Hospice Service for Pets Offered at MSU

Dec 7, 2011

In the last few days of a dying person's life, hospice care can provide comfort in the home setting. Now, the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine is offering hospice care for pets.

Brandt Peterson and Casey Williamson met in 1999 while walking their dogs Isabel and Suki in Austin, Texas. Isabel didn't easily warm up to strangers, but was affectionate with them. She also was very athletic.

"She would jump from the floor into my arms, with basically her head at my head level by the time I caught her.", says Peterson. "She climbed trees, fairly high up into trees, like 18 feet. So, that's Isabel."

"She did really bring something special to people's lives," Williamson says. "She was a special dog."

With the dogs, Williamson and Peterson describe their lives together as "the four of us".

Now living in Lansing, they were faced with Isabel's illness from cancer earlier this year. For help, they turned to the new veterinary hospice service at Michigan State.

"We learned how to care for a dog that became increasingly ill," Williamson explains, "and how to make decisions about Isabel's quality of life and when it was time to let her go."

Dr. Page Yaxley founded the hospice service. She believes this is only the second service of its kind being offered in the country, after one at Colorado State University. Yaxley's team of volunteers includes doctors, technicians, physical therapists and others. So far, the need has been small and that team hasn't been fully mobilized. Yaxley says hospice service focuses on how owners can comfort their sick pets.

"Learning how to maintain good hygiene," Yaxley says, "learning how to turn the patient, learning how to feed the patient, learning how to give the patient, maybe, some medications, either by mouth or under the skin, but largely not what we do here in the hospital with IV catheters and IV fluids and aggressive supportive care like blood pressure support and blood sugar support."

Dr. Yaxley notes that administrators in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine have backed her in offering hospice service.

"They recognize that this is a void in the current veterinary profession and that it is one that has gained recognition and one that the public is starting to demand," Yaxley says. "And so, they have largely supported the idea of this and have allowed me to open this service this year as a start."

Of course, pet hospice differs from human hospice in that euthanasia is an option. Euthanasia can be performed at home, where the pet and the owners almost certainly are more comfortable.

Thoralf Hoelzer of East Lansing used the hospice service when his 16-year-old dog Anna was diagnosed with renal disease.

"People always commented on her big ears for such a little dog," Hoelzer says. "She had huge, erect ears, and a very, very sleek coat, and a big smile. That's what made her special to me."

A veterinary technician at MSU himself, Hoelzer was able to help when Anna was euthanized in his home.

"What is different is the comfort that the dog experiences, or the animal, whatever animal it is," Hoelzer says. "The animal experiences being calmer than in a strange place, being at home, being surrounded by those who spend so much time with them."

Casey Williamson and Brandt Peterson had planned on euthanizing Isabel at home, but when an emergency brought them to MSU's veterinary center in the middle of the night, her condition had worsened to the point where it wouldn't have been humane to take her home. It wasn't their first choice, but they had her euthanized there.

Now, their other dog, Suki, has a rare form cancer. Peterson says as his condition worsens, they will again go to the hospice service for help.

"I mean, he's going to die," Peterson states. "We all are, but he's probably going to die from this cancer in his liver, and I think that there's no question that we'll be using hospice."

A final testimony to how Peterson and Williamson feel about the MSU Vet Med hospice service comes in the form of the newest addition to their household, a dog whose name is Millie Page that middle name in honor of Dr. Yaxley.