What would you give to be able to spend another month, another week, or just another precious day with your best friend? Anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet has probably had such a wish.
Pets are no longer just pets; they fill the role of family, child, companion and guardian. As such, their dying process can carry a burden equal to the loss of our two-legged loved ones, and it is during this time that both pets and their people can benefit from animal hospice. Hospice allows our pet’s final journey to be experienced with dignity while surrounded by love in the familiarity of their home. It allows our pets to live out the remainder of their lives as fully as possible until the time of death, whether a “natural death” or compassionate euthanasia is elected.
As with human hospice, animal hospice exists to provide support and care for pets in the last phases of incurable disease or at the natural end of their lives. It helps facilitate the availability of resources to educate, support comfort care, manage pain and allow for a good quality of life, whether that is days, weeks or months. Hospice care also grants pet parents time to plan, grieve and say good-bye to their companions while providing a way for them to bring their pets home for their final days instead of being in the confines of a hospital setting or an unfamiliar exam room.
These are just a few reasons why I feel hospice care is so incredibly important and why it has always resonated with my heart. Prior to my veterinary career, I worked as a registered nurse, and it was during this time that I was first exposed to the concept of hospice care. Over the past several years, I have found myself drawn back to these roots, and have since started a pet hospice service within the referral hospital where I practice emergency medicine.
To highlight what a difference hospice care can make to a pet and a family, I would like to share the story of my first hospice patient, Sunny, who was one of the most loving and happy girls I have ever met. She quickly earned the nickname “Kissy Girl,” as I couldn’t be within a tongue’s length of her lest I be the receiver of her spirited attempts to lavish an endless stream of wet and cold-nosed kisses on me.
Our paths first crossed during a typical Sunday in the ER. As I was getting ready to see my next patient, who was having trouble urinating, I thought: diagnosis, UTI. But during the physical exam, my heart sank as I realized that the source of her straining to urinate was not an infection, but rather, a tumor that was compressing her urethra. An ultrasound revealed that it was inoperable, and chest X-rays confirmed that the cancer had already spread to her lungs. Looking at that sweet and happy face, you would never guess that all that badness was living inside her.
Bad turned to worse when I found out that Sunny’s dad, Jeff, was in another state attending his own father’s funeral. Besides the devastating news of her cancer, the most difficult thing for Jeff to endure was the fact that he would not have a chance to say goodbye, nor be by her side when she passed away. He was torn: in his heart he wanted to be with her once more, while in his mind, he did not want to delay the inevitable and risk her being in discomfort. This broke my heart, and I shared his sense of helplessness.
My hospice service wasn’t set to officially begin until the following month, but I could not let Sunny pass without her dad having had the chance to see her just one more time. I offered a hospice situation for her, and helped her by placing a catheter so she could urinate despite the tumor. Jeff took a red-eye flight home that very night and reunited with her the following morning. She erupted in sheer joy the moment she saw her dad, and Jeff easily learned how to manage her urinary bag.
Hospice care allowed Sunny to have another amazing week at home—one that included heaps of love, trips to the park and her favorite beaches, and a doggy party where filet and ice cream were served. It also allowed Jeff time to return home, spend more quality days with her and begin the process of saying good-bye to his best friend.
At the end of the week, I spent an incredible afternoon with Sunny’s family, celebrating and toasting her life, as well as getting more of those famous kisses. I helped her cross the Rainbow Bridge from her favorite sunshine-filled spot in the back yard, surrounded by those who loved her. You see, Sunny was not just “any dog”: she was also the rock who helped Jeff through the death of his first wife due to cancer.
As I reflect on my life’s path, it seems strangely paradoxical: I spent the first eleven years of my veterinary career doing everything possible to save lives in an ER setting, and now I am working just as fervently to end them as beautifully and as peacefully as I possibly can.
I am often asked, “Aren’t you always sad? Isn’t this just so difficult to do?” The short answer to this multi-layered question is “yes,” and in fact, I still cry during every euthanasia. Although it can be a heart-wrenching journey to take with another, it is through these experiences that my life becomes more blessed and made richer. For what people often don’t realize is that my tears well from being in the midst of great love, from experiencing the tremendous bond between family and pet, and from being able to give another the precious gift of good-bye.