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Dog with tongue out

Animal hospice care lets owners say goodbye to pets at home

Ruby died near the dining room window in her navy blue dog bed, the same one she’d slept on for years.

There was no stressful car ride. No cold exam table. Just her favorite people all around as she received a final injection and slipped away.

The process saved her owner, Rebecca Burcham of Oak Hill, the agony of leaving a veterinarian’s office with only an empty leash and memories of Ruby spending her last moments in a place she hated.

“Most people don’t want to die in the hospital, and I think pets are the same way,” Burcham said.

It’s a more common scenario as pet hospice, around for at least two decades, gains momentum. Nationally, about 1 percent of pet owners have used the services, said Dr. Amir Shanan, a Chicago veterinarian and International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care board president.

He expects the number to grow quickly as pet owners become willing to do more for their animals. Ruby’s hospice veterinarian serves double the patients this year over last.

“There’s a lot more going on in this field than two to three years ago, but it hasn’t reached its potential,” Shanan said. “The status of pets in our society is drastically different than what it was 10-20 years ago.”

Burcham knew she wanted to say goodbye to her 13-year-old beagle-shepherd mix at home, so, when the time came, she sought the services of Brentwood-based Buttercup’s Pet Hospice. The business provides end-of-life animal care that can include home euthanasia.

Ruby was diagnosed with cancer in June and given a prognosis of two to six months to live. She remained healthy for about four months before she stopped eating and became lethargic. She didn’t leave the house to play. The disease silenced her barks at passers-by.

“It’s a difficult decision to end your pet’s life, but to have the backup of a veterinarian to help you make it — to me that is priceless,” Burcham said. “It’s almost like you can look in (your pet’s) eyes and see them telling you it’s time to go.”

On the day of the procedure, Dr. Anne Stanland and Buttercup’s hospice team spent time with Ruby to make her feel comfortable. Then Stanland administered a sedative to relax the dog and relieve any anxiety.

Ruby lay there peacefully, barely moving. Burcham consoled Ruby like a mother would her ailing child, freeing herself of any guilt, knowing she had exhausted all other options.

After Burcham and her husband, Stan, said their goodbyes, Stanland administered the injection that stopped Ruby’s heart. Burcham gathered enough strength to help carry her 40-pound dog, wrapped in a blanket, to Stanland’s car for a final farewell.

“I was bawling like a baby because I knew it would be the last time I would see her,” she said. “She was my baby, but there is some peace knowing that she is not going to suffer.”

Suffering is eased

Stanland began Buttercup’s Pet Hospice part-time in 2007. A 23-year veterinarian, she felt bonded to the animals and their families and realized that helping pets die gracefully would be a meaningful service.

Similar to human hospice, Stanland works with pet owners to make old and ailing animals comfortable in their homes during their final days. She offers pet owners information on treatment and surgery options and tells them the signs to look for to recognize when the end is near.

She still does routine animal care in an office, but her hospice patient load is about 15-20 pets per month, double last year.

“That part of their life is viewed as one giving up, but it can be a very enriching experience,” she said. “It’s a natural progression, and I felt there hadn’t been enough attention paid to it.”

No strict rules

Most people want to do the procedure at home, in the pet’s favorite room or the backyard. Stanland accommodates their final wishes. There are no strict rules, she said. Her service, which averages about $150, also includes a keepsake lock of pet’s hair and plaster paw print.

For pet owners who choose cremation, Buttercup will take the body to a crematorium and deliver the urn afterward, but cremation costs extra and, based on weight, starts at $150.

Dr. Elizabeth Strand, director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, recommends discussing end-of-life care with the pet’s veterinarian well in advance to find out all the options.

“It prevents the owner of feeling that guilt of having to kill their best friend,” she said. “For veterinarians who offer hospice, their main concern is preventing suffering. They provide all the medical needs so that animal is comfortable.”

'Sad, but relieving'

It was stressful for Sonata Stanton-Rayburn to watch her black-and-white Pekingese suffer from continual backache. He was 16 years old, and the pain would make him sometimes whine. Limp back legs made climbing stairs difficult. Stanton-Rayburn sometimes carried him herself.

But Percy had seen snapshots of her life that many others had not. He moved with her from Knoxville to Nashville after she graduated college. He comforted her while she went through a divorce. The two celebrated when she found love again and at the birth of her son.

Percy wasn’t just a dog, he was family.

“He was that constant companion,” she said. “People who weren’t even big fans of dogs liked Percy. He made a big impression on me.”

Stanton-Rayburn couldn’t fathom the thought of ending her relationship with Percy. She and Stanland tried other treatments, but Percy’s pain wouldn’t subside. She realized euthanasia would be the only option.

“Making the decision is the hardest part, and the actual act is sad, but relieving,” Stanton-Rayburn said. “I had been battling the decision for months, and I probably should have done it sooner. With Anne Stanland, I just felt a real sense of comfort.”

Percy died in June sitting on his bed in the living room. Before Stanland gave him the last sedative, Stanton-Rayburn lay by his side and thanked him for 16 wonderful years. She hugged and kissed him.

She left the room before the last injection. Stanland completed the procedure and wrapped Percy in a blanket.

When Rayburn heard the door close, she knew Percy was gone.

Contact Nancy DeVille at 615-259-8304 or, or follow her on Twitter @devillenews.

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