In the past, euthanasia was often the only option for cats with terminal illnesses. Today, hospice or palliative care is a very real alternative.
Hospice involves providing supportive care to cats in the final stages of their lives so that when the time comes, they can pass naturally and peacefully. The primary goal is to keep the cat comfortable and free of pain, with a focus on quality of life.
Palliative care should not be considered a last resort. It is not about dying, but rather, about finding ways to help the cat live comfortably with a terminal illness.
What does palliative care involve?
Comfort: Provide clean, soft bedding with easy access to food, litter boxes, favorite sleeping spots and interaction with family members. Handle ill and/or elderly cats gently because many terminal medical conditions create discomfort and pain.
Nutrition and Hydration: Sick cats may need encouragement to eat, and you may need to experiment with different foods. While a high-quality canned or raw diet is ideal, this is a time when your cat gets to eat anything she wants, so if she wants lots of treats, let her have it. Always have fresh water available.
Cleanliness: Ill felines may not be able to groom themselves. Assist your cat by gently brushing her. Keep her eyes, ears, the area around the mouth, rectum and genitalia clean if she can’t do it by herself anymore.
Pain Management: Cats are master at hiding pain. Watch your cat carefully for signs of discomfort – these may be subtle and can include hiding, avoiding contact with family members, or changes in sleeping positions. Cats only rarely vocalize when they’re in pain. Work with an integrative or holistic veterinarian to develop an appropriate pain control program for your cat.
Holistic Therapies: There are many non-invasive, gentle holistic therapies that can provide relief to terminally ill cats. Energy therapies such as Reiki, Healing Touch, Tellington Touch and others can be particularly effective.
A terminal illness in your cat doesn’t have to mean euthanasia. With hospice care, it can become a time of bonding and transformation, during which you and your cat can spend hours of precious, peaceful quality time together.
A time for peace and bonding
Despite the emotional and practical challenges hospice care presents, it can also be a time of great peace and increased bonding between cat and human. “There is no deeper communication than there is with a living being as it reaches the end of its path here, says Bernadette Kazmarski, who for the past 20 years has been providing hospice care for each of her cats when they’ve reached the end of their lives. “After a couple of decades I thought I was as close to my cats as I could be, but the closeness went ever deeper through giving palliative treatments, seeing the gratitude in their eyes, and being able to keep them feeling well enough until they were ready to let go.”
“Getting over my fear of hurting a cat never goes away, even after multiple hospice instances, especially as I’m not a master of anatomy or disease,” Bernadette adds.She found that having a caring veterinarian guide her through the process was invaluable.
Veterinarian Dr Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love International (a network of vets whose goal is to empower every owner to care for their geriatric animals) and a hospice veterinarian in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, offers a view of hospice care from a doctor’s perspective.
“I never thought I would find hospice rewarding… until I started doing it every day,” says Gardner. “I am able to help pet parents during the most difficult yet precious time with their pets.” She knows personally what people go through when their furry loved ones get old or sick. “I’ve lost many myself, and each one is a huge loss. As a hospice veterinarian, I am able to provide families a sense of hope when most feel so helpless.”
This article was first published in the February/March 2016 issue of Animal Wellness Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.