Losing a pet is one of the hardest things that an animal lover will endure. Though all the good times shared together make it worth it in the end, when it comes time to say goodbye, it can really help to have an understanding caregiver guiding you through a process that, in addition to being fraught with emotion, can be confusing and stressful.
We talked to one such caregiver–Karen Randall of Solace Veterinary Hospice, who provides a unique brand of hospice and in-home end-of-life care–about how to ease the inherent pain of this time for both pet and person.
Left: Karen and her dog Izzy
Sidewalk Dog: How did you get into end-of-life care for animals?
Karen Randall: I have been a small-animal veterinarian for almost 20 years and have been providing some level of end-of-life care for my entire career. Recently, through personal loss experiences and some exceptional clients and patients, I realized that there is a serious gap in the care offered in traditional practice. As a profession, we are outstanding at providing cutting-edge diagnostics and treatments. What happens when there are no cures, or treatment fails or is declined? Often the result is a bewildered animal guardian, and often, premature euthanasia. More and more pet owners see their animals as full members of their families and they are aching for support as they deal with their impending loss.
SD: Tell us about what you do. How is your practice different from a typical vet’s?
KR: My initial consultation with a family involves an in-depth discussion of their concerns, expectations, goals and fears, including their feelings and wishes surrounding natural death and euthanasia. I also discuss their comfort with delivering different types of care and their openness to nontraditional treatments. Every family is unique. I do an environmental assessment, paying special attention to what can be changed (in the home) to make life easier and safer for my patient and their family. Medical records are reviewed and a physical exam is performed with an emphasis on identifying pain/discomfort… Within 48 hours, a hospice plan is presented to the family for their review and implementation. This plan has patient comfort at its core. Follow-up visits depend on the family’s needs and the anticipated progress of the animal’s disease. My clients have unlimited access to me by phone and email for support. I also provide in-home euthanasia as a conclusion of hospice care and also as a separate service when hospice care may not be desired or appropriate.
My visits occur exclusively in the patient’s home. This allows me to spend time with the animal and its people in a place where they are most comfortable and honest. I have had patients (mostly golden retrievers and labs) who are bouncy and happy in the veterinary clinic, completely masking the pain they experiencing in their everyday life. I see that pain. In most cases, I work with an existing diagnosis, so my practice focuses on care that makes the animal comfortable, rather that diagnostic tests and treatments that cure.
SD: When facing the end of an animal’s life, what do you think is most important?
KR: People need to follow their hearts and be an advocate for their pets. This is the time to try and see the world through your pet’s eyes. I see pet hospice as helping animals to live fully in the midst of a terminal diagnosis. I encourage clients to remember that hospice isn’t all about treatments and medications, it’s about finding ways to bring joy into as many moments as possible for your pet. I am constantly amazed at the creativity of the families I work with. Some families have a bucket list for their pets. This might include visits to favorite places, visits from favorite people and favorite activities and foods. When a pet can no longer walk around the neighborhood and visit friends, a wagon can replace a leash.
When caring for a dying pet, it is easy to become lost in anticipatory grief. People need to honor and respect their own emotions. Talking and crying with friends, family, or a professional can help you honor your emotions without having them overshadow the care you are providing for your pet. Practicing self-care and asking for help can only enhance your experience with your pet. The families that choose hospice do so because they feel they are honoring the bond they share with their animal and thanking them for many years of unconditional love and devotion. For some families, an in-home euthanasia, done peacefully and gently, can serve the same purpose.
SD: Does it ever get emotionally taxing to work with people who are losing their pet so often?
KR: Yes, of course. I have days when I wonder if I will have anything left to give, but they are rare. Mostly I find my work joyful. I know that it sounds like an odd choice of words, but there is something wonderful about making a very difficult time easier for animal guardians and their animals. To be invited into someone’s home during such an emotional time is to be invited into a sacred space. I am honored.