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Dealing with a terminal illness

created at: 2010/09/27When pets are diagnosed with cancer, most veterinarians are prepared to provide state-of-the-art medical expertise and treatment for their patients. Yet, a pet's cancer also impacts pet owners, requiring today's veterinarian to provide emotional support as well.

The Animal Cancer Center and the Argus Institute's Changes: Support for People and Pets Program at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital have provided collaborative cancer care for over 15 years. These are the top ten supportive actions* identified by their clients: 

• The diagnosis was delivered in privacy, with plenty of time allotted to digest the news.
• Simple, common words were used to describe the disease and treatment options.
• Conversations about the disease, treatment options, and treatment plan were recorded and the audiotape was sent home with the client. This allowed every member of the pet's family to have access to the same information. Audiotapes allow for easy review of complex medical material and often reduce the number of calls back to the veterinarian for clarification.
• Several treatment options were offered, including palliative care and euthanasia; however, the veterinarian did not push one option over the others.
• Families were encouraged to seek second opinions and were also referred to veterinary oncologists and specialty practices for consultation and/or treatment.
• Families were prepared for all possible consequences of treatment as each phase of the protocol progressed. The option to stop treatment at anytime was also discussed.
• Families were encouraged to take lots of photographs of their pets and to videotape them during their everyday routines---sleeping in their favorite spots, eating their favorite treats, playing with their favorite toys---before the cancer had progressed to the end stage.
• When treatment options were exhausted, families were gently guided toward ways they could plan and prepare their families for the death or euthanasia of their pet.
• Adequate pain medication was administered, especially during the pet's last few days.
• When the time for euthanasia arrived, entire families--including young children---were given the option of being present at the time of death and to say good-bye in personally meaningful ways. Linking objects like clay impressions of the pet's paw or clippings of fur were offered.