© Barbara Helgason -

Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote the infamous book on death and dying and the different stages that we all go through in the grieving process. Saying goodbye to a pet can easily put you through the exact same stages. Grief is grief and a loss is a loss.

Many times people grieve the loss of their pet alone because for some reason society is not always as generous with support in the death of a pet. Many times people are told to get over it -- it's just a dog, a cat or a bird. Yet, these animals become companions for many and fill holes in people's lives. The death of a pet can be just as traumatic as the death of a loved one.

The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IHAAPC) is dedicated to promoting knowledge of, and developing guidelines for, comfort-oriented care to pets as they approach the end of life, just as hospice care does for humans. 

The goals of hospice are to control pain, keep the pet comfortable, and provide a decent quality of life for as long as possible. Some hospice programs involve occasional home visits by a veterinarian or a veterinary technician to assist with care and evaluations. Massage therapy is something that is widely used as a way to calm a pet down and ease tension to relieve pain. A few sites provide hospice care on-site, with owners visiting or staying for the duration.

Sparkle in the eye

Nancy Kay, DVM, a Rohnert Park, Calif., veterinarian, is the author of "Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life." She commonly recommends hospice when clients simply want a bit more time for closure with their terminally or chronically ill pet.

“They recognize the disease is not treatable (or they have chosen not to treat), but their dog or cat continues to have enough of a ‘sparkle in their eyes’ suggesting that it is not quite time to proceed with euthanasia,” she said.

This is when hospice can be valuable letting the owner have time to say goodbye in a peaceful setting.

In some cases, owners use hospice care for their pets in the same way that it’s used in human medicine: to maintain the patient until a natural death. Others use hospice until they feel that allowing the animal to continue to die at its own pace is cruel, and they have the patient humanely euthanized.

Is it time?

Determining when to "pull the plug" on a pet isn't easy. Many base their decision on the pet's quality of life. The ASPCA suggests answering these questions as part of the decision-making process:

  • Does your pet seem irritable, restless or confused?
  • Has he lost his appetite or does he drink water excessively?
  • Does he avoid his favorite activities?
  • Is your pet picked on by other animals in the home? This can happen when a sick or elderly dog becomes the weakest member of the “pack.”
  • Does he seek out unusual places to sleep or hide?

When your pet’s quality of life deteriorates due to an untreatable disease or aging, it's time to speak with your veterinarian and family members about end-of-life issues.

As veterinarian Katherine Goldberg notes, palliative care fills the gap between doing nothing and taking irreversible action: 

"Giving people options when they thought there were none. Euthanasia is always on the table and is irreversible. Palliative care is the antidote to hopelessness."

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