From a young age, pets play a major role in many of our lives. Studies show people have a special bond with their pets, often considering them a best friend or family member.

But during end-of-life care, pets aren’t always top of mind, and terminally ill patients and their families may not have the ability or resources to care for their pets or place them after the patient’s death.

That unmet need became clear to hospice leadership at Janesville, Wis.-based Mercy Health System after conversations with various hospice patients and families.

Those conversations were the catalyst for Mercy Hospice’s Pet Peace of Mind program. Developed in partnership with Banfield Charitable Trust, the program supports the relationship between patients and their pets during the patients’ time in hospice, and offers relief during this difficult period.  

“Hospice’s goal is to support a compassionate, respectful end-of-life process,” says Mercy Health System President and CEO Javon R. Bea. “Pets offer unconditional love, acceptance and companionship during a time when terminally ill patients need it most. Our goal is to keep pets and their families together by providing volunteers to help hospice patients with their pet care needs.”

Since Mercy Hospice rolled out the program in 2012, volunteers have cared for nearly 40 pets. They accept dogs, cats, birds, fish – just about any legal pet. Volunteers are trained and provide services that cover the continuum of pet care, from daily chores like walking and feeding, to taking pets to the vet and providing placement for the pet after the owner’s death.

The hospice volunteers’ involvement in Pet Peace of Mind earned Mercy Health System a 2014 AHA Hospital Awards for Volunteer Excellence or HAVE Award for community service programs. The awards honor exceptional volunteer efforts that provide distinguished service to hospitals, patients and communities.

Banfield Charitable Trust came up with idea for Pet Peace of Mind. The non-profit organization leads a variety of initiatives in support of pets and began working with hospices on the program in 2009. It has 100 partner non-profit hospices in its network, and another 300 in the pipeline who have expressed interest in starting their own programs.

“When people hear about the program, the perception can be why is hospice getting into the pet care world? But it’s really about extending hospice services,” says Dianne McGill, executive director and CEO of Banfield Charitable Trust. “It is hospice’s basic mission to provide support for the entire family network. For some hospice patients, their family is furry or feathered.”

The service is designed to be integrated as just one of many components of hospice care. Banfield Charitable Trust works closely with non-profit hospices to tailor the program to meet their needs and capabilities. The hospice decides on the services they want to offer and how to roll out the program. In addition to a grant, Banfield Charitable Trust provides the hospice with training, materials and support.

McGill says Pet Peace of Mind has helped more people in the community come to understand and appreciate what hospice care is all about. Hospices also are connecting with potential new donor and volunteer pools that would not have otherwise existed.

“These services really make a difference in the patient’s life,” she says. “Once people discover what hospice does, donors fall in love with the hospice mission and become supporters of the entire hospice program.”

Local businesses, including pet boarding, grooming, walkers and veterinarians, can get involved with Pet Peace of Mind by volunteering, donating resources, or providing services for free or at a discounted rate.

At Mercy, they work with local animal rescue, groomers and veterinarians and are able to offer veterinary consulting services at no cost.

“Once pet providers learn of our program, they are more than happy to do whatever they can to help us with our mission of keeping patients and pets together during their hospice journey,” says Mercy Health System’s Bea.

“Every patient’s family served through the program has commented on its uniqueness, and they’re extremely thankful,” he adds. “Without assistance, most pets would not receive the necessary treatment and care they deserve.”

Community Connections

For more about Mercy Hospice, click here. For information on starting a Pet Peace of Mind program at your local hospice, click here. For more on the HAVE awards, visit www.aha.org, click on AHA Awards under News Center, and then go to Hospital Awards for Volunteer Excellence.