Pet hospice services offer quality of life over quantity
Back in his younger days, Buddy was a bit of a terror, as far as cats go.
It wasn't uncommon for the Russian Blue house cat to sneak into the kitchen or living room, wait patiently for his moment to strike, then steal pieces of pizza, burritos or other foods right off someone's plate, racing off with his prize like a great lion having taken down a gazelle.
But today, the 16-year-old feline would rather sit, purring softly in the lap of his owner, Midway resident Amber Neufeld, as she scratches his chin.
Buddy has been with Neufeld his entire life. Purchased as a kitten during Neufeld's college days, he moved with her to Texas, and then to Oregon several years ago. He has seen graduations, marriages, the birth of Neufeld's son, and many other life events, Neufeld said.
"Breakups, moves, he's been through it all with me," she said, stroking the cat's fur and feeding him a small treat.
As Buddy aged, he found it more and more difficult to get around. His once-study frame began to wither. A few months ago, Buddy began losing control of his bladder, and his arthritis made it difficult for him to step into his litter box.
For the first time, Neufeld began to think about putting the cat down, but she said she wasn't sure how to do it.
Like many cats, Buddy hates the car, Neufeld said. He's not fond of the veterinarian's office, either.
"It's so stressful for him to go to the vet," she said. "He gets really distraught. The thought of taking him to the vet at this age? We couldn't do that to him. We couldn't put him through that."
Instead, Neufeld turned to a fast-growing segment of veterinary care: In-home pet hospice, which has helped make Buddy, and the Neufelds, more comfortable in the cat's last remaining days.
Across the country, more and more veterinarians are offering house calls to care for pets in their fading years.
Veterinarian Lori Braun said pet hospice is more than a fad for pet lovers — it's a philosophy about how pets should be treated at the end of their life.
"Most people, when they pass, want to be at home with their family, where they are comfortable and happy," Braun said. They want that for their pets as well.
Braun works with families who want to make their pets' final days comfortable, prescribing medication or treating issues the pets might be experiencing. When the animal is ready to move on, she euthanizes it in the home, so families don't have to take the animal someplace stressful.
"Death isn't hard on the dying," she said. "I may be helping the cat or the dog, but really, it's about the family."
Braun, a vet with Florida-based Lap of Love, offers hospice services from Woodburn to Sandy to Forest Grove. Lap of Love is one of several Portland-area pet hospice organizations, but Braun said the practice is still not widely known among the general public.
End-of-life care is something every pet owner must deal with, but Braun said many people don't want to say goodbye to their pets.
"It's a conversation nobody wants to have," Braun said.
For many families, pets are more than just animals, they are beloved family members, Braun said. Emotionally, losing a pet can be as traumatic as losing a close friend.
That can lead to families making difficult choices for their pets, often focusing on keeping pets alive for as long as possible, rather than what's best for the animal.
"When we look at our own pets, we look through our heart-lens," Braun said. "We want to focus on the good. We all know how much they should be eating, but what often happens with older pets, they don't eat as much or as well, but we will still say, 'Yes, but they are eating.' But is it enough to sustain themselves?"
Braun said educating pet owners about their pet's medical condition is the most important aspect of her job.
Buddy has been on hospice since last fall. He was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection and treated. Neufeld purchased a new, lower litter box that is better for his arthritis, and she made a small room for him away from the home's other pets, where he can be safe during the day.
"He's a happy old man," Braun said, examining the cat on a recent afternoon. "He doesn't have a terminal disease. For him, it's just old age. In the end, it will come down to when his quality of life isn't at the point you want for him."
Neufeld called Braun a "blessing" for her family.
The prospect of taking Buddy to their veterinarian — located a half-hour from their rural Hillsboro home — was unbearable, she said.
"I didn't want that to be the last moment of his life, that stressful experience," Neufeld said. "That's hard to think about doing. It would have been a pretty awful experience. This is a lot less stressful, and it gives him more time."
Braun checks in weekly with families, usually via email, to get updated on their pets' progress.
Braun started working with Lap of Love more than a year ago. She said that although her job is often sad, it's fulfilling.
"When I graduated veterinary school, I never would have thought, 'Death, that's for me,'" she said. "But the truth is, anybody can see the beauty that comes with birth, with beginnings. That's easy. There is beauty in the ending, too."
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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