It requires commitment in time and energy, but those who choose hospice care for their terminally ill animals find it a transforming and rewarding experience.
My 23-year-old cat, Sparky, died peacefully at home. He died much as he lived, surrounded by his beloved family and animal companions. That’s because I was able to offer him hospice care.
Hospice is end of life care in which the death process is nurtured and death is neither hastened nor postponed. The goal is to allow the death process to unfold naturally. The animal is kept comfortable and pain-free, and all his needs are taken care of until the end. Just as birth is an ordered entry into this life, so is death an ordered exit.
Hospice care can take a holistic or integrative approach to keeping your companion comfortable as the end of life approaches. This approach includes pain medications if needed, along with other therapies from Western veterinary medicine, coupled with holistic modalities such as acupuncture, homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Bach flower remedies, aromatherapy, Reiki, TTouch and more. All these therapies work together to address all the symptoms of any illness.
Hospice care of any kind also involves helping the animal move around as needed, taking him to relieve himself, changing his position, and keeping him clean, dry and as comfortable as possible.
Preparation and commitment
Hospice care requires careful preparation ahead of time to make sure spiritual, emotional, physical, practical and medical needs and goals can all be met for the family, and for the patient. A team-based approach works best, and should include input from the animal’s family, his veterinarian and any other practitioners or caregivers. Depending on the circumstances, the animal may stay at home, with house call visits from vets and caregivers, or be moved to an animal hospice facility, if one is nearby. Some veterinary clinics also offer hospice services.
Keep in mind that hospice care requires a great deal of commitment in time and resources, especially during the very last stages of dying. This may not be possible in every situation, and in some cases euthanasia must be chosen. It is important, therefore, that an emergency euthanasia plan be made, preferably by an in-home provider, should the need arise. There should be no judgment surrounding the choice to continue or end hospice care.
Being in the moment
We have a lot of fears surrounding death, but if those closest to the animal can suspend all preconceived notions, and stay in the moment, they can usually overcome those fears while discerning more clearly what is right for the animal. In hospice care, it is critical to remain flexible and attentive, and to respond to what is happening.
Each death experience is as unique as the life it brings to an end. Each being has his own journey to make in his own time. Our gift to that being – and to ourselves – is to be fully present with him and to allow him the opportunity to complete that very personal journey.
The actual moment of death is not an emergency, but rather, the moment we have been working towards. It is the moment where we try to experience death fully and with an attitude of peace and acceptance.
• At BrightHaven Healing Arts Center for Animals in Santa Rosa, California, Gail and Richard Pope and their team of holistic practitioners have been rescuing animals at risk for euthanasia for over 20 years. BrightHaven’s philosophy of holistic hospice care is to enhance the quality of life while the animal is dying. It offers end of life care as part of the continuum of healing care. BrightHaven also offers holistic animal health courses and consultations.
• Dr. Ella Bittel at Spirits In Transition offers weekend seminars and online courses that teach the specifics of holistic animal hospice, as well as consultation in individual cases. Dr. Bittel stresses that animal hospice care offers an ideal way to use integrative/holistic care since it involves coupling good pain control with holistic medical techniques. With holistic hospice care, quite a few animals, especially cats, can go through what appears to be a dying process – only to “decide” to recover!
• The New England Pet Hospice Store (www.nepethospice.com) is the only place I know that offers not only advice on animal hospice, but also a range of at-home supplies, such as mobility aids, bedding, cleaning products, sanitary and first aid supplies, and more.
A good aftercare plan is a part of a good hospice care plan. Decide ahead of time what you wish to do with your animal’s body by consulting with your family, veterinarian and other service providers near your home. It is very difficult to accept the death of a loved one, including a precious animal, so allow yourself time to grieve. Making a contribution to an animal shelter or planning a remembrance ceremony consistent with your spiritual and religious beliefs can help. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement offers a wealth of information about crematories, pet cemeteries, and pet loss and grief.
Holistic animal hospice care allows us to find meaning and beauty in life, even in the face of decline and illness. It allows us to say goodbye to our beloved animal companions in a way that allows for healthy grieving. It teaches us to better accept death as a natural part of our lives. Those who have watched a loved one go through a hospice assisted natural death invariably choose to experience it again, and report it to be a very transformative and fulfilling experience.
Veterinarian Dr. Jaime Glasser received her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M University. She practiced both large and small animal medicine and owned Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Mesa, Arizona. She is currently writing a book to help advocate for animal hospice care.