Pt. 1: Diagnosis and Care
Learning that your pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness can be devastating for a family. Working with a veterinarian you trust to confirm the health condition is the first step.
If your pet is said to be terminally ill, veterinarian Merry Crimi urges, "Be sure your vet makes an accurate diagnosis, and not just a best guess. Laboratory tests, x-rays, ultrasounds and biopsies can confirm diagnosis of a terminal illness. Be sure you understand how your veterinarian reached his conclusion, and ask how the disease most often progresses."
The outcome of a terminal illness is pet death. "Common terminal illnesses include inoperable brain cancer, end stage kidney, and heart failure - diseases where surgery or medicines cannot be effective," says Crimi.
Get a second opinion on your pet's diagnosis
If you do not feel the spectrum of options given to you for your pet's health condition is reasonable or you don't have a trusting relationship with the staff that has seen your pet, seek a second opinion. Another opinion may offer some options you hadn't considered.
Pet companions may feel awkward about asking for a second opinion. Most veterinarians can appreciate that for important decisions, a companion might want another set of eyes and ears. A caring veterinarian will not make it difficult for you to get more information or consult with another professional.
Hospice for terminally ill pets
When the diagnosis is terminal and your pet will not survive more than six months, Crimi and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommend hospice care.
Rather than a place, hospice care is a philosophy that focuses on relief of a pet's pain and its emotional comfort rather than the delay of death. To prevent the anxiety of hospital visits and allow maximum time together, hospice enables companions to provide pet care at home.
In addition, increased attention and physical contact may bring you closer as you adjust to your pet's progressive disease and say goodbye in your own way. Hospice can make a pet's death a kinder, more intimate experience for both of you.
How to hospice
The first step in hospice care is to find a veterinarian comfortable with hospice philosophy. (Many veterinarians practice hospice care, but are unfamiliar with the term.)
Veterinarians and technicians teach you how to administer medication, feed, clean and monitor your pet's pain and general health according to a plan that changes as the pet's needs change.
In hospice care, you give medication on a regular schedule, rather than in response to pain, so your pet remains comfortable.
You may not be at ease with handling injections, intravenous medications, blood, or feces, so work with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan within your comfort level. Sometimes medications can be given orally or rectally instead of intravenously, or the sight of blood can be minimized using careful bandaging.
Crimi suggests families ask what to expect, especially the details of the physical effects of the disease, to reduce their fear.
As pet owners adjust to their role as caretaker, they sometimes handle more than they thought. If the pet's terminal illness becomes overwhelming, the veterinary staff is available to help.
Hospice allows pets to feel safe and loved and gives pet owners an opportunity to say good-bye at their own pace, transforming frightening circumstances and loss of a beloved friend into a life-affirming opportunity.
For the next two parts in our pet loss series: