By Christie Long
One of the most difficult parts of my job is counseling owners when it’s time to let their pets go.
Devastating trauma with fractures and internal injuries, inoperable cancer that leaves the animal painful and debilitated, chronic uncontrolled disease, severe arthritis or neurological dysfunction that cause tremendous loss of mobility or control of bodily functions — all of these are instances when I feel that I can point out an obvious loss of quality of life. Oftentimes, things aren’t so obvious.
People often tell me that they don’t want to selfishly hold on when their pet is ready to let go. Regardless of how well owners know their best friends, it’s extremely difficult to objectively assess the quality of their pet’s life when faced with the impending end of it. Veterinarians can help, but as a terminally ill animal begins to experience the effects of their disease, the last thing he wants is to be loaded into the car a couple of times a week to see the vet, who might not have been his favorite person even in the best of times.
Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, along with its Argus Institute, entered uncharted territory in 2003 when it sponsored the first pet hospice organization staffed and run by veterinary medical students. The program’s goal was to provide the owners of terminally ill animals with home visits by veterinary student volunteers, who provide the pet with simple in-home medical care, and provide the owners with an unbiased assessment of their pet’s medical condition and quality of life.
Veterinarians in Fort Collins and surrounding communities refer patients to the Hospice program, and in addition to the above the volunteers are responsible for updating the referring vet after each home visit. By doing this, owners are ensured that their veterinarian is apprised of their pet’s health status, and can make recommendations as necessary. Pets benefit because they can live out their last days in the comfort of their own homes, and owners benefit from interaction with the volunteers, who can help them recognize what diminished quality of life looks like for their companion.
The concept of hospice care for pets differs dramatically from that for humans, largely due to the fact that euthanasia can be performed when an animal’s suffering can no longer be relieved. As a veterinarian, I know that because I cannot explain to an animal why it hurts, ending its suffering is the greatest gift I can give.
Since its inception, the CSU Pet Hospice has helped more than 100 families in the area say goodbye to their cherished family members.
For more information about Pet Hospice, contact the Argus Institute at CSU, or visit its website. Owners desiring hospice care for their pets should contact their veterinarians, who can become members of the hospice network by calling (970) 219-7335.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.