Bioethicist moves audience to tears with speech about end-of-life care for pets

By the time the keynote speaker at the AAHA-Accredited Practice Breakfast relinquished the microphone, dry eyes were a rare commodity at the event held March 17 at the 2013 AAHA Yearly Conference in Phoenix, Ariz.

Dr. Jessica Pierce, renowned bioethicist and author, delivered a moving presentation about death and dying among pets, as well as end-of-life care and euthanasia to a roomful of AAHA-accredited practices.

Pierce interspersed her speech with photos and stories of her dog named Ody, who taught her profound lessons about end-of-life care as his health deteriorated until he passed away at the age of 14 and a half.

Pierce said she struggled with making decisions about how to handle Ody’s care as he declined, and ultimately she still experiences some regret about whether she could have done more to help him.

“How do you make judgments of the quality of someone’s life when they can’t speak for themselves?” she asked the audience.

Death and dying are a common thing for veterinarians, Pierce said, as she explained that veterinarians are five times more likely to deal with dying than their counterparts in human medicine. She also brought up statistics about one in three dogs eventually developing cancer, and 10 to 12 million dogs in the United States showing signs of osteoarthritis - with most of them being untreated or undertreated.

As more and more pets age and develop debilitating health problems, Pierce said veterinarians face the difficult problem of simply getting more patients through their doors in order to help them. She commended the work that AAHA and the International Academy of Veterinary Pain Management (IVAPM) are doing to ensure that more pets receive the treatments they need but too often don’t receive.

“One of the most important things AAHA and IVAPM can accomplish is dismantling the barriers to effective pain management,” she said.

Although the statistics still point to too many pets suffering in their advanced age, Pierce said she sees signs that conditions are improving for these animals in terms of treatments offered. She mentioned the rise in popularity and usage of hospice care and palliative care, and she said she was glad that quality of life assessments are increasingly being applied to animals.

Pierce also shared her views on euthanasia, which she said if used ethically and thoughtfully, “can be one of the most profound gifts we can give animals in our care.”

As her speech neared its end and Pierce detailed Ody’s last days and minutes, she told the audience about her optimism for how other animals like Ody can benefit from what the animal health community is learning about death and dying.

“I look forward to when we can achieve a peaceful death after a long and satisfying life,” Pierce said.