Animal Hospice Conference 2013

Posted on November 1, 2013 by Lynn Henderson

In October, I attended the 3rd Annual Conference of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care in Denver Colorado. I have been a founding member of this organization since 2010 and was excited to meet colleagues and soak up the shared knowledge from this forum. 

Veterinary hospice is a specialty close to my heart, and I feel bears a bit of explanation. The first assumption one usually jumps to when thinking of the word ‘hospice’, is a human being dying of natural causes. Hospice describes a network of supportive individuals and professionals, as well s a patient’s family and friends – all working towards the goal of allowing death to come with as little pain and suffering as possible. The major difference between veterinary medicine and human medicine, is the veterinary option to perform humane euthanasia when requested or warranted. 

In the relatively young field of veterinary ‘hospice & palliative care’, there is a division among practitioners straddling a defined line – on one  side of the line is euthanasia (veterinarian-imposed death), on the other is natural death (no intervention to bring about death). As a vet with a deep devotion to in-home end-of-life care for pets and their human families, I have had to grapple with my own personal views of this issue. I had to learn about both sides of the issue, and question my ethics and my ‘rights’ as a veterinarian and a human being. Did I have the ‘right’ to take the life of another creature, to decide ‘when’ it is their time to die? Conversely, do I as an individual with the medical know-how and legal permission to humanely end the life of a suffering or terminally-ill animal have the ‘right’ to let a pet die naturally. What would the pet want? What does the owner or guardian want? In attempting to learn about how best to practice as a hospice and euthanasia practitioner, I had to challenge my beliefs and come to terms with my purpose and my duties.

The best answer I have at this time, is that this work is incredibly personal and individual to each family and pet involved. When families request natural death support for their pet, I assess the condition of the pet and discuss the goals of the family for the death of the pet and how we can manage and work towards the experience they need. Euthanasia is rarely ‘off-the-table’, but is viewed as an option in times of suffering or when the disease course changes. Many clients request euthanasia for their pets and do not wish to discuss allowing their pet to die ‘naturally’. I am supportive and receptive to each family and try to listen more than I talk – I too, am always learning from the death experience and the people and pets who share their lives with me in my practice. 

At the recent conference in Denver, I participated in lectures such as pain management in hospice care, cognitive dysfunction in aging pets, nutrition for the terminally-ill pet, and a euthanasia techniques laboratory in which I refined my current skills. Beyond the official ‘continuing education curriculum’ I met many other veterinarians from around North America and the world, whom I will remain in touch with and continue to learn from all the days of my career. I would invite you to visit the following websites should you have any interest in learning more about veterinary hospice. 

The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care

Spirits in Transition


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