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Longer goodbye for beloved pets, and their owners

Hospice care among options for sick animals

Denise Fitzmaurice (right) took her dog, Sophie, to Michele Price’s mobile veterinary clinic  in Virginia. A growing number of veterinarians have begun offering hospice care for pets.

Daniel Rosenbaum/New York Times

Denise Fitzmaurice (right) took her dog, Sophie, to Michele Price’s mobile veterinary clinic in Virginia. A growing number of veterinarians have begun offering hospice care for pets.

NEW YORK — More and more, cats and dogs get the human treatment. There are pet spas, pet therapists, pet clothes. And as it goes in life, so it now goes in the twilight. The latest phenomenon: pet hospice.

Across the country, a growing number of veterinarians are offering hospice care, and marketing it as a way to give cats and dogs — and their owners — a less anxious, more comfortable passing.

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The approach, in the spirit of the human variety, entails ceasing aggressive medical treatment and giving pain and even antianxiety drugs. Unlike in hospice care for humans, euthanasia is an option — and in fact, is a big part of this end-of-life turn. When it’s time, the vet performs it in the living room, bedroom, or wherever the family feels comfortable.

That is a big part of the job, the veterinarians say, relieving pet owner guilt, giving them an emotional bridge to a pet’s death, and letting them grieve at home — rather than in a clinic or animal shelter. The intimacy carries a premium, sometimes costing 25 percent or more than euthanasia in a clinic. Vets, and their customers, say it can be worth it.

“They’re in their own environment, not only the pet but the owners,” said Dr. Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love, a Florida-based company that is one of the leaders in a small but growing market.

“They’re allowed to have other animals present, other cats or dogs present, other children,” added Gardner, who refers to a pet’s owner as its “mom” or “dad,” and has since relocated her own practice to Los Angeles. “I’ve been to some homes where they had barbecues for that dog, and invited me and the neighbors, and the dog was the man of the hour.”

Lap of Love’s business has blossomed since 2010 from two providers to more than 68 vet partners in 18 states. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, a group started in 2009, now has 200 members, mostly veterinarians, but also several family therapists, lawyers, and an animal sanctuary in Northern California that takes in and provides holistic healing and hospice for terminally ill and elderly pets.

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“There is a formal end-of-life movement, a formal hospice movement,” said Dr. Eden Myers, a veterinarian in Kentucky who runs JustVetData.com, which tracks industry trends. Of the providers who do this, she said: “They’re everywhere.”

Dr. Amir Shanan, a veterinarian in Chicago who started the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, described the movement as growing, but still not mainstream; veterinary schools are only now embracing the idea.

“There are skeptics out there,” he said. “But 20 years ago, there was almost no one other than skeptics, and that’s changing rapidly.”

There are no formal standards for this hospice care, and Shanan said there was a debate about what those standards should look like.

“The core of the debate is who is to decide when is the right time to euthanize, if at all,” he said, noting that some hospice supporters advocate giving pets palliative care until they die naturally, as in human hospice.

Hospice and in-home euthanasia are different things. Their growth is owing to similar factors, said Myers, including a growing acceptance of hospice for humans, as well as cellphones, laptops, and online marketing that make mobile vet services easier to operate. Plus, she said, more vets offer the services as a business alternative to the high cost of starting and maintaining a traditional clinic.

“And,” she added, “you’ve got people willing to spend scads of money on their pets.”

‘You’ve got people willing to spend scads of money on their pets.’

Dr. Eden Myers, a veterinarian who runs JustVetData.com, which tracks industry trends 
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For pet owners, the financial implications of this end-of-life movement cut two ways. In one light, hospice can be seen as reducing the cost of aggressive medical care, or it can be viewed as its own version of aggressive comfort care, at least when compared with euthanizing a pet sooner.

A hospice or euthanasia visit from Lap of Love generally costs $200 or $250, including drugs. Euthanasia at a clinic typically runs less, though prices vary widely, and is even less at a nonprofit shelter. Some pet owners say costs are irrelevant given the peace of mind.

“It was more for me than him,” said Jan Dorr, of Boca Raton, Fla., who was an early Lap of Love customer in 2010.

Dr. Michele Price, a veterinarian in northern Virginia whose in-home end-of-care business has doubled since 2009 to 20 percent of her practice, got a call about an ailing Labrador named Champ.

She had first seen the dog in August when his owners thought it was time to euthanize. But when Price got to the house, Champ was doing OK, and she and the family decided on hospice treatment and pain meds. Later, Champ took a sharp downward turn and Price returned for the euthanasia.

Champ was on a quilt near a fireplace as Price administered the initial sedation. “They hugged him, and told him what a good dog he was,” Price said.

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