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Ithaca veterinary hospice service helps families say goodbye to pets

ITHACA, NY -- When Katherine Goldberg knew her dog Griffy's final days were near, she began preparing for his last moments. She knew she wanted to give him a dignified passing; after all, he'd been her close companion for the last decade.

"It was a powerful experience," said Goldberg, a veterinarian who now runs Whole Animal Veterinary, which offers hospice care to pets. On his final day, Goldberg took Griffy to their favorite field near Cornell University -- then covered in snow -- hung flowers around his neck and fed him his last meal of hamburgers. "It was beautiful. It created closure and peace of mind," she exclaimed.

At the time, she was working as a traditional small animal veterinarian but the idea of hospice care was already burning in her mind. She had been offering some clients in-home services but felt constrained by the hospital environment. "I saw a real need for comprehensive bond-centered care," said Goldberg, who graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004.

Not long after, she started Whole Animal Veterinary and receives four to five house calls a day, she said. "I come in between the time that the family is told there's nothing more they can do for their pet and euthanasia. That time frame can be considerable," she said. "What a hospice provider does is help navigate all of the decisions and challenges that come with comprehensive end-of-life care," she said. This includes grief management, she added.

Pet hospice is a growing trend in veterinarian medicine, according to the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. Modeled after human hospice, pet hospice emphasizes managing a patient's terminal illness while preparing the family for the end. Its purpose is to alleviate the physical discomforts and emotional stresses of dying.

Goldberg said that although the advancements in veterinarian medicine have given people more options, the choices are "dizzying." The decision-making process can be complicated.

"There are all these factors to consider, such as the ethical and religious decisions of the caregiver, not to mention cost," she said. Part of the process is allowing the space for grieving and respecting the relationship between pet and caregiver, she said. "It's a huge loss and people feel guilty for feeling that way because they think it's just a pet. But it's like losing a member of the family."

Losing a pet often marks the end of an era, Goldberg said.

"It's a precious time if we allow it to be. I believe so strongly that the end of a pet's life provides an opportunity for meaningful personal growth and peace of mind," she said.

Goldberg serves Ithaca and its surroundings, including Tompkins County to Interlaken and Mecklenburg, but will consider other locations, especially for hospice care, and phone consultations may be available for clients out of the area, according to the practice website.

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