If your family makes the difficult decision to care for your dog at home as he or she approaches the end stages of the disease, keep in mine these basic principles to help your beloved canine companion to be comfortable, hopeful and happy.
The decision to treat your much-loved canine cancer patient with chemotherapy, spending time (and much money) at veterinary clinics in the hope of prolonging his life, is a private one involving your family and veterinarian. As in humans, some types of cancer are curable and almost certainly worth the risk--although unlike humans, few dogs carry health insurance.
Other dog owners prefer that the dog's last weeks or months should be spent at home with the best palliative care possible. When the inevitable time comes and it is no longer possible to prevent suffering, the owner may decide, reluctantly, to call the vet.
Know that (like humans), each patient with cancer is different, and the median survival time is simply that--an average that can be used to help inform. Depending on certain prognostic factors, patients may be more likely to do better or worse. For example, a dog that is not feeling well at the time of lymphoma diagnosis is a very strong negative prognostic indicator--meaning, the animal is much worse off than a dog that feels well at the time of diagnosis.
Screen Your Information Sources
Investigate your dog's medical condition, but don't fall victim to every blog you come across. Go to the library and look through the animal care reference section. Online, use specific search terms such as "end stage renal disease dogs" or "prescription end stage canine bladder cancer" or "pain relief for end stage canine lymphoma." Make sure your online sources are credentialed -- veterinary hospitals, schools and their affiliates are good bets -- and not just the stories of individuals who lost their own precious pets. When you decide what to do, you'll know what fits best in the lives of your dog and his family.
Hospice Care: A New Alternative
Volunteer groups and a few veterinary hospitals have begun a new trend to comfort your dog while the family takes care of its necessary business. The concept behind pet hospice is to provide comfortable care 24/7 for a terminally-ill pet at home.
A hospice program is helpful for more than your dog -- family members need more time to adjust to the imminent death of their beloved canine friend. Hospice can be especially helpful in providing children time to understand that the family pet is dying, or giving time for a geographically distant family member to come home to say goodbye and provide mutual support to the family.
Respect Your Dog as The End Approaches
The top priority is pain management -- this is essential to the quality of life a dog may have. Managing pain can also extend a dog's life.
The goal, when it comes to dogs with cancer, is to prevent pain. Keep a dog that is experiencing nausea or vomiting well hydrated and fed. Medications exist that can control nausea, making it easier for a dog to want to eat. Your veterinarian can help with advice.
Warming foods up, serving "human" foods (clear this with your vet) that appeal to his appetite, or feeding a dog in an environment that is less stressful may help him or her want to eat more.
Biut inevitably, the time will come when you realize your dog no longer is getting enjoyment from life. Sleep time increases markedly, activity slows and pain begins to manifest regardless of the best medications. The end is drawing near.
At this time, you may want to spend hours cuddling with your dog, but as death approaches this is not likely to happen. End-stage cancer typically manifests when your dog chooses a comfortable, remote spot and end his life alone, at peace, having lived a full and joyful life with his family "pack."