Palliative care for pets: Providing comfort and pain relief during illness

Woman, child and veterinary student with dog, discussing palliative care
The whole family can be involved in discussing palliative care for a sick pet. (CSU photo)

By Gail Bishop and Maria Gore

First coined in the 1980s, “palliative care” has become common language in human medicine and now is a growing trend in veterinary medicine.

What does palliative care mean? The National Cancer Institute describes palliative care as a multidisciplinary approach to specialized medical and nursing care for people with life-limiting illnesses that focuses on providing people with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of advanced disease. We often hear it as described as “comfort care” or “end-of-life symptom management.” When the disease process has advanced to the point that curing is no longer the intent, palliative care provides comfort to the patient and focuses on quality of one’s life rather than quantity.

Veterinary medicine defines palliative care much the same way, to prevent a pet’s suffering by managing pain, meeting nutritional needs and sustaining comfort while maintaining the human-animal bond for as long as possible. Open communication between the family, veterinarian, and health-care team allows a pet’s people to be an integral part of decision-making and goal-setting.

Hospice vs palliative care?

Although they are two separate concepts, palliative care and hospice care are common terms to mutually describe end-of-life care. This can lead to confusion in discussing a pet’s medical options. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care describes palliative care as “relieving or soothing the symptoms of a disease or disorder at any stage of an illness,” whereas hospice provides care and support to patients with a life expectancy of six months or less.

Hospice care in human medicine focuses on providing support to an individual and their family through the dying process. In veterinary medicine, we often offer a humane and compassionate end to suffering by performing euthanasia before an animal reaches the active stage of dying.

What does palliative care look like?

In veterinary medicine, one example is palliative radiation therapy. This therapy is offered when the goal is to relieve pain and discomfort related to the clinical symptoms of an incurable tumor. The intent is to improve the quality of life for the animal by relieving some of the symptoms. Another example: subcutaneous fluids can help with dehydration in patients with kidney disease, especially effective with cats. This can be done at home and by the family. Along with education about the disease process for the family, palliative care for pets can include a broad span of actions, including:

Dog with green and red laser light on radiation therapy machine getting palliative care
Radiation therapy is used to relieve pain caused by incurable tumors. (CSU photo)
  • Nutritional support
  • Hydration support
  • Pain management
  • Physical therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Wound care
  • Massage
  • Environmental modifications
  • Mobility modifications

It is important to note that there is not a “one size fits all” palliative care plan. Plans are created to address the specific needs of the pet and the family. A successful plan is very dependent on a collaborative approach that includes the family’s insight into their pet’s quality of life.

Why palliative care might be a good choice for me and my pet?

The opportunity to create more quality time for your pet can allow you the ability to focus less on their physical condition and spend time creating memories. It can be a good time to think about your “bucket list” of things you want to do with your pet before it is time to say goodbye. Taking him or her to the park, or to a favorite river or hike, even to the ocean would be one example. You might arrange your schedule to stay home and enjoy their company, or visit a drive-through restaurant so they can enjoy some favorite treats. Planning activities that bring joy to both of you helps reduce regrets and creates more treasured memories, and who wouldn’t want that?

When should I ask about palliative care for my pet?

Palliative care can be appropriate when a pet is diagnosed with a life-limiting disease, there is progression of a serious illness, or when disease symptoms are interfering with your pet’s daily activities. Palliative care can be effective in:

  • Some forms of cancers
  • Organ failure
  • Arthritis
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Elderly pets
  • Mobility issues

Talk to your veterinarian about whether palliative care is the right choice for you and your pet and what it would look like. Remember that the goal is always to provide comfort, reduce pain or suffering, and to give you and your pets as much quality time as possible.

Gail Bishop smiling
Gail Bishop

Gail Bishop is co-founder and adviser for the Pet Hospice Program at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and clinical coordinator for the Argus Institute, which provides counseling and support services for pet owners.

Maria Gore smiling
Maria Gore

Maria Gore, MSW, is a clinical counselor with the Argus Institute, and a Pet Hospice advisor. As part of the Argus team, Maria provides in-house support to pet owners and staff, as well as community clients referred to the Argus Institute’s support services.