Lutz vet performs in-home euthanasia for owners of sick pets
TAMPA - Buster's back legs were so rickety he had to have assistance just to stand up. He had to be carried up the stairs to go to bed at night. At 14, he took as many pills each day as an old man would. A crushed pelvis earlier in life, severe arthritis later on and then a diagnosis of cancer of the spleen. When his owners decided it was time to end his suffering, they opted not to load him into the car and drive him to the veterinarian. After all, it was a place he had spent far too much time in, a place he had come to loathe.There, they would have had to sit in a waiting room surrounded with cute, playful puppies as their old friend was in his final minutes. Then they would be taken to a sterile room where Buster – whose better days involved play dates at the dog park and chasing a ball -- would be put on a stainless steel table and euthanized. Instead, Bill and Kristen Johnson called Lap of Love, the creation of a Lutz veterinarian who saw the need for pet owners to have options when it comes to the stressful decision of when it's time to end a sick pet's life. Dani McVety, who grew up in Odessa and graduated from Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the University of Florida, arrives at the Johnsons' home in South Tampa in the middle of the morning one day recently. When she gets to the home, Buster wobbles his way outside to greet her, joined by the family's other dog, Emma. Buster, a lab mix, still can wag his tail, walk around and greet people like a normal dog. But he no longer can climb the steps to or inside the family's home. "He can't do steps any more. We have to carry him," Bill Johnson says. "We have a sling." When the couple would go upstairs to bed, Buster would always want to come upstairs as well. "He wants to be where people are," Kristen Johnson says. "Especially Bill." Bill Johnson acknowledges that the decision to call McVety was a tough one to make. "This is really hard," he says as Buster lays on his big doggie bed next to the fireplace. "He doesn't show pain. He's still at the door every day when you come home." But with the cancer of the spleen diagnosed, the Johnsons were worried his spleen would rupture one day while they were not home and that he would bleed to death internally. They didn't want that. They wanted to minimize his suffering. So McVety first gives Buster an injection meant to relax the dog. Buster lays his head at Bill Johnson's left knee as he kneels right by the bed, his one hand rubbing and petting the old dog's head and neck. He feeds him treats that Buster crunches on. Kristen Johnson is next to him, holding one of Buster's front paws. Emma is next to her, watching the whole scene. After a few minutes, McVety shaves a small patch of fur on Buster's left rear leg, the one that is so wobbly he can't climb those stairs or get up on his own. As she puts the injection in the dog's leg that will end his life, Bill and Kristen keep touching Buster the whole time. They want him to know he is not alone. Within a couple of minutes, Buster's breathing slows and then stops. The only sound in the room is the ticking of a clock. McVety checks for a heartbeat with her stethoscope and finds none. The pain, the suffering for Buster is now over. "Thank you," Bill Johnson whispers to McVety. While the Johnsons go in another room for some private time, the veterinarian's work is not done yet. She makes a paw print of Buster's big left front paw – so big it fills the entire soft clay circle. She takes off his blue collar – covered with plenty of Buster's white hair – and puts it on a table along with a keepsake for the couple. "Our beloved Buster," it reads, "peacefully left this earthly existence to wait for us by the Rainbow Bridge on this day, Sept. 30, 2011. A cherished member of our family will always be missed." Bill Johnson helps McVety move Buster from the pet bed to a stretcher, then helps her take the dog outside to the vehicle. Emma tags along, watching her trusty canine friend being loaded into the black Chevrolet Suburban. She stands up on her hind legs, her front legs on the rear bumper of the vehicle, trying to see where Buster went. For a brief moment, she tries to jump into the back of the Suburban as well. A couple of minutes later, McVety is back in her vehicle, headed for another appointment with a 19-year-old cat in Clearwater. Tigger has oral cancer and her owner has made the decision to end her pain. "It took me about 200 of these not to cry," a soft-spoken McVety says as she leaves the Johnson house. Bill Johnson knows that life will be different at their house without Buster, whom the couple had for seven of his 14 years after adopting him from the Humane Society. The old dog won't be at the front door to greet him anymore. And he won't be getting as many physical workouts as he did before. "I'll have to go to the gym now because I won't have to carry him up the stairs," he says. Buster loved to chase the ball in the back yard or head to the Davis Islands dog park. He also enjoyed long walks in the neighborhood. "He was just a great companion," Bill Johnson says. "At the end of the day, he liked being able to sit on the front porch. He would watch the world go by. He was always just there." Bill Johnson says he wouldn't have wanted to change a thing about having to say goodbye to his dog in his living room, Buster at peace and comfortable with his own surroundings. "He was relaxed even before the shots," he says. "It was just his place." Cynthia McClellan is another pet owner who has secured McVety's services. She had to call her when Milky, her son Oliver's cat, became ill suddenly. The family did not want to take the feline to a vet to have it put down, she says. "A lot of times animals associate the vet with a place that isn't fun. It's not like they are happy to be there," McClellan says. "It's not like they are at the dog park. If you have an animal that is sick, just moving it from your home to the vet to euthanize is uncomfortable." The Tampa woman heaps high words of praise on McVety, who though she is 29 shows "maturity beyond her age." "I think she has a tremendous love for animals," McClellan says. "I think she is totally assisting them. We are so grateful. It was a beautiful experience for having to lose a pet." McVety has done more than 1,000 in-home euthanasia visits the last couple of years and says the number may be closer to 1,500. She does maybe 10 to 15 a week. The basic cost for her service is about $195. A typical euthanasia at a veterinarian's office can run about $75. It's not just dogs and cats she is called for. She has also euthanized three potbellied pigs. "I was going to do a wallaby one day and it died before I got there," she said. The same was true for a peacock. She thinks that one day, the hospice-type care for pets at home will be the norm and not the exception. "There's such a need for this," says the mother of two children who also has two dogs at home. "This should be the normal way to say goodbye to your animal. As pets move from the barnyard to the bedroom, we begin to have different wishes for them." McVety has a few rules she follows when making a house call. She always calls ahead so they know exactly when she will be arriving. She never rings the doorbell so as not to stir up the animals inside. And she never listens to the final beats of an animal's heart with her stethoscope because that's just too tough. Once the body is in her car, where most of them are transported for cremation, she doesn't turn on the music. "I try to be as respectful as possible," McVety says. "I treat these animals as if they were mine." That's one reason she leaves each owner with a paw print they can keep forever. "I think it's the most important thing that I do," she says. "It's a direct representation of what that pet was to them. The urn is just a box with ashes. "But for them to see the paw print that walked through their house for 10 or 15 years, that is the most important thing that I do."
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