Services smooth the way for end-of-life pets
ST. PAUL — Yvette Flores knew her dog was going to heaven, but she didn’t know how.
She wept as veterinarians presided over the death of her cancer-wracked dog, Betty, in her living room. They waited until the dog was sedated and happy, with two dogs lying beside her, and then gave her the fatal injection.
After more tears and prayers and goodbyes, they gently lifted Betty onto a stretcher with sheets and a matching pillow, to take her to a crematorium.
“It was just beautiful,” said Flores, of Inver Grove Heights. “My dogs are my family.”
People like Flores don’t bury their dead pets in backyards any more. A surging end-of-life pet industry now offers almost every service offered to people, including hospice care, cremations, obituaries and grief counseling.
“It is incredible how this is growing,” said Rebecca McComas, owner of MN Pets in Oakdale, which euthanized Flores’ dog in 2019.
When McComas started the business 10 years ago, she thought it would be a part-time job. But now she employs 13 veterinarians in the mobile euthanasia business.
“They can each do up to five a day,” she said. “The demand is enormous.”
‘Pet owners expect that’
The pet-death industry is growing across the country. The animal-hospice movement has its own trade group — the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, which has gone from 50 members to 300 in 10 years.
America’s biggest end-of-life provider, Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, burst onto the euthanasia scene in 2009 and has rolled into 34 states, including Minnesota.
Providers scoff at the idea of treating pets like … animals.
“My competitors work the animal model,” said Skip Wyland, co-owner of Pets Remembered Cremation Services in New Brighton.
To him, that means treating animals disrespectfully. He says he uses the “human model” before, during and after the cremation.
“Pet owners expect that,” said Wyland.
Based on hospice
Doug LeMay, owner of Pet Hospice Mn of Roseville, said his business is based on the hospice movement, which strives to make terminally-ill people more comfortable before death.
He will normally get a call about a pet with an untreatable condition, such as arthritis. He sets up a schedule of regular visits to administer pain-killing drugs. The visits continue, sometimes for as long as a year.
At that point, the euthanasia services are waiting.
MN Pets’ McComas said the pets are placed where they feel comfortable — in the owner’s lap, on a bed, or perhaps a warm spot by a fireplace.
A medication is given to make the animal sleepy, she said. After that takes effect, the veterinarian gives the lethal drug. “It stops the heart and the breathing,” said McComas.
The visit takes about an hour.
“It’s almost strange, but that is the most wonderful part of veterinary practice,” said McComas. “It is the most honoring and sacred moment, to be able to be there.
“People say, ‘I never thought this would be beautiful,”’ she said.
‘Pets are family members’
About 90 percent of her customers want the veterinarians to remove the animal corpses — and a growing number of pet crematoria is ready and waiting.
Pets Remembered began nine years ago, when co-owner Wyland converted an auto garage into a pet-sized crematorium.
“You can drop off a pet here, and it will never leave,” said Wyland.
The capacity of the oven is 200 pounds. “No horses,” he said.
He incinerates the animals one by one — because that’s how corpses of people are incinerated.
“We feel pets are family members. We work on the family model,” said Wyland.
Most services handle dogs, cats, gerbils, rabbits, rats, ferrets and pot-bellied pigs. The Lap of Love website also mentions fish and birds.
‘The owner and the pet’
Providers feel called to offer another new service — grief counseling.
“For me, there are two patients — the owner and the pet,” said LeMay of Pet Hospice Mn.
With every visit, said LeMay, he helps the owners cope with the imminent loss of their pet.
Lap of Love veterinarian Jessica Bollinger said the support is part of her job.
“A lot of it is hand-holding with clients. Some people living in the city never have seen the natural death of an animal before," Bollinger said. “Sometime you need permission from someone else to let go. I tell them it’s going to be hard on you no matter what happens. But we do not want your pet to suffer.”
The grief is unpredictable
The grief felt for the loss of pets is unpredictable, said Wyland of Pets Remembered.
“It’s just like you grieve differently over a 94-year-old grandmother than you would a 17-year-old daughter,” he said. “People establish relationships.”
Wyland, too, offers psychological support for the owners. His crematorium has a small reception area — almost like a funeral chapel for people.
Business is increasing for the entire end-of-life industry, said Wyland, because people seem to care more about their pets than they did before.
And there are more pet-owning households — 67 percent currently have them, according to the U.S. census. “If you have pets,” he said, “you will understand what we do.”
Obituaries as well
McComas of MN Pets encourages people to write obituaries for their pets — just as they would for a relative.
Facebook is a popular place for the obits. “People write the most touching tributes,” said McComas.
Flores, whose dog was euthanized by MN Pets, recalled her family putting down the family dog when she was 16. They drove to the vet’s clinic, and watched the dog get a shot. It died, right on the table.
“That was it. They give him a shot and we walked out of there,” she said.
That will never happen to her three dogs, she said. “My dogs are my family. That’s why I work. I work to give the dogs a better life.”
A better death, too. She said she will be calling MN Pets again, when their time to die approaches.
“They made it a little more loving for the dog,” she said, “and for me.”