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Nobody says, “I hope I die in a hospital bed in the ICU in a lot of pain.” If you were to query your friends, most people would probably say, “I hope I die at home in my sleep.” (In fact, according to some surveys, as many as 70 percent to 90 percent of people would prefer to die at home.) The uncertainty of knowing when and where we will shrug off the mortal coil is a great source of angst for many of us humans. Dogs and cats have it a little different.
We have a unique opportunity in veterinary medicine to provide more control over the circumstances of a loved pet’s passing than our colleagues in human medicine, because veterinarians are entrusted with the significant power to provide euthanasia. And although we have been easing the medical aspect of the death process through the choice of drugs in our arsenal, only recently have some veterinarians come to embrace the emotional aspect of the process by providing a service many people desperately want: to say goodbye to their pets at home.
“My first home euthanasia in 1994 was a life-changing experience for me,” says Dr. Amir Shanan of Compassionate Veterinary Care in Chicago. “It was a couple who had taken care of a quadriplegic 80-pound Doberman who had surgery for cervical disk disease and was never able to get up after the surgery. They had cared for this dog for eight months before realizing there was no hope.”
He pauses. “There were a lot of tears and hugs, and I walked out of there thinking, Wow. There must be a lot of other people who would prefer this over the stainless steel table.” Shortly thereafter, Shanan placed his first ad in the yellow pages for in-home euthanasia services. At the time, he said, that was practically unheard of.
“The clinic setting is limiting,” Shanan says. “In general, households are a much more personal interaction with the client. They are in an environment that is more conducive for them to express their feelings, more so than in the clinic.”
As more people began requesting this service, more veterinarians began tooffer in-home euthanasia. “Home euthanasia is almost getting to be mainstream,” Shanan says. “It’s not where we were 10 years ago.”
In 2009, Shanan founded the nonprofit International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care to address the growing prevalence of home-euthanasia providers and provide guidelines for “comfort-oriented end-of-life care.” He sees this type of service as much more than just showing up and administering an injection.
For Shanan, offering home euthanasia is just one component of creating a better end-of-life experience for pets and owners. “People want support, help in making decisions, from the perspective centered on their needs and values,” he says.“They want someone helping them figure out what’s right for them. A lot of times, that’s the piece that’s missing more than anything else.”
However, euthanasiashouldn't be confused with hospice care for pets, a relatively new option in the animal world. Hospice carecan be provided after a pet has been given a terminal diagnosis and is intendedto keep the pet comfortable until natural death or euthanasia.
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