In early 2011, Heather Merrill saw her first patients. These weren’t the usual patients her career in hospice care had brought to her; these were animals attending her then newly-opened New England Pet Hospice, a venture inspired by a friend’s elderly dog. 

“I saw she needed help and I assumed animal hospice care was out there, but it didn’t exist,” says Merrill, who is certified in thanatology, that is, the study of death, and translates her knowledge into helping with dying and bereavement. “So we explored what was needed and how to do it. Our experience with animals has proven very similar to humans. Each is very individual; there are fighters and there are others who are, ‘I’m done, I’m ready to leave.’ Our job is to help them spend their last days in comfort and dignity,” explains Merrill, who is one of the primary speakers at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention in Boston, July 10-14. 

But the New England Pet Hospice, which is based in Sudbury, isn’t only for dying and terminally ill animals. It provides a wide range of services to help animal owners struggling with age issues, chronic illness, or special needs. It isn’t just end-of life care, but quality of life care, for all types of animals. “The vast majority are cats and dogs, but we do have one tortoise,” says Merrill, who has three dogs and two cats in her own home. “Many of our staff are very experienced with horses, too.” 

Every family is different; each pet is different

“How we feel about life is generally how we feel about death,” Merrill says. “Someone who is loving in life is loving in death; someone who is angry in life is angry in death, and we see that in animals too. It’s very important to get to know the animal as an individual. Then you have an understanding of what they are going to want and need. There is no one answer for every family.”

It’s OK to cry

“We don’t attempt to not be emotional. It’s OK to feel sad when a patient dies. We hug a lot. We don’t have to be so sad when there’s a good death and it’s been comfortable and honors the animal. It is then extremely rewarding. Death isn’t the enemy.”

When to start thinking about hospice care

“The sooner the better,” Merrill says of when to seek advice. “They don’t need to be dying for us to help. It can start with home care and visiting ill, elderly or special needs dogs. Ours is an interdisciplinary approach and we can help the family care for the animal. This can help prevent what many feel is their only option, and an animal can be spared being euthanized. With support, visitation, nursing care, it is possible for people who are overwhelmed with caring for a sick animal to enjoy time with their pet again.”