Lap of Love is a nationwide network of veterinarians who help people care for their beloved pets at the end of life. Recently, WAG caught up with Mary Gardner, who with fellow veterinarian Dani McVety, founded the service, which has a Westchester County presence.
How does Lap of Love differ from a people’s hospice?
“Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice differs from human hospice in that everything is done within the home. There is no facility or hospital to visit. Although some people experience hospice care from home, it is just one viable option available to them. The other major difference is that when the family and veterinarian feel the pet’s quality of life is no longer sustainable and the pet is suffering, we can perform humane euthanasia. Otherwise, the two concepts are similar: Both veterinary and human hospice are centered on quality of life for the patient and support for the family. It’s about caring when we can’t cure.”
How does the service work?
“All of our veterinarians travel to the family’s home. This allows us to evaluate the pet in their own environment, which is crucial to appropriate treatment and long-term care. Seeing how the pet navigates in their home, interacts with the humans and furry housemates, where and how they are fed, where they sleep, how they sleep, etc. all help us come up with a hospice plan. Usually visits are once and the veterinarian develops a hospice plan, prescribes medications or exercises for the pets and then checks in frequently with the family to see how the pet is. This can be done via phone or email. Occasionally families want us to return for multiple visits to reevaluate the pet.”
Tell us about the service’s origins.
“Lap of Love started in Tampa in 2010 and has since grown to 42 locations in 21 states with over 60 veterinarians helping thousands of families each year.”
What drew you to this kind of veterinary practice?
“Veterinary hospice is definitely not for everyone. Just like human hospice is not for every doctor or nurse. But I love it. The last few weeks and days are so meaningful to the owners, and it is the precious human-animal bond that drew me to this niche. Allowing owners to care for their pets when they are usually so hopeless gives me a great sense of fulfillment. If I can make the final memories good ones, then I have done my job well.”
How did you become interested in veterinary medicine?
“Actually, the death of my own dog in my 20s is what drew me to veterinary medicine. Her passing was very impactful in my life and I wanted to help people who loved their pets as much as I did. I knew I wouldn’t be able to save every pet and cure every disease, but I can still care for pets. I think that is also why end-of- life care is so meaningful to me.”
I think one of the biggest issues in losing a pet is that there are fewer avenues for grieving than there are when you lose a person. Is there less compassion toward animals and those who love them?
“I actually disagree. There are the same avenues for grief when it comes to losing a pet. Some people question God and their religious belief system after losing a pet. Some people fall into deep depression and have even committed suicide after losing a furry child. However, the social aspect is different. There is still a large population of our country that thinks dogs and cats are ‘just a dog’ or ‘just a cat.’ They can’t understand why people grieve so much over them. The social aspect can be challenging to owners. They may feel like no one understands what they are going through; their friends/family may not be there to support them; or they feel like something is wrong with them for caring so much.
“Luckily, pet loss support groups are growing around the country. There are even wonderful hotlines to help people who need to speak with someone who understands. I’ve been in some situations where the pet is the last reminder of a spouse that had passed, or even the pet of a child that had passed. That tie to the lost human is strong and when they lose that pet, it is like losing the person all over again. I don’t know if there is less compassion towards animals. I feel we live in a society where the majority of us have compassion for animals. But the bonds we have with our pets do vary. It is important to respect someone’s path through the grieving process and not judge their feelings.”
Tell us about your own personal experience with pet loss.
“The first pet I remember losing was Snow White. She was a Samoyed and she died when I was 29. She was my first dog and I got her when I was in high school. She is the reason I became a veterinarian. I have since lost two dogs and two cats — all in different ways. My Doberman Neo died when I wasn’t home. That was horrific. So many of us want them to ‘die in their sleep,’ but I wanted to be there for him, to tell him how much I loved him and to make sure his death was a good one. I didn’t get that chance. I lost a cat, Herbie, to lung cancer. I euthanized him myself. Then I lost my second Samoyed, Serissa, last October. I promised her that I would not let her die alone and scared. I said goodbye to her on a good day, surrounded by love, good food and good friends. I also euthanized her myself. Most recently, I lost my cat Goldie to a coyote. This has been hard for me, because she is just gone. I didn’t get to hold her, to make a paw print and to make sure she didn’t suffer. But with all the loss and tears, I can’t imagine my life without them all. Each was a beautiful chapter in my story. And I will always continue to have pets. I couldn’t imagine my home without one.”
What’s the biggest challenge pet owners face at the end of their beloved pet’s life?
“Deciding ‘when is time.’ That is the most common question we hear and there is no black or white answer. That time is dependent on the pet’s ailment, how they are dealing with their ailment, the pet’s personality and the owner’s belief system. My goal is that all pets pass peacefully, with dignity and on ‘good days.’ It is difficult for me to watch the pets that are suffering and the owner’s still aren’t sure if it is time. I do my best to help guide them during this difficult time.”
Should people who are losing a pet immediately adopt another?
“Some should. It really depends on what’s going on in the family’s lives. Some need a new love right away. Some need time. There is no right or wrong time to adopt a new one. I euthanized Serissa after four months of hospice. It took a toll on me caring for her at the end. I physically was not ready for a new pet. Often, owners are up late, their pet is panting/pacing/barking at night, the owners are worried and anxious and physically exhausted. It’s OK to take that time to get yourself back into a good place.
What would you say to those grief-stricken pet owners/readers?
“You’re not alone. Many of us — including myself — grieve over the loss of a pet. They are not ‘just a dog’ or ‘just a cat’ — they are our co-pilots, our companions, our best friends and they leave paw prints on our hearts. It may help to make a scrapbook or a memorial of your pet or even a donation in their name. One day, thoughts of your pet will only bring a smile to your face. And thank you for loving a creature so much. I’m sure they love you just as much.”
For more, visit lapoflove.com.