Also: Watch the two-part video
“Well, today is the day” read the email at the top of my in-box one morning in July. The email was from Melissa Weitkamp of Chanceford Township, and I had been expecting and dreading it. She was letting me know it was time for her family to say goodbye to their 16-year-old German shepherd, Smokey, whose health had deteriorated to the point where he was falling and was not able to get up, and he had lost control of his bladder. Weitkamp had made the difficult decision to have Smokey euthanized, and the vet, Dr. Elizabeth Carney, was coming to the house that day to end his suffering. Dr. Carney specializes in at-home euthanasia.
Weitkamp and Carney had contacted me about a week earlier to ask if I would be present for the procedure when they decided it was time. They had inited me to do a video and write about the process, in hopes of helping other families who might be considering in-home euthanasia for their pets.
When I arrived, Smokey was lying on a blanket on the living room floor, breathing heavily, his front legs splayed out to the sides. He was surrounded by Melissa and Ron Weitkamp, their 21-year-old son, Dylan, and their 12-year-old daughter, Destiny. The family’s other dogs, 5-year-old German shepherd brothers Phantom and Shadow, were also in attendance, staying close to Smokey most of the time. One of the family’s cats, Buttercup, was sitting on the sofa next to the blanket, offering comfort to Destiny. The family’s parrots were in the next room and were quiet for the most part, which I’m told is unusual for them. If you watch the video, you will hear them a few times.
Melissa explained what led up to the decision to euthanize:“The first time I noticed a decline in my boy was actually years ago,” Weitkamp said. “He woke up screaming. My husband said he never saw me jump up so fast. We were at the vet’s the next day. X-rays confirmed bony changes in his front shoulder from arthritis. Thus began our journey with anti-inflammatory and pain meds. He actually didn’t stay on them for long and seemed to be doing well.
“About 3 or 4 years ago, he had a lump on his leg. I wasn’t too concerned and Dr. Carney agreed to let it be,” Weitkamp said. “Well, it started to grow and was getting to the point where it was going to ulcerate. I scheduled him for surgery, although I was scared to death. Surgery always runs a risk, especially in older animals. I stayed by the phone all day and my boy came through. The tumor was cancerous, but they assured me they got clean edges. We never had a relapse.
“We had him on supplements for a while, as well as daily pain management as his arthritis got worse. Slowly, bit by bit, it was becoming hard for Smokey to get up,” she said. “He started to lose control over his bladder and started having accidents in the house. We tried different meds for his bladder but I never noticed much of a difference. It just progressively got worse and worse. By the end he had no control at all. I tried different diapers for him but none stayed on right. I finally found a company with a product called Tinkle Trousers. It’s like a harness thing, which you attach a regular baby diaper into. It worked quite well.
“I watched as my boy got thinner and thinner. Getting up from the hard floors was becoming impossible. He could still get up off the carpet but it was a struggle. I had to help him up and make sure he was balanced and steady. Smokey would fall at times as it was hard for him to stay balanced. Many times I would come home from work to find him lying by the back door looking at me as if to say ‘can you help me here,'” Weitkamp said. “He had good days and bad days. Just this last Christmas, he shocked me. Every year, Santa would bring the dogs a big, smoked knucklebone. Smokey knew this. I was the first up Christmas morning, went to let the younger dogs out and was getting ready to go back to my bedroom to get Smoke up. (That had become a morning ritual, getting him up.) I turned around and there was the old man at the tree, looking for his bone. He never ceased to amaze me or confuse me. That’s what makes it so hard. Even at the very end he was still so mentally sharp.
“Smokey’s bladder control was nonexistent by the end. I knew I was running out of time and decided to give Dr.Carney a call to get her opinion. We decided together that it was Smokey’s time to go. I kept hoping and praying that he would just go to sleep. Dr.Carney assured me that probably would not happen, because he was going to hold on as long as he could because he didn’t want to leave me. I was concerned he would fall and fracture something as he had become so frail, and then he would be in even more pain. It was time to let him go. That was extremely painful. I love that dog more than you can even imagine.”Smokey had been part of the Weitkamp family since he was a puppy. He was originally supposed to be Dylan’s dog, but Smokey had other ideas; he attached himself to Melissa instead.
“They have a real bond,” Dr. Carney said.
Melissa sat on the floor, hugging and kissing Smokey and telling him what a good, brave boy he was, and how much she loved him.
Dr. Carney explained the process to the family and had Melissa sign the consent form:
“Overall, my goal is to make this as peaceful for Smoke as I can.” That means that the first thing that I’m going to do is to give him a single shot of a combination of a sedative and a pain reliever. I’ll give that shot under his skin, between his shoulder blades, very similar to how we would give a vaccine. That’s going to make him feel drowsy; over a five-minute time period he’s just going to get really, really sleepy. Once he is relaxed from the sedative, the second shot I give has to go in the vein. I’ll use a front leg; I’ll put a little tourniquet on his leg. I may or may not have to clip a little hair, it just depends on how well I can see the vein. The second drug, once it’s all injected, takes effect quickly, so in under a minute he’ll pass. I’ll listen to his chest to make sure that I don’t hear a heartbeat.
