Veterinarian specializes in expanding field of end-of-life care for pets

Dr. Kendra Healy held Vickie Olivo's dog, named Tuesday, at Olivo's home in Midway. Healy is associated with Lap of Love, a franchised veterinary hospice practice.
Dr. Kendra Healy held Vickie Olivo's dog, named Tuesday, at Olivo's home in Midway. Healy is associated with Lap of Love, a franchised veterinary hospice practice. Herald-Leader

MIDWAY — Vickie Olivo's house is filled with aging critters: an Australian Shepherd who was supposed to be only a temporary guest, a Maltese missing front teeth, a flock of cats and a friendly Great Pyrenees called ZeZe, whose playful paw nudges pack a powerful punch.

Olivo's menagerie includes no spring puppies or kittens, so she faces a lot of potential old-animal problems: heart concerns, tooth problems, hygiene problems and loss of coordination.

That's why she has regular appointments with Dr. Kendra Healy, the area representative for the Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-Home Euthanasia chain.

Although some Lexington veterinarians offer home visits and home euthanasia, Lap of Love specializes exclusively in care of older animals for whom death will come sooner rather than later. A basic visit is $225 for hospice consultation or euthanasia, but fees vary a bit with distance driven, weekend appointments and the size of the animal.

"This is not 200 years ago, when we had animals with a purpose, a job," Healy said. "Now they're here to be our friends."

And Healy will tell owners if she doesn't think the animal is ready for euthanasia.

"We're not doing this to cure a disease," said Healy, who also has practiced veterinary medicine in south Florida and Colorado. "We are here to help with the end of life."

Healy started her Lap of Love practice in April. Her practice concentrates on making the last days, months and years of an animal's life comfortable and pain-free. For example, when they can no longer climb stairs or make a clear jump onto their favorite resting place, animals might need ramps and stools for mobility.

Pet hospice practices are springing up across the country, reflecting two factors: an older pet population and owners who are willing to spend on their pets as they would on their human family.

Dr. Eden Myers, a Kentucky veterinarian who runs the JustVetData website, has seen it happen.

"One of my most memorable interactions as a veterinarian was sitting with a client in the middle of the night, in an empty ER waiting room in West Virginia," she wrote in an email. "We had just euthanized his elderly cat, that he had brought in after a period of decline. He didn't have the money to treat her, as she was in a state of advanced disease, so we gave her pain medication and fluids and warm blankets. She purred for the first time in weeks, and he sat with her for hours. He told me when he left — it was about 5 a.m. by then — he was going to the human hospital, where he would have to watch his own mother die slowly, in a hospital bed under identical harsh fluorescent lights that stayed on around the clock."

Myers said the point is simple: "We love everyone we love. Even in areas without money or education, like that poor area of West Virginia. This trend will not slow or stop. ...This is one of the reasons Lap of Love has taken off as a business the way it has."

Dr. Eric Headley, who owns Chevy Chase Animal Clinic, has some concerns about practices that are limited to hospice care. He likes to care for animals over the full course of their lives and not just at their death, he said. Constant contact gives him a complete body of knowledge about what's normal with a particular animal over the course of its life, he said.

"Say you've been seeing me for 12 years, and I know the dog," Headley said. "That client relationship, that's very special."

But, he said, each pet and pet owner situation is different.

For Healy of Lap of Love, the goal is to allow the pet to have more good days than bad. When that balance shifts to more bad days than good, she'll need to have a conversation with the client about options that are available.

At a consultation appointment, she will examine the animal and ask the owner questions about their concerns: Is the animal incontinent? Can it move well and without apparent pain? Is it eating enough and staying hydrated?

For example, Healy said, with heart-disease patients, breathing can become difficult, causing them to become anxious.

Olivo's Maltese, named Tuesday, can't go rocketing off the bed any more, which saddens Olivo.

"She would launch off my bed like Superwoman," she said.

The lack of front teeth means Tuesday's tongue won't stay in her mouth any more. Still, she is active and friendly and eats well with her back teeth, Olivo said.

ZeZe, the affable Great Pyrenees, is getting some cloudiness in her eyes, an examination reveals, but she can still see pretty well. Olivo will receive some wipes to clean around ZeZe's mouth so the area does not become infected.

None of Olivo's animals are being considered for euthanasia. In fact, Healy estimated that they probably have years of life before them.

The questions can be more gut-wrenching for owners of animals closer to the end: What would the owner want the animal's last day to be like?

Healy lets the pet and pet owner set the pace, with final euthanasia for the animal being done outside, or in the car, or "wherever the animal is most happy."

Healy will take clay paw prints and a clip of the animal's hair for the owner. She also provides assistance with cremation of the pet's remains if needed, and a follow-up consultation.

"We help people decide when it's time," she said. "We don't want anybody in pain. We don't want the owners being miserable because it's so difficult to care for the dog."