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Sick pets, life and death choices

  • Story Highlights
  • Many people find it hard to let ailing pet die
  • Expert says quality of life should be considered
  • Pet hospices help owners with dying animals
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By Joan Shim
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(LifeWire) -- Amy Breyer spared no expense to save her cat, Bob, when he was diagnosed with cancer, traveling about 1,700 miles and spending over $10,000 to ensure he received the best treatment available.

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James Symington's 14-year-old German shepherd Trakr has degenerative myelopathy.

"Bob was like a child to me, so I was absolutely heartbroken when he was diagnosed," says Breyer, who has an animal law practice in Chicago. "It was never a question that I would try to get treatment for him."

Bob had nine months in remission. After a second round of surgery and radiation therapy, he enjoyed another four months of health before the disease returned.

"When it got to the point for me where it looked like he wasn't enjoying anything anymore, we opted to put him down, which to this day I have conflicted feelings about," Breyer says.

'Sweet goodbye'

In caring for ill and aging pets, quality of life should be the priority, says Alice Villalobos, a founding member of the Veterinary Cancer Society. Well-meaning owners can put their sick pets through procedure after procedure, but if quality of life isn't restored, the result is overtreatment.

If quality of life is the goal, decisions about treatment, care and euthanasia become clearer, though no less difficult to make.

Villalobos cited surveys saying one-third of people who euthanize a pet are haunted by the decision to do so. She sees this as a failure of the veterinary community to counsel pet owners and affirm their decision.

"Medical euthanasia is a sweet goodbye," Villalobos says. "It's literally helping a pet leave before they (go) through the throes and anguish of natural dying. It's a gift that we can give to our pets, but some people feel very reluctant to make the decision."

High costs of care

Another factor that comes into play when deciding how to care for an aging or sick animal is economics. Sometimes owners make the painful decision to euthanize a pet because medical care is simply too costly.

When David Neilsen of Tarrytown, New York, found out his 17-year-old cat Betty had a thyroid condition and a large lump that was probably cancerous, finances were a factor in deciding how to care for her. The initial checkup for Betty and her sister, Veronica, cost over $800, and further tests and treatment could easily have run into the thousands.

"It was a bit of sticker shock for me to see that," Neilsen says.

Neilsen decided to put Betty to sleep. He says he would have treated her if she were younger, but it wasn't worth it for a cat her age. Betty had lived a long, happy life.

While Neilsen was certain about the decision, euthanizing Betty was still painful. "It was very emotional, very difficult," he says. "When it was over, I couldn't stop petting her."

Knowing your options

Expensive treatment and euthanasia are two ends of a spectrum, and it's important that veterinarians inform people of other options for end-of-life care  treatment that still provides comfort to the pet.

"Pet caregivers need to be offered more options for palliative treatment and programs," Villalobos says.

One such option is a pet hospice program. Organizations like the Argus Institute at Colorado State University, Angel's Gate in Fort Salonga, New York, and Pawspice, founded by Villalobos for terminally ill pets in the Los Angeles area, provide hospice care to animals to ease symptoms and minimize pain.

At Pawspice, for example, custom care plans developed by vets can include medical treatments, pain management techniques, nutritional advice and hygiene routines. They also may address how to handle euthanasia to avoid a sudden, emotional decision when the time comes. Depending on an animal's condition and treatment options, costs can run into the hundreds of dollars, although some programs take into account how much treatment an owner can afford.

Animal hospice in action

Trakr, a 14-year-old German shepherd, has been a Pawspice patient for about a year. The retired police search-and-rescue dog -- one of the first on the scene of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center -- has a condition called degenerative myelopathy and has lost the function of his hind legs.

"Pawspice provides the support I need to properly care for Trakr at home while preserving his dignity and quality of life," says retired K-9 officer James Symington of West Hollywood, California, Trakr's owner.

"His spirit remains strong and we enjoy every minute that we have together," Symington says. Trakr still enjoys walks and playing catch on the beach thanks to a doggie wheel cart, which helps compensate for his diminished mobility.

"It's been extremely difficult for me to even contemplate the last days of Trakr's life." Symington says. "But I also have faith that I will know just when it's time and (have) the courage to do what is right." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Joan Shim is a freelance writer and former editor at Pet Product News.

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