We are so fortunate that our dogs and cats are living longer than ever before and have access to the highest levels of veterinary care. At some point, though, just as with people, nothing more can be done. That doesn’t always mean that euthanasia must be the next step.
More and more, people are turning to end-of-life programs that help ease a pet’s journey out of life in a way that maintains comfort, while giving his family extra time with him. Known as “pawspice,” a term coined by veterinary oncologist Dr. Alice Villalobos, it allows people and veterinarians to work together to increase survival time, ensure quality of life, relieve pain and recognize when it’s time to say goodbye.
That philosophy of maintaining quality of life honors the human-animal bond, Villalobos says.
“Pawspice is not abandoning the disease,” she says. “It’s palliative medicine that involves treating the disease.” Palliative medicine includes pain management, infection control, nutritional support and complementary therapies, such as acupuncture or massage. Pets who receive it often have longer survival times, giving human and animal more time together before the pet’s death.
If you have a terminally ill pet, talk to your veterinarian about a pet hospice plan. One of the things you’ll need to do is assess your animal’s quality of life. Answering the following questions can guide you.
Score criteria on a scale of 0 to 10. A score of 35 or higher suggests good quality of life, while a lower score may mean you need to make changes to improve your dog’s or cat’s situation or consider whether it’s time to let him go.
• Is my pet’s pain manageable with medication or oxygen therapy? The most severe type of pain involves difficulty with breathing. Your veterinarian can show you how to monitor your pet’s respiration and comfort level and identify labored breathing.
• Is my pet’s appetite good? Your veterinarian may be able to prescribe an appetite stimulant or insert a feeding tube. Some pets – my cavalier, Bella, for instance – respond well to being hand-fed. You can also try warming food to make it more aromatic. Sometimes scratching a pet’s head and neck can encourage him to eat.
• Is my pet drinking enough water? Dehydration can make pets feel sick. Providing a fountain can encourage your dog or cat to drink more water.
• Is my pet staying clean? This can be especially problematic for cats, who may groom themselves less often if they don’t feel well. Cats with oral cancers may find it painful or difficult to groom themselves. Gently brush or comb your pet regularly and give “butt baths” or other cleaning as needed.
• Is my pet happy? It’s a good sign if your dog or cat still greets you and enjoys petting and other interactions. If he seems depressed, anxious or isolated, try to make environmental changes, such as keeping him in a quieter area if he doesn’t like noise or moving him to a place where he can enjoy being with the family if he’s the social type.
• Is my pet mobile? If necessary, see if you can help him out with ramps or steps to furniture or that make it easier for him to get in and out of the litter box.
• Is my pet having more good days than bad? Your dog’s or cat’s quality of life may be going downhill if he’s starting to have three or four bad days in a row. It may be time to think about euthanasia. Most important, let your veterinarian know that your pet is important to you. “They see a lot of people who have a utilitarian bond, not a love bond,” Villalobos says. “They can help you better when they know that.”