In the majority of cases, it is inevitable that we as owners have to make the decision about end-of-life care for our pets. We hear about palliative care a lot in human medicine, but how can it be applied to veterinary medicine, in particular for cats?
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What is palliative care?
Palliative care, or end of life care, involves withdrawal of treatment which aims to cure, instead focussing on keeping an animal comfortable while they live out their final days. It may be suitable for elderly animals, or animals that have a terminal illness (such as cancer, chronic kidney disease or heart failure). Therefore, importance will be placed on allowing an animal to live with an illness while still being able to express their ‘5 welfare needs.
What are the 5 Welfare Needs for animals?
The Five Welfare Needs come from the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and highlight an animal’s legal right to appropriate care from their owners. These include a need for:
- For a suitable environment
- To be housed with, or apart from, other animals
- For a suitable diet
- To be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- To be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
Obviously the big one to consider when thinking about palliative care is no. 5, however number 4 should also be considered if an animal has become so ill that it does not want to play or interact with you. Mental welfare is just as important as physical welfare. Ultimately the goal is to give your cat a good quality of life, which may not be achievable if all of these things cannot be met.
The aim of this philosophy of care is to keep an animal as comfortable as possible throughout their final days. The biggest thing involved is management of pain or discomfort. Your vet will guide you as to what medications will be appropriate for your cat.
You may also need to make adjustments within your home to make movement easier, and encourage interaction with the environment, be that placing rugs on slippery floors, raising food and water bowls or restricting access to stairs. Some animals may become incontinent, and will need help to be cleaned up.
When should euthanasia be considered?
Euthanasia is a peaceful and painless process that will ultimately relieve an animal’s suffering. Although it is an incredibly difficult decision to make, saying goodbye to your pet may be the kindest thing you can do for them if they no longer have a good quality of life. This means that their pain may be uncontrollable, they are not wanting to eat, or interact with you. It is likely that you will realise that this has happened, but if you have any doubts, then do contact your vet.
Is palliative care ethical?
Tough question. Are we keeping them going longer for our own sake? There will probably be varying opinions on this. That being said, as long as a cat’s quality of life is good then successful palliative care can be achieved. However, this should be closely monitored – you may want to keep a diary of your pet’s daily activities, food intake, toileting etc. If there is any concern about pain or discomfort, contact with a vet should be made immediately.
At the end of the day:
Work with your vet to decide what is best for your cat. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to this kind of thing, as long as your cat’s welfare is paramount. It can also be an emotionally distressing time for an owner, so do seek support if you need it.