Hospice for Dogs

Hospice for dogs is about focusing on treating your dog for quality of life rather than curing an illness. Veterinarians are trained to guide owners through home hospice care, and there are also veterinarians who truly specialize in hospice care.

Key Takeaways

  • Hospice for dogs puts the emphasis on maintaining and increasing life quality, rather than treating an illness. It’s not giving up on your dog, it’s treating them for quality of life.
  • You should put your dog in hospice as soon as you realize that they are in the last stage of their life. That may be at the moment you get a diagnosis, or later in the process.
  • Dogs can live in hospice for quite a long time, and it may even lengthen life beyond what was predicted.
  • At the end of life, dogs may have trouble standing, eating, drinking, relieving themselves, or have accidents in the house. At the very end stage of life, many dogs seem to want to be alone and outside.
  • The lifespan of dogs is always much shorter than we wish. Making your dog’s last days, weeks, months, or years a comfortable and happy time is something you will not regret doing when you look back years from now.

Hospice for Dogs at the End of a Good Life Full of Love

Although it is difficult to think about, all dog lovers have to face tough decisions as their dogs age. A dog’s life is never long enough, even in the best possible scenarios. When things get really tough, hospice for dogs may be the kindest option for both the human and the dog.

Your Choices Do Not Boil Down to “Treat or Euthanize”

When you receive the difficult news that your dog is ill or has a serious diagnosis, you might feel like you have only two options: to treat the cancer, or to quickly euthanize your beloved dog to avoid future suffering.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though, in most situations, particularly with a cancer diagnosis. Most cancers are not going to kill your dog immediately, and you have some time before the “true end of life.” You can choose to use hospice care, even if you are going to pursue treatments.

The choice is not to treat an illness or to euthanize a dog immediately. You can focus on increased life quality while you pursue treatments or prepare for the end of life.

Hospice for Dogs Is a Mindset

Choosing hospice is choosing to prioritize the quality of life over treating cancer. But choosing quality of life doesn’t mean you must not pursue any treatments. If you think of hospice as a mindset, not a treatment plan, it may help you to choose treatments that will support your dog’s quality of life.

Right from the beginning, when you receive a difficult diagnosis, hospice care can be pursued solely, or hospice care can (and often does) overlap with cancer treatments. As long as the focus always remains on maintaining quality of life, you prioritize that.

What Is Hospice Care for Dogs from a Veterinarian’s Point of View?

Animal hospice care is defined as a program of care that accounts for the needs of an animal in the advanced stage of illness.1

In veterinary medicine, hospice care is also referred to as palliative care, which in human medicine is defined as comfort care with or without curative intent.2

Hospice care focuses on managing the patient’s pain, clinical signs (meaning things we can see happening), and quality of life while considering the emotional and spiritual needs of the dog owner.

From a veterinary point of view, hospice is provided from the time of diagnosis or development of significant clinical signs, until the death of the animal.1 In other words, even if your veterinarian does not use the word “hospice” with you, they are often thinking about your dog’s hospice care right from the beginning, knowing that from that point until the end of life, your dog needs that focus and support.

When Is Hospice for Dogs Started?

Most dog lovers feel that hospice is only for the very end of life, and sometimes that is true. It is used for end-of-life patients or those with a disease that cannot be cured. It is certainly intended to help your dog at the time when you may feel the most helpless.

The Hospice Mindset Is Helpful During Cancer Treatment

However, incorporating hospice care strategies at the time of diagnosis will often lead to a better quality of life for your dog in one of the most important stages of your dog’s life, no matter how long your dog enjoys life post-diagnosis.

The final life stage of a dog can be challenging physically and psychologically for the dog and family, and palliative care is intended to make the end of your dog’s life more comfortable. This is meaningful to you and your family, no matter the amount of time that was spent.

Starting Hospice Instead of Treating Cancer

Some dog owners will elect hospice care sooner, especially if they do not wish to pursue further diagnostics or disease-specific treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. This is a reasonable option in many circumstances.

Do not think of choosing hospice as giving up on your dog. Instead, you are switching your priorities from specific treatments to improving quality of life.

Choosing palliative care is a valid treatment option because it focuses on quality of life of the dog and their family. And it may even lengthen the lifespan of the dog past what was predicted.

Some dogs can live for years with cancer, depending upon the tumor type. If you choose to overlap hospice mindset and strategies with cancer treatments, your dog may live for years in hospice.

Hospice care increases life quality and may even lengthen the lifespan of the dog past what was predicted. It’s never a bad choice, and it’s not “giving up” on your dog.

What Happens During Hospice for Dogs

There are many goals that a veterinarian hopes to accomplish by providing hospice care. In general, they want to make dogs as comfortable as possible and minimize their suffering as much as possible.1

They do this using:

  • Pain assessment and management through medications.3
  • Advice about how to manage and soothe pain using non-medication techniques like massage, acupuncture, and other modalities.
  • Offer rehabilitation services.
  • Give advice on supplements that might support your dog.
  • Perform wound or surgical site care.
  • Offer respiratory treatments.
  • Managing incontinence problems.3
  • Supporting mobility.3
  • Nutrition advice specific to the dog’s individual needs.
  • Suggestions about how to make the home environment safe for dogs who may be less mobile or need more trips to the bathroom.

