When it comes time, pet owners are turning to hospice.
Illustration by Jon Krause
By all accounts, Cameron’s was a happy life. A handsome red-haired Norwich terrier, he made friends quickly and attracted attention wherever he went. The joke was that he probably thought his name was “Cute” because that’s what everyone said when they saw him.
His owners, Wendy and Matt Larson of Orinda, took him on frequent walks in the East Bay hills and brought him on vacations, including trips to Germany, Italy, and France. “He was very much loved, and he loved us very much,” says Wendy, senior vice president of a bank in San Francisco.
But everything changed one day last spring. “After he had his breakfast one morning, he went back into his crate”—where he usually slept—“and he just lay there, and he wouldn’t come out.”
The Larsons expected him to feel better within a few hours. But by evening, he was shaking with pain. They rushed him to an emergency veterinary clinic, but the vet couldn’t find anything definitive and sent them home with pain meds.
So began a series of veterinary appointments that ended a few weeks later, when Cameron was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left hind leg. The oncologist said he could amputate and start chemotherapy, but admitted this was only likely to extend Cameron’s life briefly.
The Larsons weren’t sure it was worth it. “We thought we would be putting him through tremendous pain for just another six months or a year,” says Wendy.
Another consideration was Cameron’s age. He was already 11, just a couple years shy of the life expectancy for Norwich terriers.
The Larsons weren’t sure what to do. So they brought Cameron home. And a few days—and many Internet searches—later, they reached Shea Cox. She is a veterinarian and the founder of Bridge Veterinary Services, which provides hospice care for ailing pets in the East Bay.
Pet hospice is a relatively recent development in veterinary medicine, which has been fueled by the growing affection we have, by and large, for our pets, says Cheryl Scott, director of the Health Sciences Clinical Faculty at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
“During the 1990s, we saw that people no longer had to hide the fact that their pets were considered more like family members,” Scott says. As a result, “veterinarians were increasingly asked to care for pets with the same resources and regard used in human medicine.”
These days, it is not uncommon for pets to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, and even transplant surgery. And owners don’t only want major medical interventions for their pets; they also are looking for “more options for end-of-life care, instead of just having one: euthanasia,” Scott says.
In 1997, Scott started a mobile vet clinic in Davis that was one of the first in California devoted to geriatric and hospice care for dying animals. Since then, scores of vets have opened mobile hospice clinics, and many vet hospitals have begun offering hospice services, including, in some cases, home euthanasia.
Hospice vets do various things. They monitor the condition and quality of life of their patients; they prescribe and administer drugs; and they work with owners on how to provide the best home health care.
Hospice care for pets can last from days to months—in rare cases, years—depending on how quickly the animals decline and what choices their owners make for them.
Shasta, a 15-year-old tabby with renal failure, was under hospice care for a little over a month before her death in October. During that time, Cox, the hospice vet, monitored Shasta’s weight and condition, gave her injections of a drug to bolster her sinking red blood cell count, and even devised a fish and supplement recipe that Shasta would eat when she lost her appetite.
Cox visited Shasta’s home in Orinda four times. Between visits, she exchanged regular e-mails and talked on the phone with Shasta’s owner, John Cleymaet, a retired pathologist.
Eventually, Shasta’s condition worsened, and she went into a steep decline. When death seemed near, Cleymaet arranged for Cox to return to the house
to euthanize his dying cat.
Sadly, euthanasia is a big part of the job for most hospice vets.
After my interview with Cox, who lives in El Sobrante, she was headed first to euthanize Jazz Cat at a home in El Cerrito and then to put down Mac, a Cairn terrier, at Brickyard Cove in the Richmond Marina. She told me later that Mac’s euthanasia took place at dusk and she kept thinking that “two suns were setting that evening.”
I asked her how she handled all the euthanasia.
“There’s not one where I’m not bawling right along with the people,” she says. “But for me, it’s how I would want it to be if it were my pet—at home, in a familiar place. And to be able to
give that to people—to have their pets not scared or stressed—is such a beautiful thing that for me, it outweighs the sadness.”
Which brings us back to Cameron, the little Norwich terrier with bone cancer. For the Larsons, the diagnosis led quickly to the end of the line. To keep Cameron comfortable, they had to give him so much pain medication that he was listless and slept much of the time. It soon became apparent that it was time to call Cox.
On the appointed morning, Matt Larson, a cycling coach, drove Cameron out to Borges Ranch for one last walk in the Shell Ridge Open Space.
“He loved it so much out there that he actually walked on his own for 10 minutes, which is amazing, considering all the pain he was in,” says Wendy.
But then he tired, and Matt carried him back to the car. They returned home, and Cox arrived soon after. They moved the coffee table out of the living room and sat on the rug with Cameron in the middle. “You could tell he was hurting,” Wendy says. “He just wanted to be still.”
The Larsons said their goodbyes, and then Cox injected Cameron with a powerful anesthetic. In 10 minutes, he was asleep. Finally, she injected him with the euthanasia solution, which stopped his heart and lungs within seconds.
Cameron was gone.
“We were all crying,” Wendy says. “But as sad as it was, we thought it was the best thing for Cameron.”