University’s Pet Hospice Program Offers Care, Comfort to Animals and Owners

The Argus Institute, a unique service at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine assists grieving pet owners while teaching veterinary students about the emotional needs of their clients, is launching a pet hospice program. The hospice cares for terminally ill animals and assists their owners during the illness and death of their pet, and is the first of its kind at a university veterinary program. The program is run by Colorado State veterinary student volunteers.

"We are excited to be the first such university program of its kind, and provide such a valuable resource to our community," said Gail Bishop, the co-founder of the program and faculty advisor at Colorado State’s Argus.

Pet hospice connects advanced veterinary students with people whose dog or cat is terminally ill, operating on the same philosophy that human hospice programs embrace: death is a part of life, and terminal illness and the dying process can be experienced with dignity and a level of comfort and peace as an animal rests at home with its family.

"Our pet hospice program provides a way for people to bring their pet home for their final days," said Christie Long, a veterinary students and hospice team co-manager. "People often want to make sure that their pet is able to feel connected to their family and physically comfortable and cared for by an expert during the final stages of their illness."

Through the program, 30 student volunteers provide information to help pet owners make educated decisions about their pet’s health, provide emotional support and grief education to the pet owners and their families, and monitor the pet’s health while helping to minimize the animal’s pain and provide physical comfort.

Because only animals with terminal illnesses are accepted into the program, virtually all cases in pet hospice end in euthanasia as the animal’s health deteriorates past a measure of quality of life. Hospice program student volunteers will help pet owners understand their pet’s deteriorating stages of health, as well as their own stages of grief, and provide support before, during and after the pet’s euthanasia.

The pet hospice program has formed a network with local veterinarians through which animals and their owners will typically be referred to the program. Students at Colorado State who volunteer for the program are provided with specialized training similar to training provided to nurses serving in human hospice programs.

The service is currently free to owners with terminally ill pets, but, because it is a volunteer service, only has the capacity for 10 cases at a time. Each pet hospice case is cared for by two veterinary student volunteers who visit the pet regularly at home – from daily to every other day — to help the family look after the pet’s needs. Students assess the pet’s medical needs and typically monitor vital signs, pain, level of comfort, eating, drinking habits and temperature. They follow the plan of care that the family’s veterinarian sets forth. Students contact the family within 24 hours of a referral from a local veterinarian. Because of travel demands, the program is unable to accept new cases outside of a 30-mile radius of Fort Collins.

      "Students will keep owners apprised of the health of their pet," said Dr. Susan Plaza, medical advisor and veterinarian at Colorado State. "They’ll talk with the owners and provide them with information about things to look for within their animal’s behavior, council them on a timeline that the illness is expected to follow, and help the owner grieve and understand the declining health of their pet. Above all, they are an advocate for the patient.

"The loss of a pet is a traumatic and heart-felt loss to many, many people. People experience a profound sense of grief when losing a pet," said Plaza. "In the United States, many people feel that their pet is a member of the family. However, they may also feel uncomfortable openly expressing their grief over the illness and eventual death of their pet to family members, friends, coworkers and others close to them. Our students help them understand that their grief is normal and understandable, and provide them with an outlet for expressing their feelings."

The pet hospice program at Colorado State was developed to help students foster understanding, empathy and connection to pet owners who are losing a pet, while helping students learn interpersonal and bedside manner skills that will enhance their professional depth and qualifications as future veterinarians. The program is an Argus Institute collaboration among local practitioners, Front Range Community College and Hospice of Larimer County.

The program was developed after a group of local veterinarians, including several from Colorado State University, meet in 2002 to discuss the need for a pet hospice in the area.

For more information about the Pet Hospice program at Colorado State, call 970-219-7335 during business hours on weekdays, or 970-219-7336 after hours.

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