Peaceful Endings: Help Your Pet Through Her Final Days With Comfort and Care

As a veterinarian, Dr. Downing says her role is to manage the signs of disease that interfere with her patients’ quality of life rather than treat the underlying disease.And pain is generally the most important sign demanding attention.“There are now many tools we can use to accomplish the goal of comfort care,” she says.

In addition to pain management, talk to your veterinarian about other options for palliative care, including massage therapy or hydrotherapy for painful joints and muscles, dietary adjustments for bowel or intestinal disorders, or complementary veterinary care, such as acupuncture, that may help provide additional comfort for some pets. Always work in conjunction with your veterinarian before trying any complementary therapies on your own. Pursuing them without guidance may actually increase your pet’s discomfort or lead to other complications.

You may also want to consult with your local pet hospice. These specialized facilities are becoming more common and offer a wide range of services, from overnight care and medical equipment rentals to in-home support, transportation, and grief counseling.

Preparing for Euthanasia

Veterinarians will provide information to help you assess whether your pet has a good quality of life, is in pain, or is suffering. Ultimately, as your pet’s guardian, you will have to decide when the time is right to euthanize. It may be time when your pet no longer enjoys life, you can’t manage her pain, or when you’re unable to continue the necessary care. Your veterinarian will discuss the signs of a diminishing quality of life and any additional supportive care that may be offered — or if all options have been exhausted. Signs of discomfort or poor quality of life can vary depending on your pet’s personality and the particular disease process involved. Some things you may notice:

  • Refusal to eat or drink. As many terminal diseases progress, the desire to eat and drink may decrease. Weight loss, malnourishment, and dehydration are serious concerns, and all contribute to discomfort and reduced quality of life. However, force-feeding pets is not ideal. Your veterinarian can work with you to try to increase your pet’s appetite and help ensure that your pet remains nourished and hydrated.
  • Housesoiling and restlessness. Depending on your pet’s pain level and disease process, it may be hard for her to find a comfortable sleeping position, wait to go outside for the bathroom, or use the litterbox. Bring any behavioral changes to your veterinarian’s attention. In many cases, you can take steps to ensure that your pet is kept clean and comfortable and your home isn’t soiled.
  • Excessive panting or labored breathing. This can be a sign of many things, including pain, respiratory difficulty, or cardiac problems. If you notice that your pet is panting excessively or appears to be breathing hard (when not exercising), contact your veterinarian immediately. Initiating changes in your pet’s management plan may help minimize pain and discomfort.

Depending on the disease process, most pets can be kept comfortable for a relatively long period of time with good palliative and nursing care. The biggest consideration may be your family’s ability to provide that ongoing care. Many pet parents don’t want to admit that the care is just too much for them to cope with. But choosing euthanasia when care becomes too expensive or when a pet becomes incontinent or needs assistance to move though the home may be an acceptable decision for you and your family and shouldn’t leave you wracked with guilt.
You and your veterinarian should come up with a list of issues deemed unmanageable for your pet and for your family, as well as what to look for in your pet as evidence of unmanaged pain or declining health.

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