• Physical-medical modalities such as heat, massage, physical therapy, laser and acupressure to improve mobility, comfort and muscle tone.
• Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, herbs and homeopathic remedies to address a wide variety of clinical signs. (A credentialed professional trained in these modalities should provide these services.)
• Appetite stimulants to boost caloric intake and improve overall well-being, if appetite is a primary issue and can be improved without undue negative consequences. (The pros and cons of stimulating appetite and an in-depth discussion of the goals of nutrition for each individual patient must take place. This is a tremendous source of stress for people, as well as an important philosophical conversation within hospice care.)
• Mobility aids, environmental enrichment and in-depth assessment of the home environment and other living spaces of the patient to identify areas that may have a negative impact on the animal’s quality of life, and developing strategies to improve them.
Stryker’s care plan involved all of these elements, plus counseling for his family regarding their goals, expectations and hopes for him. The psychosocial aspects of this type of care cannot be underestimated. With a comprehensive care plan, euthanasia is no longer such a low-hanging fruit.
I should say up front that I am not a fan of talking people out of euthanasia. As I make very clear when I lecture veterinary students about communication at the end of life, once people have made that decision, they have given it a tremendous amount of thought— more than they may let on during a traditional veterinary appointment. Once people have reached the place where they are willing to intentionally end the life of their companion animal, I think the best thing I can do is to support them through the process and provide bereavement support after the fact.
That said, this epidemic of euthanizing pets because of the perception that there is no other option breaks my heart a little each time I see it. Striking a balance between supporting people, not rocking the boat of a lifetime relationship with a family veterinarian and honestly responding to families when they look at me wide-eyed and ask “Is there anything else we can try?” is dicey. It’s something I’m becoming better at on the fly, as well as something that drives me with the determination of an Olympian-in-training to develop the best palliative care practice possible, and help others do the same.
As is the case with human hospice and palliative care, early provision of services is key to providing the most comprehensive care and enabling the entire family to benefit from it. People sometimes say, “Someone told me about you, but I’m not sure if my pet is ready for your services yet.” My response is, “If you are already asking the question, your pet is ready now, and likely, so are you.” We don’t have a specific timeline for pets as we do for people, largely because we don’t have a Medicare hospice benefit that will only kick in at a designated time. Far more practically speaking, the question is, what is “terminal” in a pet whose life we can legally end at any time? The definition is murky at times, and this complex ethical terrain is a source of great stress for many people. (Not to mention a fascinating and fulfilling career for me, as I help them navigate it.)
For Stryker’s family, a terminal diagnosis was the catalyst for seeking palliative care and hospice without really knowing what that would entail. Palliation became end-of-life care at some ill-defined point in our journey together. “Doing nothing” ended up being pretty involved, thank you very much. As a result, Stryker’s family reached their goal of giving him a birthday party and celebrating his life before facing his death. Stryker was also able to relax in a custom doghouse built into the deck (constructed while he was in hospice care).
During this fragile and personal time, I became part of Stryker’s family, honed my own clinical skills to provide the best care I knew how, and reaffirmed my decision to take the road less traveled in my professional life. Seven-and a half months after our initial meeting, we gathered again on the floor in the presence of a stuffed manatee, told Stryker that he was the best dog ever and said good-bye.