When Should End-of-Life Care Start?

In his amazing book “A Dirty Job,” Christopher Moore describes hospice workers as “benevolent Valkyries, midwives of the final light.”  Since I’ve transitioned to practicing hospice medicine, this is a description that resonates with me more than ever.  My practice involves many facets of pet care, including (and often focusing on) end-of-life care, mostly because that’s the one part of home veterinary care that people are most familiar with, but even when it comes to planning for euthanasia, there’s a place for hospice medicine.  In some ways, preparing for and easing the path to death is at the core of what we do.

Many people have both the desire to have their pet pass peacefully at home and the foresight to reach out to a veterinarian that provides in-home euthanasia when their pet is first given a terminal or incurable diagnosis – but most of them don’t realize that having a visit with, and establishing a relationship with a hospice veterinarian can help make preparing for that inevitable final visit much smoother and easier.

All too often, I’ve had clients approach me by phone or email to discuss their concerns about their pet’s condition and their hopes for a home death, but decline any house calls before then, only to wind up in a crisis situation where they have to take their critically ill pet to an emergency facility instead of having the peaceful home passage they envisioned.

There are many reasons people may not choose to have their ailing pet evaluated by a hospice veterinarian.  Often they feel like there’s nothing we can do, medically, to treat the animal.  In other situations, they’re afraid to confront the severity and permanence of their pet’s diagnosis until they have no other choice.  And lastly, they may feel that they’ve already done everything necessary by ascertaining that home euthanasia is an option, and checking on prices and procedures.

When you’re hoping for, or planning on, having a pet pass at home, it can help immensely to make an appointment with a hospice veterinarian as early in the course of events as possible.  Medicine is only a small part of what we do – much of our practice involves education, support, and planning.

We can help you get a deeper and more thorough understanding of your pet’s diagnosis, and teach you ways to recognize their levels of comfort and quality of life.  We can help provide a tentative timeline – while no doctor can see the future, we can at least help come up with an idea of how quickly symptoms are likely to progress, and when intervention may be necessary.  We can help you plan their passing, show you what signs to watch for to know when the right time has come, hopefully without ending up in an emergency situation, and we can help you find both the emotional and educational support that a caregiver needs.

Even in situations where we can’t prescribe medicine to treat an animal, hospice caregivers can help both people and their pets in their journey before, during, and after death.  Medicine is not limited to diagnoses and prescriptions, and support is not limited to the patients themselves.  We are here for everyone involved – let us help.