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A good goodbye

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Your best friend is sick, old, and clearly dying – deaf, perhaps, or confused, arthritic, incontinent, and may be hanging on just to cheer you up. This is the most critical moment in your relationship with your animal BFF. When is the right time to let go?

Most people, the first time, are wracked with guilt and wait too long, says veterinarian Kimberly Lavin. “It’s one of the most grief-stricken decisions we’ll ever have to make, and it never feels good, because we’re not built to play God. But it’s a blessing that we can.”

Lavin is one of two veterinarians in the Albuquerque area who offer the relatively new service of pet hospice and home euthanasia. Erin Deveau is the other. She opened the Albuquerque office of Lap of Love, based in Florida, in August. Lavin started her solo practice, Peaceful Home Passings, in 2012.

What both of them offer is meant to supplement, not replace, an animal’s regular veterinarian. Where our modern tendency to insist on a cure gives way to the age-old reality of aging and death, hospice programs fill the gap. As with humans, they are growing in popularity as society comes to grips with the limits of what medicine can do, and the desire for dignity in death.

The difference with pets is that the vast majority of clients wait until the animal’s decline has become an immediate emergency. Both Deveau and Lavin strive to arrive at a home within hours of being called, but their appointments are leisurely, lasting 1½ to 2 hours. The focus is on caring for the grieving humans and ailing animal in an atmosphere of calm, peacefulness, dignity and compassion. Quite often this involves reassuring people that euthanasia is the humane thing to do.

“A lot of people will go to the vet looking for an answer, and the vet’s going to say it’s time,” says Lavin, noting that the typical clinic euthanasia appointment lasts 20 to 30 minutes. “I will not pressure my clients. There’s time to discuss everything. Nothing’s rushed.”

An even kinder passage is possible for animals who get an appointment long before it’s an emergency, says Deveau. She devises a hospice plan for these pets, both to keep them from suffering and to help people learn to recognize the signs that quality of life is ebbing away.

According to the guiding philosophy at Lap of Love, there is not one perfect moment to make that decision. Rather, there is a subjective period of hours, days, weeks or months before suffering becomes intense, that euthanasia is appropriate.

Helping people navigate that period is a central part of their mission, according to the vets.

“While it’s always a sad experience, the opportunity to give the pet a peaceful, pain-free goodbye in the comfort of their home is such a pleasure,” says Deveau. Lavin calls it her way of “giving back to the community,” because her clients express such relief at finding peace with the decision-making process.

“People really need to look for the right kind of support,” agrees Ulla Pederson, founder of the animal sanctuary Kindred Spirits. Since 2002, Pederson has taken in dozens of older animals to live out their days on her property in Cerrillos, making her a kind of expert at helping them find their way “back to Spirit.”

Death is natural, she believes, and “it’s not a bad place, where they are going.” But it is also natural to grieve, and miss them, and cry.

If your dog or cat is old, says Pederson, you must face the fact that death is approaching, and start making preparations. Ask your veterinary service when they are available, what type of euthanasia they offer and what it costs, and then line up a support team of friends or neighbors if necessary.

“If you can tend to the practical things ahead of time, and have a plan, you can really be present with the animal and let them go. Then you don’t have to run around frantically trying to get all these pieces put together,” she says. “Then you can make decisions you can live with, so you don’t have to feel guilty for the next six years.”

Death, in this way, offers a beautiful opportunity to connect with others as well as with the animal, Pederson adds. “We are looking at this situation through so many different windows, and it’s one of the ways we can help and support each other.”