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Terminal Illness

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Receiving a terminal diagnosis

When your companion animal has been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, it can be very overwhelming.

Strong emotions of shock, disbelief, sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and helplessness are normal responses to the realization that your special friend is ill.

Everyday activities can seem difficult when you have so much on your mind. People in similar situations often report they cannot think straight and feel as if they are in a fog. In the days and weeks to come, you will likely face stressful situations and tough decisions.

Here are a few strategies that may assist you

  • Take notes while hearing all the treatment options and write down questions and concerns you have. Remembering everything can be very difficult, especially if you are in an emotional state. Writing down topics you’ve discussed and concerns you have will help you keep things straight. Discuss them with your veterinarian.
  • Bring a friend or family member with you to appointments to help you hear what is being said. Emotional situations can blur one’s perception of information.
  • Ask if a decision of treatment needs to be made immediately. If it doesn’t, allow yourself some time to make sense of what is happening and discuss options with supportive people around you.
  • Reflect on how you’ve made difficult decisions in the past. Who supported you through those times? Call on those people to help you now.
  • Do research on your own. Ask your veterinarian for trusted and reliable informational websites and resources to help you gain additional knowledge.
  • Define what are your greatest hopes and your greatest concerns? Discuss these with your veterinarian.
  • Consider treatment expenses and realistically identify how this will financially impact your life.
  • Consider your pet’s quality of life. How will treatment options impact your pet’s quality versus the quantity of life?
  • Consider your own quality of life. It is important to ask yourself:
  • How much of my time will go toward taking care of my pet? How much time do I have to spare?
  • What cost will I incur to take care of my pet? What other financial responsibilities do I have?
  • What other responsibilities do I have in my life (job, parenting)? Who else do I need to consider (partner, children, other pets)?
  • Who can help me?
  • What other stresses and obligations do I have in my life right now?
  • Take care of yourself. Be sure to eat healthy meals and get enough rest. It is important to care for yourself as you prepare to care for an ill pet, often an emotionally and physically demanding endeavor.

Remember, when you consider what is best for you, your family, and your pet, any decision you make will be the right one. There are no wrong treatment options.

Reprinted with permission from The Argus Institute, Colorado State University.

Exploring treatment options for pets with terminal illnesses

Common terminal illnesses include inoperable brain cancer, end stage kidney, and heart failure – diseases where surgery or medicines cannot be effective in curing the pet. Terminal illnesses such as cancer often have various treatments that can be explored. Some questions to ask your veterinarian:

  • What treatment options are available?
  • What are the successes of these treatments?
  • What are the potential side effects of each treatment?
  • How long will such treatment prolong my pet’s life?
  • What should you expect as the condition and treatment progresses?
  • How long will my pet continue to have a good quality of life given this treatment?

Choosing what’s best for your pet and you

Once you become knowledgeable about your pet’s illness and various treatments options that may be available, you need to decide with your family and veterinarian what the best course of action is.  As your pet’s caregiver, it is important to think through the various options, so you can avoid having to make a difficult decision in the midst of an emergency.

A second opinion my help

If you’re in doubt as to the best treatment for your pet, consider getting a second opinion. It is ok to seek a second opinion, and many veterinarians will respect your wishes.  Getting a second opinion may confirm that a proper diagnosis was made, as well as give you peace of mind knowing that you did everything possible for your terminally ill pet.  Another opinion may offer some options you hadn’t considered.

Palliative and Hospice Care for terminally ill pets

Palliative care aims to alleviate pain and discomfort to improve quality of life for all patients with any chronic or end-stage illness, regardless of whether they are terminally ill or not.  With palliative care, pets may live a quality life for months to years.

Hospice care for animals is closely modeled after human hospice and entails all aspects of supportive care such as home care, pain management, and nutrition support for a terminally ill companion animal. In general, hospice patients are expected to live weeks to months and the care plan and treatments are focused on providing quality of life and easing the transition to end of life.

Caring for terminally ill and dying pets in the comfort of their own home using hospice or palliative care addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of both pets and pet caregivers. It involves creating and using individualized pain and symptom control treatment plans developed by your veterinarian to meet your pet’s needs.

In addition, these options can provide end-of-life services to terminally ill or dying companion animals, allowing you to spend more quality time with your pet during a period which may either precede a euthanasia decision or take its place.  Even if the decision to euthanize is made, pet caregivers may receive assistance from a veterinarian with this process in the privacy and comfort of the pet’s home.