May 8 2013 12:00 AM

MSU vet helps pet owners with animal hospice care services

The death of a pet is often the first experience many of us have with loss. Dogs, cats, hamsters and rabbits all have shorter lifespans than humans, giving pet owners, especially young ones, an inside track to the pain of letting go. It’s easy for outsiders to dismiss it as “just an animal,” but a pet’s death is a pain that often runs deep. 

“Eighty percent of all Americans consider pets to be family members, and 30 percent of pet owners suffer debilitating grief when their pet dies,” said Page Yaxley, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University. “Losing a pet can be just as traumatic as losing a person.” 

Yaxley is the founder of Veterinary Hospice Care, which provides comprehensive in-home services for dying dogs and cats throughout the state. Care consists of mobility assistance, nutritional guidance, hygiene upkeep, wound management and pain management. She said that the care for each patient is tailored to that pet’s specific needs. The owner is usually required to fill in a key participatory role.

“These are people who want more options than just euthanasia or letting their pet suffer,” Yaxley said. “We provide a means for people to give their pets a comfortable, stress-free lifestyle when it gets close to the end.”      

Yaxley said she was inspired to launch a hospice care service because of a gap that she saw in her own training.

“Most vets receive less than one hour of end-of-life care as part of their education,” Yaxley said. “We are just not trained to deal with this aspect of veterinary medicine, and we often fall short when dealing with clients. Medical doctors have a core curriculum in end-of-life care, and it’s shocking that we don’t — especially because we’re trained in euthanasia.” 

Yaxley, 36, said that her experience in losing her own dog — and the lack of empathy she found in her fellow vets — triggered her interest in starting a hospice care service. She said she pitched the idea to MSU’s veterinary college in 2010 and began servicing clients about a year later. Since then, Yaxley said that she has seen over 100 patients — and had to temporarily stop taking on new clients recently due to demand. Most of her patients comes from referrals from either former clients or the MSU vet school. Prices depend on the distance she needs to travel and the care that´s required. 

“There are other pet hospice services around, but only two in the country are based out of a veterinary teaching college, and the other one is in Colorado,” Yaxley said. “Because we’re based out of a college, we can offer a level of expertise that other services just can’t provide.”  

Okemos resident Mary Ferro was referred to Yaxley in March when Gus, her 10-year-old English bulldog, developed T-cell lymphoma.  

“My vet never suggested euthanasia,” Ferro said. “When they referred me to hospice, that was their way of saying Gus was at the end and that I’d have to make some tough decisions.”

Ferro said that Gus died in comfort on March 22 and is buried in the backyard. Pearl, Ferro’s other British bulldog, was diagnosed with a heart mass soon afterward and also came under Yaxley’s care. The 10-year-old dog’s health deteriorated quickly, and last Saturday she also died at home. Ferro, 57, said she’s had dogs “off and on” throughout her life, but found a special kinship with Gus and Pearl. 

“There’s just something about English bulldogs—their personalities are so unique,” she said.  “Page was a big support and a good source of comfort for me through this difficult time. I never wanted to take (my dogs) somewhere where they’d be scared, and she made everything so easy at home. My dad was in hospice — it was great for him, and I’m so grateful that they offer this for pets, I think this is a wonderful program.” 

Yaxley thinks pet hospice care will become more popular in the years ahead as public demand grows and medicine improves. She offers her services to pets throughout Michigan (she’s traveled as far north as Petoskey) suffering from chronic debilitating illness or terminal illness. For now, Yaxley only offers care to dogs and cats, as hospice care focuses on pain management and it’s difficult to gauge the pain of other species. 

“Our goal is to provide comfort,” Yaxley said. “The difference is that people can tell you how much pain they’re in and where it’s at. We don’t have that luxury with animals — they hide their pain — so we just do the best we can. It’s a non-stop learning process.”