The word 'palliative' means to abate or reduce the intensity. The emergence of veterinary hospice and palliative care is a comprehensive healthcare option to provide dignity and choice to terminal pets and their families.
Pet life expectancy has increased dramatically over the last century for our animal companions. In 1930 the average life span for dogs was 7 years, today it is 12 years. Aging not only occurs at different rates for humans and their pets, it may also differ among members of the same species of pet. For example, the most familiar calculation for a dog’s lifespan is to multiply the pet's age by a factor of 7 to get the human equivalent. But because larger breeds usually ‘age’ faster than smaller ones, a more detailed guide based on body weight is used to determine their human equivalent age.
Many of the hospice and palliative care principles that have been successfully adopted in human hospice for decades are now being embraced to provide end of life care for terminal pets and their families by veterinary professionals.
Hospice care may provide benefit to the family and pet by providing supportive home care to afford them the time to make further decisions regarding euthanasia or management are certainly to be considered in this type of care. As veterinarians, we find that pet owners are more concerned about their pet’s pain level than any other sign of disease. We can offer many forms of pain control including oral and injectable narcotics, patches, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, and changes in home environment to make your pet more comfortable.
Not surprisingly, cancer is the most common condition seen in end of life and palliative care. Renal failure, Cardiac failure and Central Nervous System conditions such as brain tumors and spinal cord tumors may also be good candidates for end of life care. Pets with common orthopedic diseases such as degenerative joint disease benefit from hospice care too.
It is not unusual to find a population of veterinary professionals as well as pet parents that believe that hospice is prolonging life 'at any cost'. There are also groups that believe veterinary hospice is simply a 'home euthanasia' service. Neither is true. Hospice affirms life and regards dying as a normal process. Hospice emphasizes quality rather than quantity of life. The dying are comforted and their families are supported and guided through this process by professionals trained in this type of care. Palliative care offers many options to a family seeking this support. Veterinary professionals working in end of life care will continue to develop ways of educating and creating awareness so that pet families know they have options that do not always have to include complex treatments or immediate euthanasia.
By the AVMA definition, the human animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and their pets. As veterinarians, our role in the human animal bond is to maximize the potentials of this relationship between people and animals. Hospice and palliative care means redefining hope to include a kinder, gentler death with more good days than bad toward the end of time here on earth and hope that the days before death can be filled with rich and memorable experiences guided and assisted by a caring team of end of life professionals.