Dog Hospice Helps Tails Wag in Twilight Years

Even our dogs may need a little help in old age. PrikGibb/Shutterstock

Caring for a dog isn't always a simple undertaking. Feeding, walking and showing affection are daily tasks that most pet owners are more than happy to do in exchange for the loyalty and love of a pet who is often considered a member of the family.

When dogs get older, however, the daily pet chores can turn more complicated (and, in some cases, more costly). Doling out medication and taking trips to the vet may replace backyard fetch sessions and belly scratching when the pooch reaches her "golden years." Though it's worth it, caring for an aging dog can put a strain on time, stress level and finances.

A retirement home for dogs

That's why some aging dogs end up in shelters. Because of their age, their chances of being adopted after moving to a shelter are very slim. Luckily, a growing number of people and grass-roots organizations are now giving elderly dogs a chance to live out their days in relative comfort, not in a kennel or animal shelter.

One such place is Silver Muzzle Cottage. Located in Michigan, this organization focuses solely on rescuing older dogs with less than three years to live, based on average lifespan for their breed. Owners can relinquish their dogs directly to Silver Muzzle Cottage, and the group also rescues animal from shelters throughout the state. In addition to older dogs, they say they will accept terminally ill dogs of any age.

A retirement home resident pets a senior dog
Dogs from Silver Muzzle Cottage often visit human seniors at retirement homes. Silver Muzzle Cottage/Facebook

The service was started two years ago by a Michigan woman named Kim Skarritt. She currently has around 100 dogs staying at Silver Muzzle Cottage. Some of the animals who come in contact with Silver Muzzle are placed in foster care, where they await adoption. Others are too sick or old to go through the adoption process. These dogs are placed in "hospice care," where they are tended to all day, every day (the facility is staffed 24/7). The dogs are not caged while they stay at this center.

In addition to the fostering program and hospice care center, Skarritt's dogs visit senior living facilities on a regular basis so they can provide a bit of companionship for the residents.

Vets changing how they treat older dogs

There are also options for people who want to stay with their dogs as they go through old age or deal with terminal illness. Providing care can prove difficult in these cases, especially when there are questions about how much pain an animal is experiencing and what can be done to help. Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice is a company with affiliates across much of the country that provide in-home care for terminally ill dogs. The goal of services like this is to make the end-of-life process more comfortable for dogs (and for their owners). The dogs spend their days close to family, and there is no need to make repeat trips to a veterinarian's office.

Even traditional vet practices are offering more hospice-style care for terminally ill animals. The Animal Care Center in West Bountiful, Utah, for example, offers hospice care and pain-management services for older dogs. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the pet care industry. It has shifted the focus from euthanizing ill dogs in sterile environments to helping manage pain so the creatures can have a more natural end to life, surrounded in a comfortable home, without being exposed to excessive pain.

Beneficial for owners and pets

An older man and his dog
Pets can improve our mental and physical health. Africa Studio/

This trend can offer as much help to the family of the pet as to the pet itself. Steph Sheen, a veterinarian at the aforementioned Animal Care Center in Utah, spoke with a local newspaper, The Davis Clipper: "We can provide pain control for a smoother transition and allow the caregiver or family to come to grips with it as well, so that they can get through that time more comfortably."

There are an increasing number of options for people who are caring for elderly dogs. In some parts of the country, organizations are actively trying to give forgotten and abandoned dogs a dignified, comfortable and natural end. Places like Silver Muzzle Cottage and other foster care programs offer another option to people who love their pets but cannot physically or financially care for them in old age.

At the same time, more veterinarians are willing to create alternatives to simply euthanizing older, ill dogs. This helps more dogs — and their owners — experience late life in a more natural, comfortable way.