But some veterinarians and pet owners believe
that hospice care can be a viable and more humane
alternative to putting an animal to sleep. Animals,
like humans, they believe, seek solace in illness,
and respond to the caring touch of their owners
and other pets.
The hospice movement is slowly gaining validity.
Earlier this year, the American Veterinary Medical
Association approved guidelines for animal hospice
care. And across the country, more and more people
like Marino are following the models set by human
hospices, letting their terminally ill or disabled
pets live out their natural lives in their homes.
The Nikki Hospice Foundation, a California organization
that educates the public about pet hospices, has
set up a database of 60 veterinarians across the
country who practice hospice care. Veterinary
schools have begun to take notice of the trend
as well, introducing the concept in courses on
geriatric pet care.
Still, critics of hospice care say that no matter
how good the intentions of the caretakers, in
some situations, the pets may be put through unnecessary
pain and suffering. No certification is required
to run a hospice, which causes concern for some
animal advocates about the quality of care.
"In a vast majority of situations, you have
a true animal lover where it just gets out of
hand," said Bob Yarnall, chief executive
of the American Canine Association. "The
dogs can fall into an abused state of neglect."
Hospice care may not be an ideal alternative
for a dog who has bone cancer, said Yarnall. Dogs
afflicted with this disease have brittle bones
that shatter easily. In instances such as this,
Yarnall believes that the most humane thing a
family can do is to euthanize the pet.
"What kind of quality of life does a dog
have if it is drugged out all the time?"
But for some humans, hospice care for their pets
is the only solution.
When Diane Lanigan's dog, Pizmo, lost the use
of his back legs after a stroke, she refused to
euthanize him, despite her vet's recommendation.
She now brings him to Angel's Gate every day while
she commutes to work in New York City.
"Susan gives the animals comfort and the
dignity to die," said Lanigan. "It's
just remarkable that she can do this time and
Marino, a lifelong animal lover and a registered
nurse who worked with terminally ill children,
founded Angel's Gate nine years ago along with
her partner, Victor LaBruna, quitting her job
as a home-care nurse. The project snowballed from
To accommodate her charges, the couple bought
a 2,500-square-foot ranch house on an acre and
a third of land located on farm-zoned property.
The operation is an expensive endeavor. One full-time
assistant and half-a-dozen volunteers help run
the place, and the owners, who charge no fees
to take in the animals, count on private donations
to survive. They received $100,000 this year.
Marino spends several hundred dollars daily on
pet food, trips to the veterinarian, acupuncture
and Chinese herbs for therapy.
Marino has already spent her life savings and
both she and LaBruna haven't had health insurance
for years. But it's all worth it, she says, especially
when little unexpected miracles happen.
For 10 days, a wild rabbit that had been hit
by a car lay motionless in its cage. Marino did
not expect the rabbit to recover. Then, on the
10th day, it unexpectedly stood up in its cage.
"First steps here have a much different
meaning," said Marino, smiling.
Despite its unusual mission, Angel's Gate has
gained support from traditional vet practices
on Long Island, and many shelters refer animals
to her hospice.
"As long as the animals aren't suffering,
we support them," said Brigid Fitzgerald,
a spokeswoman for the American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "They should
live out their lives."
A walk through Marino's house is like a walk
through a pet lover's wildest fantasy. But it
has its sad side, too.
Dora, a beagle, drags herself around the living
room with her hind legs. Patches, a cat with a
condition that causes him to constantly lose his
balance, falls on his side, and then haltingly
gets back on his feet. In the back yard, Sarah,
a black pony with soft eyes, is prone to collapsing
Caring for sick animals is a full-time job and
can be draining. But advocates of hospice care
say it can be beneficial to both the spiritual
and mental health of the pet and its owner.
"Some people say, 'wouldn't is just be nicer
and less cruel to put animals to sleep?'"
said Dr. Kathryn Marocchino, the founder of the
Nikki Hospice Foundation. "I say, imagine
that you are the mother and father of a 3-year-old
child who is terminally ill. Would you want to
put them to sleep?"
Hospice care doe not preclude euthanasia. In
the nine years that Angel's Gate has been in existence,
Marino has euthanized half-a-dozen animals. But
she has watched hundreds of animals die naturally.
Usually, she says, they die alongside her and
LaBruna in their bed.
"When they are ready to die, they usually
let us know," she said. "Our hearts
are broken all the time."
It is Marino's hope that in the next five years,
Angel's Gate will become a model for animal hospice
care all over the country. She is in the process
of writing a book and has a growing mailing list
"Just because an animal has cancer, you
don't give up," she said. "We celebrate
their lives and let them live until they take
their last breaths."