End-of-Life Care for Dogs

Hospice or home care for dogs has come to the forefront in recent years. It can be an option when your dog has a terminal illness and you don't want to pursue more aggressive medical care, but would like to provide comfort care for as long as possible. The goals of hospice are to control pain, keep the dog comfortable, and provide a decent quality of life for as long as possible.

Committing a dog to hospice care can be a very involved step. Your veterinarian will draw up a care plan for the dog, but you will be administering virtually all of the care. Some training may be required for safely giving medications and for detecting signs of problems.

Some hospice programs involve occasional home visits by a veterinarian or a veterinary technician to assist with care and evaluations. A few sites provide hospice care on site, with owners visiting or staying for the duration.

Talk to your veterinarian about possible home care that will ease this final transition for your dog.

Euthanasia

The time may come when you are faced with the prospect of having to end your pet's life. This is a difficult decision to make-both for you and for your veterinarian. Many old and infirm dogs can be made quite comfortable with just a little more thoughtfulness and tender loving care than the average healthy dog needs. Old dogs can still enjoy months or years of happiness in the company of loved ones.

But when life ceases to be a joy and a pleasure, when the dog suffers from a painful and progressive condition for which there is no hope of betterment, then perhaps at this time we owe the dog the final kindness of helping him to die easily and painlessly. Quality-of-life issues are always difficult, but questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is he having more good days than bad days?
  • Can he still do the things he loves to do best?
  • Is he in pain or discomfort that can't be relieved?
  • Is he eating and drinking?

When it is clear that comfort is no longer possible, it is time for euthanasia. This is accomplished by an intravenous injection of an anesthetic agent in a sufficient amount to cause immediate loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest. Some dogs will vocalize at the last instant or appear to take a deep breath after death; this is normal, as is the loss of urine and/or stool. While adults must make the final decisions, children often handle all of this better than adults suspect, and should be involved in the decisions following the death of the dog.

How involved children will be in this process will depend on their age and emotional maturity. Euthanasia should not be referred to as “putting to sleep,” as this may frighten children at bedtime and/or lead to expectations that the dog will “wake up” and return.

Grieving for a dog may involve different stages. These include denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance. Not everyone will go through all these stages, and the length of time and order for each stage is individual. There are pet loss hotlines available and grief counselors are now better equipped to deal with pet loss.

Almost all veterinary colleges offer some grief counseling. Your veterinarian can guide you to local groups and resources such as helpful books.

Ideally, you need to think about how to handle the body before your dog has died. Burial is the choice of many families. Local laws may prohibit burying pets in your yard, but most communities have a pet cemetery close by. There will be a fee for this-particularly if perpetual care is included.

Cremation is ideal for many people who don't have a burial site. Costs vary dramatically, especially if you want a private cremation so that you can receive all of your own dog's ashes back. The ashes can then be spread in your dog's favorite places, buried in a small area, or kept by you in an urn.

This article is excerpted from “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.