Your hospice veterinarian will also educate you about the specifics of your dog’s illness and what will happen in the end-stages of their disease. They want to prepare you intellectually and emotionally as much as possible.

When our dogs are in pain or feeling ill, we often feel helpless ourselves. Getting a consultation with a hospice care veterinarian will help you create a specific strategy to improve your pet’s quality of life.1

Five Steps to Hospice for Dogs

A five-step strategy has been created in veterinary hospice.4 These steps include:

  1. Evaluating the owner’s needs and goals for the dog.
  2. Educating about the disease process their dog is dealing with.
  3. Developing a personalized plan for how to care for the dog during hospice.
  4. Applying the plan for as long as the dog needs it.
  5. Providing emotional support both during hospice and after the dog’s death.

This protocol helps veterinarians stay organized and has been shown to be beneficial to both the owner and their dog.

By entering hospice, this strategy, which can change as things develop, allows families the option of not having to choose euthanasia immediately upon receiving a difficult diagnosis.

When to Seek Hospice Care for Dogs

The time to pursue hospice care is when you realize your dog is at their final life stage.1 Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean death has to be imminent, just that you understand that the next phase of their life will end with their death, no matter how long that phase is.

For some people, this understanding arrives the moment they hear the diagnosis. Even as they are pursuing treatments, they are still thinking about their dog being in their final stage of life.

Others may not have this understanding until later, after they have pursued curative treatments. But even if you are pursuing curative treatments, palliative care like that offered in hospice for dogs often leads to an improved quality of life.

The Signs a Dog Needs Hospice Care

If you are having difficulty managing clinical signs at home such as discomfort, pain, or urinary and fecal accidents,3 a hospice care plan may be helpful. Chronic illness like cancer can cause these problems over time, and that interferes with the normal routine of your dog.4

Is Hospice Right for My Dog?

There are numerous medical situations that occur in dogs that are appropriate for hospice care.

If you have just had a diagnosis of a terminal or progressive disease, if your dog has a chronic disability, or if your dog is geriatric (elderly and frail), hospice might be right for your dog.

In short, any dogs who have clinical signs that interfere with normal quality of life could be candidates for hospice care.1

Hospice care may also be the right choice for your dog if treatment has been attempted but failed, or if it has caused complications.

The Signs of End of Life for a Dog

Hospice is also a good choice if severe clinical signs are present that are difficult to manage, whether or not a diagnosis has been made.

Clinical signs that will benefit from hospice care include:

  • Decreased appetite or thirst
  • Difficulty urinating or having bowel movements
  • Frequent accidents
  • Mobility issues hindering ability to perform daily functions such as standing to eat or drink
  • Persistent pain despite using medications
  • Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
  • Respiratory issues including chronic cough or labored breathing
  • Neurologic issues causing weakness or paralysis of limbs, a wobbly gait, seizures or changes in demeanor
  • Cognitive function that may lead to pacing or disorientation

Not all dogs will have all of these signs, and some will have none at the end of life. If your dog is suffering, your hospice care veterinarian can help you understand how close they are to the end of their life using honest, compassionate language.

At the very end of life, many have noted that dogs seem to disengage from their families a little, preferring to be quiet and alone, and they may also seek to be outside.

How to Find Veterinary Hospice for Dogs

General practitioners and veterinary specialists in hospice can all guide owners through hospice care. You may have a veterinarian in your area who specializes in hospice care. Lap of Love and other local end of life mobile veterinary clinics provide in-home hospice evaluations and end-of-life care. Veterinarians can also effectively provide hospice care through telehealth by videoconferencing or telephone communication.5

Hospice for dogs and other pets is becoming more and more widely embraced in the veterinary community. There is even discussion of hospice care becoming a recognized veterinary specialty in the future to provide more advanced training to veterinarians in this important field.4

In the meantime, hospice care veterinarians are there for you and your dog at this unique and often heartbreaking time.

  1. Bishop G, Cooney K, Cox S, et al. 2016 AAHA/IAAHPC end-of-life care guidelines. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2016;52(6):341-356. doi:10.5326/jaaha-ms-6637
  2. Hospice vs. palliative care: What’s the difference? Hospice vs. Palliative Care: What’s the Difference? | VITAS Healthcare. https://www.vitas.com/hospice-and-palliative-care-basics/about-palliative-care/hospice-vs-palliative-care-whats-the-difference. Accessed December 15, 2022.
  3. Veterinary hospice: Lap of love. Veterinary Hospice | Lap of Love. https://www.lapoflove.com/our-services/veterinary-hospice. Accessed December 15, 2022.
  4. Shearer T. Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going Continuity from 2011. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. 2019;49(3):325-328.
  5. Cox S. Telehealth in hospice and Palliative Care. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. 2022;52(5):1123-1133. doi:10.1016/j.cvsm.2022.05.002


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