Though I still stand by my cautions expressed in an earlier article in this blog about using veterinary care as a way to put off the inevitable when a pet is terminally ill simply because the human is unwilling to face the truth, this article does a wonderful job of explaining the difference between that and the positive intention of hospice care. I am 100% in favor of allowing our beloved animal companions to spend the end of their lives in pain-free comfort at home with us. A key part of this is that we are inherently accepting that their demise is imminent. We are not keeping them “hooked up to machines,” metaphorically speaking, just so we don’t have to say that final goodbye; not keeping them alive just because we have the medical science that enables us to do it. Hospice is a gift to both the animal and the human who embraces it. —Sid

Terminally ill pets and their grieving families find comfort in hands of hospice

By Cheryl Anderson • Post-Crescent staff writer • May 2, 2010


Ten years ago when Brenda Herubin and husband Bob adopted Woody, a yellow labrador/German shepherd mix puppy, Brenda thought she might have gotten more dog than she bargained for.

And she was right.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” is how the Clintonville woman now describes Woody. “Everyone says, oh my dog is so smart. But he does seem to be an intelligent animal. And you know labs, they like to please. He’s been great.”

When the couple learned in December that Woody had liver cancer, they understandably were devastated. They braced for the heartbreak to come.

Valarie Hajek Adams (right) director of Healing Heart Pet Hospice in Appleton, makes a house call to Woody, owned by Brenda Herubin of Clintonville. Woody has liver cancer. (Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada)

Lisa Peters, emergency and critical care veterinarian at the Fox Valley Animal Referral Center in Appleton, suggested hospice care for the terminally ill dog.
Enter Valarie Hajek Adams, a certified veterinary technician and founder of the Appleton-based Healing Heart Pet Hospice.

“She is so respectful and warm, such a great listener and source of comfort,” Herubin said. “Someone who I didn’t feel foolish to cry and talk about what he meant to me. … And so she’s my safety net with (Woody).”

Pet hospice is based on human hospice, which began in the early 1970s as an alternative for terminally ill patients dying in hospital intensive care units while undergoing heroic but hopeless treatment. Hospice provides compassionate care to patients at the end of their lives and also supports families in the bereavement process.

Nearly identical to its human counterpart, the purpose of veterinary hospice is to maximize the quality of life for terminally ill or dying pets in their own home, to embrace owners’ decisions concerning the remaining time they have left with their pet and to give dying pets and the people who love them quality time together.

“It’s just a matter of respect,” said Hajek Adams, director of Healing Heart Pet Hospice and president of the Healing Heart Foundation. “It is my job to support you in a compassionate and loving way.”

A CVT since 1972, Hajek Adams has spent the last 14 years working in emergency and critical care at the Fox Valley Animal Referral Center. The job was an eye-opener.

“We witnessed animals that we could cure and heal and they’d go home and animals that perhaps were at the end-stage of a disease process and all people wanted to do was get them home for a little while instead of (have them) dying in a hospital,” she said.

Extending palliative care to the owners of pets seemed a given to Hajek Adams, who spent two years researching the topic and hooked up with others already practicing pet hospice. People like Alice Villalobos, a well-known pioneer in the field of cancer care for companion animals, founding member of the Veterinary Cancer Society and creator of Pawspice end-of-life palliative care.

There also was the Colorado State University’s Argus Institute, which offers support to people who are facing difficult decisions regarding their pet’s health, and Dr. Amir Shanan, who has offered animal hospice for more than 15 years as owner of Compassionate Veterinary Care of Chicago.

Hajek Adams and a colleague also attended ThedaCare hospice training through ThedaCare at Home and found all the information concerning human hospice completely transferable to pets.

Research completed, Hajek Adams recommended starting pet hospice at the referral center, which fully supported the idea, but had just launched an ophthalmology department and, from a business standpoint, had to decline.

