Even under the best circumstances, a dog’s life is too short. It’s a difficult subject, but one every pet owner must face eventually. As the end of your dog’s life approaches, whether due to illness or old age, you might be contemplating some difficult choices. But while euthanasia was long considered the most humane option for aging or terminally ill pets nearing the end, the growing fields of veterinary palliative care and pet hospice provide dog owners with options that can extend both your companion’s quality of life and the time you get to spend enjoying them.
What is Palliative Care for Dogs?
Palliative care focuses on making dogs as comfortable as possible and improving their quality of life as they near the end of their lives. It starts when the focus shifts from trying to treat an illness or extend the length of a dog’s life to helping the dog stay happy and comfortable while nature takes its course.
Whether senior dogs in decline or terminally ill dogs in the last stages of disease, palliative care focuses on managing pain and other symptoms and extending quality of life as long as possible. This is done through medications, therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic care or laser therapy, and home care such as administering fluids, applying heat therapy, and helping dogs do more of what they enjoy for as long as they’re able to enjoy it.
What is Pet Hospice?
While the terms hospice and palliative care are often used interchangeably, pet hospice focuses more on managing the process of dying. Hospice takes over when palliative care has done all it can do and is no longer effective. The goal of hospice is to provide dogs with a dignified death that’s as peaceful, humane and pain-free as possible. That might mean managing pain and making the pet comfortable during a natural death or providing relief for unmanageable suffering via euthanasia.
Different Types of Palliative Care for Dogs
Palliative care, also known as comfort care, isn’t reserved for terminally ill pets. Dogs with any type of painful or limiting illness or condition can benefit from comfort care, even if the condition isn’t life-threatening. Here are some examples of how various conditions might benefit from palliative care.
Arthritis and Joint Pain
Arthritis is a common ailment among senior dogs, but joint pain can also affect younger, otherwise-healthy dogs. While arthritis isn’t a terminal illness, it can severely diminish a dog’s quality of life if left untreated, and there is no cure.
Palliative care for arthritic dogs would likely include prescription pain medication, but it might also include:
- Nutritional supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids
- Changes to your dog’s diet to help manage a healthy weight and relieve stress on joints
- Pain-relieving therapies such as hydrotherapy, cold laser treatments or acupuncture. Your dog might also require changes to your home, such as placing all bedding, toys, and belongings on the lowest level and blocking off staircases, or providing ramps or shallow steps to make it easier to climb onto decks, porches, beds, or furniture.
Besides arthritis, other debilitating conditions common to geriatric dogs include vision and hearing loss, incontinence, and dementia. Dogs in advanced age are also more sensitive to hot and cold temperatures and are more prone to other diseases such as liver disease, thyroid disease, and kidney failure.
In addition to regular vet checkups to screen for diseases and a healthy nutrition plan tailored to the dog’s age, a comfort care plan might include providing medications to treat symptoms of dementia, heated bedding to help them stay warm, and diapers to control incontinence.
If loss of vision or reduced mobility is an issue, it might be necessary to lay down carpets to make floors easier to walk on or to rearrange furniture to make the home easier to navigate. A total comfort care plan for senior dogs would also include allowing them to move at a slower pace while participating in the activities they’re still able to enjoy.
Advance-stage kidney failure is a good candidate for at-home palliative care once it becomes clear that veterinary treatments won’t alter the outcome or prolong the dog’s life. The aim in this case is to provide the dog and their family more time together and help the dog be more comfortable in its own home. Besides providing medications and a veterinarian-prescribed nutrition plan, dog owners might also be tasked with giving the dog subcutaneous fluids to help sustain kidney function for as long as possible.
Palliative care for cancer in dogs focuses mainly on managing pain and making things as normal as possible for your dog right up until the end. A comfort care plan might combine prescription pain medications with nutritional supplements and other therapies such as massage or acupuncture. It might also be necessary to provide subcutaneous fluids to prevent dehydration. Additionally, it would likely include providing a comfortable space for your dog to rest while remaining near the family.
Knowing When to Move from Palliative Care to Hospice
Hospice generally takes over when palliative care measures lose effectiveness and the dog’s ability to enjoy life begins to rapidly decline. With dogs, hospice typically seeks to provide relief from suffering and involves providing comfort for both the pet and family members through the euthanasia process, as well as guiding the family through aftercare and the disposition of their pet’s remains. However, some dog owners opt to forgo euthanizing their dogs and instead continue pain and comfort management until a natural death takes place.
The correct course of action, and deciding when it’s time to transition to hospice, is determined by staying in touch with your veterinarian and other members of your team. Your vet may provide a quality-of-life scale to help you evaluate your dog’s level of pain and their ability to derive enjoyment from life. Ultimately, the final decision will come down to your personal beliefs and how well you know your dog.
Is Palliative Care Right for You and Your Dog?
Deciding what to do for your dog as they near the end of life is never an easy decision. If faced with a life-threatening illness, financial considerations might prevent you from pursuing all avenues of treatment and fighting the illness as aggressively as you would like, while consideration for your dog’s ability to enjoy life might also place limits on treatment options.
While palliative care can be a more affordable option in some cases than continuing to pursue treatment, it’s not without its own costs. In addition to money spent on medications, therapies, and sometimes expensive prescription dog food, providing in-home nursing for your dog also takes an investment of time and energy that you might not be able to afford. It can also take a heavy emotional toll on you and your family.
If you’re facing this decision, talk to your vet about all that would be involved in managing your pet’s symptoms, and be honest with yourself, your family and your vet about what you’re realistically able to do for your dog. Your vet will be able to work with you to come up with a custom plan for your dog that fits your family’s needs, as well as counsel you on the best options for your pet.
Dogs are not merely pets—they’re part of the family and saying goodbye to them can be as difficult as saying goodbye to any close loved one. But having a plan for easing them out of this life can give you the peace of mind of knowing you did all you could to provide the best life for your faithful companion, right up to the end.