My first contact from Stryker’s family came via email: “He was just diagnosed with anal cancer and also has a lymph node that is affected. We don’t think we want to put him through two surgeries. Would it be possible to set up a time for you to visit him?”
Stryker, an exuberant eight-year-old chocolate Labrador, met me at the door with a stuffed manatee in his mouth. Tail wagging and full of energy, he was not what one might expect to see during a hospice intake exam. As his family and I gathered on the floor, Stryker vied for my attention. His caregivers’ eyes misted up as they told me about their goals for him and their fears about his diagnosis. Meanwhile, Stryker rolled around, tongue lolling, grabbing various toys. His expression said, Why are you sad? Let’s play!
My examination of Stryker confirmed that there was indeed a large mass occupying the space where his anal sac should be, on the inside left wall of his rectum. The only thing that made the process challenging was the vigorous side-to-side movement of Stryker’s tail. His people watched me, concern and love for this dog evident in their furrowed brows. Stryker’s only concern was my finger in his rectum.
Over the course of about two hours, I heard the family’s story. When Stryker was diagnosed, aggressive surgery was recommended in the same day. His family wasn’t sure they wanted to put him through the procedure, and they needed more guidance, more time to think. When they asked about other options, they weren’t given any, other than my least-favorite phrase in the veterinary vernacular: “Well, you can always do nothing.” Could those really be the only options, aggressive surgery or nothing? It seemed implausible. And fortunately for all of us gathered on the floor that day, it was.
The World Health Organization defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.” In my work as a veterinarian exclusively dedicated to geriatrics, hospice and palliative care, I increasingly find myself mapping my own professional purpose to this definition.
Transitions between geriatric care, palliation and hospice are often blurry, to say the least. In an attempt to extract meaningful data, I maintain a spreadsheet of all the patients I have seen; in it is a column in which I try to categorize the nature of the case. I can tell you that it’s not always easy to assign a label. I can also tell you that when I started focusing exclusively on end-of-life care, I had no idea how desperately needed palliative care really was. It became very clear very quickly that people were euthanizing pets—beloved family members, according to more than 80 percent of Americans—because they felt they had no other choice.
These animals were in pain, I was told. I agreed. But when I asked what kind of pain-management strategies had been implemented, the answer was usually “none.” Attempts to alleviate pain and other physical symptoms such as diarrhea, incontinence or decreased mobility were woefully inadequate, or well-intentioned but poorly implemented, with little guidance or followup. I was meeting families who were at their breaking points, and who could blame them? No one wants to live with a vomiting, whining, confused animal who’s in pain and turns the living room into his favorite place to urinate.
But what if these symptoms could be minimized or eliminated? I am increasingly finding that people are willing and able to implement simple solutions to help their pets and preserve the bond they have with them when it is most threatened.
Examples of palliative medical interventions that can help pets with lifelimiting symptoms include:
• Antibiotics for chronic skin, dental or urinary tract infections.
• Anti-anxiety medications for psychological distress associated with limited mobility, nighttime pacing or signs of cognitive dysfunction.
• Pain medications in specific combinations for advanced multimodal pain relief.
• Skilled use of narcotic and non-narcotic medications for adequate pain relief. (This means that your care provider must have a current DEA license.)