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Veterinary clinics are trying new ways to ease painful goodbyes

When Juniper, a pet rat, developed an incurable tumor, her owner, Chelsea Lincoln, chose to have her euthanized at a clinic that provided a "comfort room" and other services aimed at easing the process. (Chelsea Lincoln)

In December, Chelsea Lincoln’s pet rat, Juniper, developed an incurable tumor. Lincoln then faced every pet owner’s hardest realization. It was time to end Juniper’s struggle.

When the euthanasia appointment time arrived, however, Lincoln didn’t agonize with her ailing pet in a crowded reception area. Instead, she, along with Juniper and her partner, Rand Ryherd, both of Hillsboro, Ore., entered a “comfort room,” furnished with soft couches, calming artwork and a plush rug. Lincoln and Ryherd said their goodbyes to Juniper, then summoned the veterinarian with an in-room phone. Sad as she was, Lincoln said the experience was a relief — particularly after the long wait she’d endured when having Juniper’s sister, Holly, put down at another clinic.

Most U.S. pet owners have their ailing animals euthanized at veterinary offices, which are more widely available and typically less expensive than in-home euthanasia providers. But as house-call services have grown more popular, veterinary clinics have also sought to make end-of-life experiences more personal for both clients and pets, providing separate entrances, candles and soothing music, among other touches.

"The home euthanasias are still growing, but clinics are starting to recognize more how important it is,” said veterinarian Mary Gardner, who co-founded the in-home euthanasia network Lap of Love and regularly gives talks at veterinary conferences. “And they're stepping up now."

Several factors have affected this shift, experts say. Historically, veterinarians came to animals, but as the field — particularly the care of domestic pets — shifted toward an office setting, euthanasia began happening there, too. About a decade ago, animal hospice associations came together to begin discussing and sharing ideas about ways of “improving the experience,” said veterinarian Kathleen Cooney, who specializes in end-of-life care and runs a “comfort center” dedicated to hospice and euthanasia on her Loveland, Colo., farm.

DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital, the Portland clinic where Lincoln took Juniper, has had a comfort room since the 1990s, according to Enid Traisman, its pet loss support director.

"In the past 30 years, we've seen our animals come from our backyards into our homes and into every aspect of our life,” she said. “The entire human-animal bond industry has just exploded. It's been realizing these are family members. And they deserve the same care at end of life."

The American Veterinary Medical Association's euthanasia guidelines refer to this contemporary view of the importance of pets: “As society continues to pay more attention to questions about the moral status of animals, loss of animal life should be handled with the utmost respect and compassion by all animal care staff."

Some animal hospitals make arrangements for cremation and take payment over the phone in advance so that grieving owners don’t have to deal with paperwork or questions once they’re at the clinic. Cooney said she greets families outside and stays with them throughout the appointment.

The Nunda Veterinary Clinic in Nunda, N.Y., eases the experience with a battery-operated candle at the front desk that's paired with a sign asking visitors and staff to lower their voices while pet owners say goodbye. The comfort room at the clinic is “painted a very nice, calming green color,” said owner and veterinarian Ailsa Emo.

"It's more like someone's living room. There's a leather couch in there that’s really comfortable, a little bigger than a love seat, with a table lamp like you would have in your house instead of the fluorescent light shining down,” she said. A wheeled coffee table in the room can be used as a work surface for euthanizing a small pet or rolled away to make space for a larger animal to be handled on a blanket on the floor, Emo said. “It's a little more like being at home."

Dawn Wilcox manages East Valley Animal Clinic in Apple Valley, Minn, which has had a comfort room, at a quiet end of the lobby, since the facility was built in 2001. An interior designer helped choose tranquil colors for the drapes, and the room has a cushy chair where owners can hold their pets. She said clients appreciate having a separate space for euthanasia.

"They don't have to worry about going in there … when they come back with other pets, and don't have to be reminded of that all the time,” she said.

Clinics such as DoveLewis and Nunda Veterinary Clinic also offer memorial art featuring a paw print for a dog or cat, an ear print for a rabbit or a tail print for a rat. It is made in the clinic at the time of euthanasia, giving owners something to take home right away. DoveLewis holds a monthly workshop for people who want to place a pet’s ashes in a fused-glass piece of art, Traisman said.

"We also offer a clipping of fur, or if they want to keep the collar,” she says. “These are all considered linking objects, which can help facilitate a healthy grieving process."

Once the procedure is over, pet owners at DoveLewis can avoid a busy reception room by leaving through a rear entrance, a serenity garden with benches and a gurgling copper and stone fountain.

"So many people are torn up, with a tear-stained face and empty arms,” Traisman said.

When a person dies, others often have a funeral “as the celebration or the remembrance experience,” Gardner noted. “And it’s perfect: the flowers, the music, people say something. Well, the majority of us don’t do that [for] our dogs and cats. So the euthanasia is actually also the funeral for that pet. How can we make it less clinical and more experiential?"

For Lincoln, the details — including a heart design added to the box for Juniper's body — added up. She said she chose DoveLewis because of its euthanasia amenities.

"When all is done, the exit, so you don't have to face everyone with your face all red from crying — it's those little touches that make a big difference,” Lincoln said.

The stakes are high, Cooney said: “With euthanasia, there’s no do-overs, so you really get one chance to make this as perfect as you can."

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