Cats and dogs are living longer these days. And more old pets is giving rise to more options for pet owners looking for pet hospice and end-of-life care.
Sharon Sernik shepherds her two greyhounds over to the feeding bowls in her Merrimack kitchen. The dogs tromp past a room that was probably meant for formal dining — but is now more like a canine retreat, with scattered pillows on a bare floor for the seven household pets.
"We’ve got a hydrocephalic dachshund and a twisted kitty."
Sernik’s love for animals is also a vocation. She’s a veterinarian with a practice dedicated to at-home euthanasia.
"I always feel it’s an honor to be invited into people’s homes. It’s really a privilege. The pet really never knows anything is happening. I come into their home. I bring treats and I spend some time in there and they get this little sedative and they fall asleep at home with their people."
Sernik says people plan farewells all sorts of ways. They invite friends, read prayers or poems.
In contrast to what vets might provide in their offices, Sernik says she offers a gentler transition for dying pets and the families caring for them.
"They understand there are things you can do at the end of life. They’re willing to talk to their vets about pain control, in some cases willing to do quite a lot, sometimes wheelchair slings, whatever it takes to keep their pets with them as long as possible."
Which is new, says Katherine Goldberg with the Veterinary Society for Hospice and Palliative Care.
"Traditionally, we have a system where we treat or we euthanize. It’s a binary system, really."
Allen Wachter is a vet in Lebanon. He says people now routinely do things for their pets that would have been inconceivable when he started practicing more than 30 years ago.
"Medications are changing. Opioids are now available. Chiropractic, acupuncture, which wasn’t traditionally used very often at all. We have feeding tubes, fluid therapy. There are strides all the time."
Wachter just launched a hospice practice. He says one thing that helped him make the decision is that people are more candid about their struggles with a pet’s illness or death.
Charles Gaudet and his kids flip through a photo album at his home in Portsmouth. Picnics and birthday parties chronicle the family milestones. A Bernese mountain dog, Monet, is always in the picture.
"She was a great dog."
When Monet got sick a few months ago the Gaudets sought out Katherina Brandt, a vet who specializes in hospice care.
"Monet had been diagnosed with a disease where the muscles aren’t working properly and she couldn’t open her mouth. We had to figure out a way to give her medicine and help her," Brandt said.
The medication made Monet comfortable. But then Brandt needed to get the family ready for the next phase.
"She told me to start introducing the children to the concept of death," Gaudet said, "and to involve the children in her care so that the kids could see her struggle and they could experience some of Monet’s frustrations, such as not being able to walk."
When the 90-pound Monet fell down, the three young children – all under age eight - helped to pick the dog up. And when the time came to put her to rest, the kids weren’t in shock. And they found ways to remember her, said Gaudet's son Branson.
"She was a good dog. And she was part of our family. The same day she died, we got a little stuffed animal of her, and we put the collar on it."