When an animal struggles with an insurmountable medical condition, pet owners can be strongly – and sometimes immediately – urged to euthanizein the midst of emotional turmoil and confusion. Many owners might not feel that they or their pet is ready to let go or say goodbye, but until recently didn't realize that pet hospice care was an option.
In 1996, when her thirteen-year-old silver Tabby, Nikki, was diagnosed with severe kidney failure, Kathryn Marocchino wrestled between veterinary advice and her own instincts. After many emergency medical consultations and failed treatments, Nikki faced a hopeless prognosis.
Marocchino finally decided to euthanize though she felt deeply uncomfortable with the sterile environment in which her cat died. “When I walked out of that hospital, I pledged to find a more creative path,” Marocchino said.
A college professor also trained in human hospice care, Marocchino immediately called several hospice programs, hoping to find a similar program for pets. Nothing came up. One hospice worker encouraged her, “I don’t know of anything, but that’s a very interesting idea.”
InspirationInspired by the compassionate teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, the humane beliefs of Rabbi Avraham Kuk and the “Ahimsa” doctrine of Eastern religions, as well as her own hospice training, in 1998 Marocchino founded the Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets. Based in Vallejo, Calif., it is the first 501c3 non-profit organization to promote home-based pet hospice care.
In the course of her research, Marocchino came across another pioneer in the field of pet hospice care – New Hampshire-based veterinarian Eric Clough. From the beginning of his veterinary practice in 1969, Clough learned that in order to enjoy his work with animals, he would need to be comfortable with death and dying. By the early 90s, he was influenced by the work of his wife, Jane, a practicing nurse and human hospice administrator. Clough noticed that by using the hospice focus on pain relief and comfort as well as home care, his clients were more satisfied with their experience – even though the end result was the same.
“One time we scheduled a home euthanasia for a dog who was much loved throughout the neighborhood. When the owner called and asked if neighbors could come, we weren’t expecting thirty people! Everyone wanted to say goodbye. It was a very rewarding experience,” Clough said.
“Hospice care gives you the opportunity to say goodbye to your pet, rather than take the animal to the vet and never see him or her again,” Clough said. “The underlying philosophy is not about treatment, but to make the animal comfortable and provide them with a kind death.”
Gaining momentumWith the overwhelmingly positive reception of hospice practices among many pet owners, and the subsequent emergence of many more pet hospice centers around the country, it’s a philosophy that’s gaining momentum.
In 2001, The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) formally approved guidelines for Pet Hospice Care. Moreover, the International Symposium on Veterinary Hospice Care marked the first gathering devoted to the philosophy and work of the pet hospice movement. The symposium featured world-renowned practitioners of veterinary hospice care, and explored the needs of both people and animals allowed to die in the comfort of their own homes.
“I think we’ve been uncomfortable talking about death and dying in the United States,” Marocchino said, “but everyone I know who chose pet hospice care and comes back to me says they have no regrets. They felt supported in their choices and know they did absolutely everything they could for their pet. In many ways, helping your pet have a ‘peaceful passing’ can lead to ‘peaceful grieving.’”