Some veterinarians are building their practice on end-of-life house calls for people who want a familiar place for their pets' final moments.
Jim Schenning knew he was going to lose it, and he didn’t want to lose it in public.
So when the dreaded day came to end the suffering of his beloved Emma, an arthritis-stricken, 15-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Schenning didn’t go to his veterinarian’s office. Instead, he ended up cross-legged on the floor of his spare bedroom, crying quietly as Emma looked up from his lap. After a few minutes, he nodded to Julie Rabinowitz, a veterinarian he had never met before she arrived at his house a half-hour earlier. She leaned forward with a syringe. A little dog’s fatal dose of pentobarbital.
“There was no whimper. Her eyes just slowly closed,” Schenning recalled. “Dr. Julie waited two or three minutes and checked her heartbeat. She said in a quiet voice, ‘Jim, she’s gone. I’m going to let myself out now.’ “
The gentle death scene that recently unfolded at Schenning’s house near Catonsville, Md., was part of a growing at-home pet-euthanasia movement that is beginning to relocate one of pet ownership’s most painful rituals, the final, one-way trip to the vet’s office.
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“It really made a terrible situation much better,” said Wendy Bowlds, of Gainesville, Va., who in May had her elderly mutt, Niki, put down in her favorite spot, her dog bed in the kitchen. “There’s nothing so awful as leaving the vet’s office with nothing but the empty leash.”
Like a growing number of vets in the region, Rabinowitz, who is based in Baltimore, decided a few years ago to build her practice on end-of-life house calls for those who want more for their pets’ last moments than a frightened scrabble on a cold steel exam table.
At $200 for a sedative followed by the killing barbiturate, she charges more than twice what most vets do for an office euthanasia. But she has found no shortage of owners willing to pay the premium.
“Going to the vet was always stressful,” Schenning said. “I didn’t want her last day on this Earth to be, ‘Oh, no, we’re going into that white building.’ “
And if Emma’s last few minutes with her owner would have been traumatic, he knew his own first minutes without her would be just as bad.
“I would not be able to bear walking through the lobby sobbing with my deceased dog in my arms past some mother and child,” said Schenning, 47, an unemployed bank investigator. “I just envisioned, ‘Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?’ “
Back in the day, of course, it was common for family animals to die at home, whether from natural causes, a shot from the family rifle or a needle from the bag of a vet who routinely traveled from house to house and farm to farm. But the rise of clinic-based animal care meant that the most common scene of a pet’s demise shifted to an office setting.
Now it’s shifting back, according to Kathleen Cooney, a Colorado veterinarian who works as a consultant to practitioners getting into the home-euthanasia business. On average, three vets a month sign up for the national service she runs, the In Home Pet Euthanasia Directory.
“It’s definitely a wave for the profession,” said Cooney, whose own practice includes seven doctors who do about 45 euthanasias a week. “Once a practitioner performs a good in-home euthanasia, they realize how wonderful it is. The clients are just so grateful.”
Lauren Cates wanted to keep her dog Tip at home when lung cancer meant it was time to end his 18-year run as the family dachshund. One vet after another declined to come to her Arlington house, though, until she finally found Krisi Erwin, a Loudoun County practitioner who had just launched a home-euthanasia practice.
When Erwin arrived, a score of family and friends were circled around Tip’s blanket in the living room.
“Even the way they carried out his dead body was so beautiful,” Cates said. “We couldn’t have done it the same way at a vet’s office.”
The home setting allows for some very personal expressions of pet love and loss, Erwin said. In the three or four euthanasias she does a week, she has put animals to sleep in “favorite spots” ranging from front porches to under trees, even on the couches and cushions that might have been forbidden them in life.
At one Leesburg house recently, the death watch was more of a party. Grandparents and neighbors sipped wine and told stories about the old dog. The children had drawn pictures to be cremated with him. A 9-year-old boy never left his pet’s side until after Erwin had applied two sedatives and, when they were ready, the final shot. Then the boy went up and got the blanket off his own bed to wrap the still body.
“It’s so sweet and profound,” Erwin said. “The kids saw that death doesn’t have to be this horrible monster at the end of the book.”
In 2008, Rabinowitz, looking for a part-time practice to accommodate the needs of her young family, bought a Toyota Sienna and began offering euthanasia house calls.
“It’s seeing the men cry that really gets to me,” she said. “The big guys bawling over their cats. You feel so sad for them.”
For an extra fee, Rabinowitz will take the body for cremation and return the ashes in a wooden box with the pet’s name engraved on it.
But more than a third of her clients keep their pets for burial in the backyard.
“Some have very elaborate funerals,” says Rabinowitz, who always offers to help or stay if the family needs her. “I’ve heard some beautiful poems and prayers.”
She does also point out, gently and usually just once, that burying animals in the yard is against the law in many localities.
“They don’t seem to worry about it too much,” she said.
There are still do-it-yourself pet euthanizers, of course. Many families are fine with the time-honored merciful bullet, although not all want to be open about it.
“I don’t want you to publish my name because I think they’ve actually made it against the law” to shoot a pet, said a dog owner who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. She has used her .22 rifle to euthanize multiple family animals over the years, most recently a long-serving springer spaniel. She believes it is the most painless death for the pet.
“This is absolutely instant,” she said. “This was a quick end to a long and happy life.”
For his part, Schenning didn’t want to be the actual agent of death for his dog, but he definitely wanted to be holding her when it came. He knows that many people won’t understand what losing a pet means to a single man with no children. Schenning lived alone until he got another Jack Russell terrier, Kate, in August.
“Emma saw me through two job losses, the passing of my mother and the death of my best friend,” Schenning said. “She was here for me every day with her tail wagging. I wanted her last view of the world to be my face in the place where we spent our time together.”