Growing Trend: Hospice for Pets

The healthcare option that eased the end of life for Uncle Bill or Aunt Mary is now widely available for Fido and Mittens.

For terminally ill pets, hospice care gives owners an alternative to expensive medical procedures or early euthanasia by teaching them how to nurse their dog or cat at home.

"Most of the people who opt for this particular service have actually gone through the [hospice care] experience with a human family member," said Kathryn Marocchino, founder of The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets in Vallejo, Calif.

Growing trend

A handful of forward-thinking veterinarians have offered hospice care for decades. But it wasn't until the Nikki Foundation, an educational and referral service, formed in 1998 that the idea began to slowly catch on in the profession.

Today, about 30 veterinarians nationwide offer the end-of-life guidance.

In March 2008, the foundation will hold the first symposium ever on pet hospice care, at the University of California in Davis—an event Marocchino hopes will encourage more vets to offer the service.

Hospice care doesn't aggressively treat terminally ill dogs and cats. Instead, animals are cared for at home and made comfortable through the use of painkillers and holistic methods, until pets die or their owners decide to euthanize.

While some pets only survive a few days, others live longer than expected—sometimes years— with supportive care.

Marocchino said about 40 percent of owners with ill or dying pets now opt for hospice care.

"I think people are embracing this idea more and more," she said. "It's becoming a bit more popular for people and it's also becoming, almost exponentially, more popular for pets."

Grief counselors

Pet hospice teams usually consist of veterinarians, technicians and grief counselors.

Primary caregivers are taught skills needed to care for their pets, such as administering medication, changing dressings or giving fluids. They also learn about impending signs of death or different scenarios that can occur and what to do.

A 24-hour support system is in place for owners to obtain help over the phone, or, in some cases, veterinarians make house calls.

Nursing a sick animal, though, is emotionally and physically draining, especially for elderly owners or those who work full-time. A few veterinary hospitals have special hospice units where short-term care is provided. Veterinary technicians or trained volunteers also go to homes and "babysit" ill pets.

Quality of life

A successful program makes sure the pet is not suffering, said Alice Villalobos, DVM and owner of Pawspice, an end-of-life care clinic in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Clients are given a "quality-of-life scale" that rates such things as happiness, hurt and hunger. Owners check the scale daily or weekly to help them decide if they should continue with the program or humanely euthanize their pet.

"When the time comes to let the pet go, owners feel satisfied knowing that they have given that pet what the pet gave to them, which is unconditional love," said Villalobos.

Honor and dignity

For Los Angeles resident James Symington, premature euthanasia is not an option for Trakr, his retired search-and-rescue police dog.

The German shepherd was one of the first on the scene after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks looking for survivors in the smoldering rubble.

Today, Trakr can no longer walk without assistance. Degenerative myelopathy, a progressive spinal cord disease, has robbed the former canine cop of the use of his hind legs.

Symington said hospice care allows him to properly care for his 14-year-old dog while preserving his partner's dignity and quality of life.

"It was also a way for us to honor Trakr for all his years of unconditional service and love, not only to me and my family but to the many others he helped through his work [as a police dog] and search and rescue efforts," he said.