The news no one wants to hear — a beloved dog or cat is terminally ill — often leads to a decision no one wants to make: Allow the pet to pass naturally over the Rainbow Bridge or put him to sleep so he doesn’t suffer.

But there’s a third option: animal hospice, or “pawspice” as it’s sometimes called. Like hospice care for people, it provides pain relief and compassionate end-of-life medical treatment for pets, giving the humans who love them a chance to say goodbye.

"Hospice care allows everyone in the family to wrap their heads around this very sad time. A dog owner may even have a bucket list of things she wants to do with her pet, like go to the beach or the mountains one more time, or let the dog have as many burgers as he wants," says Gail Bishop, clinical director of The Argus Institute at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, the only such program affiliated with a veterinary school.

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How a hospice team helps

A pet hospice team is led by a veterinarian and typically staffed with a technician and caregivers (some may be volunteers). The team is trained in palliative care and pain control.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a pet hospice team will guide you in assessing your dog's or cat's pain and quality of life and recognizing signs of organ failure. If you’re willing and capable, the team also may teach you how to give medication or provide necessary treatments.

Pet hospice not only eases an animal’s transition, it educates, supports and prepares pet owners for what’s to come. This was the aspect of hospice care Debra Abrams appreciated most when her cat Sylvester was succumbing to endocrine problems. Veterinary student volunteers from CSU visited periodically. "Their attitude was, 'How can we help you navigate this?'" says Debra. "They also gave me a professional perspective on what was going on with Sylvester."

Related: Caring for Your Older Dog

How to find hospice care for your pet

Your own veterinarian will likely know of a vet in your area who provides hospice care. Another option is to contact the nearest veterinary college. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) has a searchable member directory. (At the moment, there is no certification required to be an animal hospice veterinarian, but the IAAHPC has designated a special committee to develop one.)

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Once you've found a home hospice practice, be sure the vet and her staff can offer good medical management of your pet's symptoms and will be available to you and your family.

CSU's Bishop suggests asking the following questions:

  • How long has the veterinarian been offering pet hospice services?
  • How often will a hospice staff person visit?
  • What is the after-hours policy?
  • What is the euthanasia policy? Will the hospice veterinarian provide this service in your home?
  • What is their stance on natural death? How do they ensure that your pet will not suffer? Can they provide adequate palliative care?
  • Does the hospice offer pet loss support if you need it? If not, can they refer you to such a service?

The cost of pet hospice care

Hospice care for pets isn’t free. For starters, home visits from the vet usually cost more than office visits. Typically, Bishop says, you’re charged one fee by the hospice vet for the first home visit, which is quite lengthy, and a smaller amount for subsequent visits.

If you can’t be home all day to care for your ailing pet, you may have to pay someone to come in to give him medication and make sure he’s comfortable. An ill dog may need more frequent walks and a sick cat may need some human attention during the day. (You also may be able to find a pet sanctuary that will care for your pet and where you can visit often. Just make sure it's supervised by a licensed veterinarian.)

The costs of medications and treatments can be high, too. However, if a pet has cancer, the cost of palliative care may be less than the cost of surgery and chemotherapy. (Note that if you’ve decided to treat your animal’s condition aggressively, he won’t be a candidate for hospice care.)

When considering hospice care, be honest with the veterinarian and hospice team about how much time and money you realistically can commit to your pet’s care. Ask in advance about costs of the first visit, subsequent visits and home euthanasia if that becomes necessary.

Dianne Lange is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer specializing in health and travel. She is the author of four books on cancer and a former editor at SELF, Health, Natural Health and Prevention. Her work has appeared on websites such as RealAge.com, SymptomFind.com, WebMD and Everyday Health.