Pet Tales: Hospice comforts animals and owners
Gina Spadafori and Drew, who is in hospice care.
McKenzie, a black flat-coated retriever owned by Gina Spadafori, has cancer.
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When a Brittany named Mandy was diagnosed with oral melanoma several years ago, Ralph and Irene Travis were told there was no available treatment or cure for their 11-year-old dog. Their veterinarian Joanna Rubin referred them to Nancy A. Ruffing, who operates Gentle Journey Veterinary Hospice in the Pittsburgh area.
"Thanks to Dr. Ruffing, Mandy lived for almost 18 months," Mr. Travis wrote in an email. "How do you say 'thank you' to such a loving, caring and knowledgeable person?"
Those 18 "bonus" months were happy and comfortable for Mandy, as the veterinarian made regular visits to the dog's Jefferson Hills home.
While Ms. Ruffing monitored Mandy's nutritional status and made sure she was not in any pain, "she became Mandy's friend. Mandy was always so excited to see her," Mr. Travis said. "Nancy also helped Irene and I deal with the mental anguish of Mandy's impending death."
Many Pet Tales readers telephoned or emailed to sing the praises of Nancy Ruffing after a May 26 column about hospice care for terminally ill pets. That column had some encouraging tips and suggestions from a California writer, but had no information about local resources.
Most of the readers who emailed were very happy to hear that veterinary hospice care is extending the life of two terminally ill dogs -- Shetland sheepdog Drew, 15, whose kidneys are failing, and flat-coated retriever McKenzie, 7, who has cancer.
Their owner, Gina Spadafori, is a former longtime journalist who has been writing about pet care and veterinary medicine for 30 years. Now she writes books and for a number of websites including www.vetstreet.com.
One Pet Tales reader expressed the concern that Drew and McKenzie are suffering and should be euthanized.
Ms. Spadafori said both dogs are eating normally, are pain-free, active and healthy. Drew was diagnosed nearly 10 months ago and McKenzie three months ago.
Two veterinarians -- Larry Gerson of Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic (who writes a bi-weekly Pet Points column for the Post-Gazette) and Alan P. Mann of Greentree Animal Clinic -- called to say they and many vets work with their patients on end-of-life issues, and they and many vets refer clients to Ms. Ruffing.
My advice is to ask your own veterinarian about all treatment options for any illness, including the last one. Don't be shy about asking about costs and about the positive and negative effects of any treatment or medication. The choice is ultimately ours.
Pet hospice care is relatively new, dating back to the mid-1990s, Ms. Ruffing said in a telephone interview. "I was drawn to it. It's definitely a growing movement."
She earned her doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Cornell University and had worked in emergency care in Pittsburgh for 10 years before starting Gentle Journey Veterinary Hospice in 2008.
Advances in veterinary medicine include better pain medications and more knowledge about how to use them to keep dogs and cats comfortable, she said.
Most pet hospice patients have cancer, major organ failure or crippling joint ailments, including arthritis.
Her hospice practice takes her to the homes of her patients because "I benefit from seeing them in their environment" and the animals are not as stressed or fearful as they would be in a veterinary clinic, she said. Her first visit generally lasts one to two hours.
Prospective clients do not need a referral from a veterinarian -- you can contact her directly at www.gentlejourneyvet.com or 412-801-1071. But she says one of the first things she does is contact the pet's regular vet to see the health records, and she prefers to keep in touch with the vets who earlier treated her clients.
"If you can keep them eating and wagging their tail" the hospice plan is working, she said. If the dog or cat "is not enjoying life we need to have a serious talk."
Her own website has helpful and comforting information, including this:
• Make every day precious. Sit next to them, lay down with them, stroke them, read to them, be with them in mind and body.
• Remember your pet can sense your emotions. Enjoy your time together and celebrate life rather than dwelling on death.
• When the time is right, give your pet permission to leave. If ever your pet's suffering cannot be eased, please consider euthanasia. Animals do not fear death. There are limitations on our ability to eliminate pain and suffering. A quality death is as important as quality of life.
For Mandy the day dreaded by the Travises arrived shortly before her 13th birthday. The couple called, and Nancy Ruffing quickly came to their home.
"We agreed it was time to let Mandy leave us. As I comforted Mandy on her bed, Nancy performed the euthanasia ... so compassionate and professional with a difficult task," Mr. Travis said. "Since then Irene and I have tried to enlighten others on the benefits of a quality veterinary hospice service."
Thanks to the Travises and to Gina Spadafori for sharing their stories, because we're all going to be there at some point. And thanks to all the caring and compassionate veterinarians who care for the animals we love.
First Published June 9, 2012 12:00 am