One of the veterinarians there suggested starting a nonprofit organization and backed the suggestion with a donation. Healing Hearts Foundation was launched with the premise it would sponsor programs honoring the spirit of the human/animal bond. The first program was the pet hospice, which began in May 2008. Also planned are a program on pet loss and bereavement and another on medical and financial aid for veterinary hardship cases.

Healing Heart Pet Hospice, which leases space at Fox Valley Animal Referral Center, is comprised of Hajek Adams and fellow CVT Christy Rach, Peters and Lisa Flood, also an emergency and critical care veterinarian. Forming a doctor/client/patient relationship is mandatory per Wisconsin law.

Once hospice is called, a CVT conducts an at-home assessment. The hospice care team then meets to discuss the pet, medications and problems, and to form the best plan to make the pets remaining days the best they can be. Cost is dependent on the intensity of care required.

Guy and Karen Smith’s purebred big standard poodle Monte, who died a year ago this week, was a prince among pups.

“You could live a hundred lifetimes and never find another one,” Guy Smith of Black Creek said, recalling the time four years ago when the poodle protected Karen from two charging pit bulls.

When Monte was diagnosed with cancer of the spleen at Fox Valley Animal Referral, Karen ran into Hajek Adams, who she’d met years before at a horse rescue. She offered her help.

The couple was told Monte could die in a day but for sure within weeks.
“We would have done anything for a day with him,” Smith said, still choking up.
Working with Hajek Adams and Rach, the Smiths did bring Monte home. He lived four pain-free days.

“It was wonderful,” said Smith, adding that Monte was a part of the family and, for them, had the same status as a child.

Like the Smiths, Herubin’s goal also is to help Woody live his best life now.
“(Healing Heart Pet Hospice) has the same philosophy that I do: quality of life,” she said. “As long as he has quality of life and wants to be around let’s do everything we can to keep him around. … It’s like every day is a gift.”

But there are a lot of misconceptions about pet hospice, Hajek Adams said. “We have a camp that thinks this is just a way to prolong life at any cost. We have another camp that says why don’t we just euthanize these animals.”

It also is a bit of a paradigm shift for those in veterinary care.

“This certainly is not for everybody but to give somebody the option is everything,” Hajek Adams said. “It is my job to give you information. It is not my job to tell you what to do. It is my job to give you all the tools to make a good decision as an advocate for your pet.

“At the end what we have with our clients is they are still sad but the regrets are not there because you have somebody walking with you, not ahead of you and not behind you but with you to make these decisions.”

Smith has felt that comfort.

“The last few days we had Monte at home was as normal as it could be,” he said. “If we would have taken another direction, we’d always have regrets and wonder if we did it right.”

“A common misconception is that hospice emphasizes death, which is not the case,” Hajek Adams said. “Hospice care is about finding hope.”

And it’s a dignified way to say goodbye to a beloved pet — a pet like Woody.
Most days, he’s perky and happy. But three times since December his tumor has bled into his liver, and one of these times it won’t stop when it starts.

“That will be his end then,” Herubin said. “And (Hajek Adams) said it should be peaceful and not painful. He’ll just get tired and feel kind of weak and just want to sleep.”

What is hospice care?
Hospice is not a place, but a compassionate philosophy focusing on death as part of life. Palliative care is provided to the terminally ill or dying pet in the comfort of home to maximize quality of life.
Hospice care is not an intention to cure disease but intends to prevent the disease process from causing further anxiety and stress on the pet and the family.
Hospice is not an alternative to euthanasia, but provides a safe and loving environment in which to say goodbye.

When to seek out veterinary hospice care
– When euthanasia is being given as an option
– When treatment is not elected
– When the prognosis is guarded or poor
– When treatment has been sought and the patient now is in terminal stages

Hospice info
For more information on Healing Heart Pet Hospice, call 920-993-9193 or 920-450-7805

Cheryl Anderson: 920-993-1000, ext. 249, or