South Central WI Archive
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • January 2010
Written by 

Palliative care and hospice

What is palliative care? Is it hospice? How does it apply to our pets? Palliative care is care for patients that are facing a serious illness, and is focused on providing relief from pain and other debilitating symptoms. It is defined as relieving or soothing the symptoms of a disease or disorder; however, it is not focused on curing the illness. A patient may receive palliative care and recover from the illness, but often palliative care is spoken of with hospice care. Hospice care is care for patients that are terminally ill and dying from a disease. “Hospice is built around the key concept that the dying patient has physical, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of suffering. Hospice is a philosophy, not a specific place. The core structure of hospice includes an interdisciplinary team that provides access to a wide range of services to support the primary caregiver, who is responsible for the majority of patient care.” Pet hospice has significant differences from human hospice, the most important being that we can offer peaceful release from suffering with euthanasia for our pets.

Palliative care is an important component of a hospice care plan for our pets. Hospice and palliative care require a plan to address who, what, where and how the pet will be provided care. There are many people that may be included in a pet’s hospice team: family, veterinarians and other veterinary professionals, friends and relatives, pet sitters, grief counselors, and other end-of-life service providers. Hospice for people is usually offered in the patient’s home, or other home like setting. Hospice for pets is similar, with the family being the primary caregivers, and usually taking on the majority of the pet care, although others may come to the home to assist the family, and the pet may go to the veterinary clinic for some procedures and care. Hospice and palliative care requires a plan of care for the pet. This plan will address the pet’s pain, and other sources of suffering such as nausea, difficulty breathing, mobility trouble, anxiety, and social isolation. The plan is drawn up with the veterinarian’s direction and family input, and may provide medications to address pain, nausea, dehydration and anxiety. There may be physical aids, such as harnesses or straps to help the pet stand and walk, or things such as frequent turning the pet to avoid pressure sores. Pet hospice requires assessment of the family’s needs and abilities as well. Sometimes the amount of care a pet requires to be comfortable may not be achievable by individuals and/or families and at this point peaceful euthanasia of the pet should be discussed by the team. Ongoing pet quality of life assessments are key to help determine the pet’s comfort level. The JOURNEYS Quality of Life Scale can be used on a regular basis to score the pet’s comfort level and make adjustments in the care plan as necessary.

The goal of hospice and palliative care is to keep the pet comfortable during the last phase of a terminal illness. When the pet is no longer comfortable, and the caretakers are not able to provide the care, that may be because there is no further care available to help the pet, or because the care needed just isn’t achievable by the family or hospice care team. The pet should have the final gift of a peaceful death.

Reference: “The role of the family physician in the referral and management of hospice patients.” AM Fam Physician. MT Weckman.

Katie Hilst, DVM

Dr. Katie Hilst founded Journeys Home Pet Euthanasia LLC, a mobile veterinary service for the Madison area and surrounding communities. She offers compassionate, gentle euthanasia for families in the privacy of home. She specializes in pet quality of life consultations. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from UW-Madison in 2002, is certified in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning and is a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. Reach her at 608-347-1897, or visit

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