“So, again, we want it to be peaceful for him. You guys can set the pace here, we can move along at whatever pace you’d like to go. As far as paperwork, I just have one form I need you to sign, an authorization form.”The family and Dr. Carney spent some time with Smokey, petting him, comforting him and giving him treats.
Then Dr. Carney gave Smokey the first injection, which was a painkiller and sedative to relax him. Because each pet is different, the time between the injection and full sedation/light anesthesia can vary between 5 and 15 minutes. When the sedative began to take effect on Smokey, Ron Weitkamp said a prayer, thanking God for allowing them to have Smokey in their lives for 16 years.
Smokey’s friend Blue, a Siberian Husky, died about two years ago. The two dogs had grown up together, and were best buddies. When Dr. Carney administered the final injection, Melissa hugged Smokey, telling him “I love you, you’re so brave. Go find Blue.”Dr. Carney checked Smokey’s heartbeat and said, “He’s gone.” We went outside to allow the family some time alone, and then transport driver Tom Krepps brought a stretcher and a quilted, dog-sized “sleeping bag.” Phantom and Shadow sniffed at Smokey’s body, as if saying their final goodbyes, and then the body was placed in the sleeping bag and on the stretcher. The dogs then sniffed all over the bag.
Melissa had opted to have Smokey cremated, so his body was then carried out to the van for transport to Peaceful Pet Passage’s main facility on the border of Monaghan and Fairview townships. She chose to attend the cremation, which is an option available to any clients having a private cremation.Melissa had opted to have Smokey cremated, so his body was then transported to Peaceful Pet Passage’s main facility on the border of Monaghan and Fairview townships. She chose to attend the cremation, which is an option available to any clients having a private cremation.
“Upon arrival (at the crematory) we were greeted very warmly,” Weitkamp said. “I was asked of I wanted to see my boy again. Of course I did. They led me to another room, and told me when I went through the door to look left. There lay my boy on a beautiful quilt-covered cart with his head resting upon a pillow and another quilt covering him up to his shoulders. It was the most beautiful, dignified thing; exactly what my Smokey deserved. I was told to take as much time as I wanted or needed.“I decided to be present during the actual cremation, as well. I was able to hug Smoke again and tell him I loved him before I watched the door open and they began to slide him in. I left then, and went for a walk outside.
“When it was all over I left with a beautiful wooden box with an etched nameplate that contained the cremains of my Smokey. I held the box all the way home.
Private cremations are also video-certified, meaning that the client receives a DVD documenting that only their pet was cremated.The other option is communal cremation, where several pets are cremated together. In that case, no remains are returned to the owners; they are all interred on the grounds of the PA State Pet Memorial. Pets cremated with either option are permanently memorialized on the Wall of Remembrance at the PA State Pet Memorial.
“I miss him so incredibly bad, but my faith tells me he is in a much better place with no more pain and I will see him again,” Weitkamp wrote in an email a few weeks later.
WHY AT HOME?
When Weitkamp was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in science with majors in veterinary medical technology and equestrian/equine management, she needed to find a place to do her internship.
“I just happened to be reading Smart magazine when I saw an article about Dr. Elizabeth Carney. (At that time, Dr. Carney was a mobile vet; she now specialized in at-home euthanasia.) I knew this would be a perfect fit for me, so I contacted her. We met up and the next thing I knew we were traveling the countryside caring for pets. I loved every moment,” she said. “People think I am strange when I tell them the most rewarding part of my job was the in-home euthanasia. It was not that I enjoyed seeing the owners’ pain, but rather it was how peaceful the whole thing could be. I have had to have many pets euthanized through the years but it was always in a vet’s office, the last place a sick or old, frail animal wants to be for their last moments with their owners here on earth. I remember watching an old poodle take his last breath curled up in his mama’s lap on a rocking chair by a sliding glass door. This was their favorite place to sit and watch the birds outside.
“I also remember an old dog and his little boy. The dog could not get up. He was outside on a blanket with his family around him. After we did what had to be done, Dr. Carney looked at that little boy with tears running down his face and said, ‘he says thank you.’ I knew when the time came, Dr. Carney would be the one to do it and that Smokey would be in his home surrounded by his family.”
Melissa now operates Lissa’s In Home Animal Care (lissasinhomeanimalcare.com), offering pet-sitting services in the southern York County area.
MEMORIES OF SMOKEY
After Smokey had passed on, we sat at the kitchen table looking at old photographs of Smokey, and Melissa shared some of her favorite memories of her faithful friend of 16 years. He was a protector, enforcer and helper.
“Dylan originally decided to name our new pup Brownie, but it just didn’t seem right, so we decided on Smokey. The very weekend that Smokey came home, Dylan got an ear infection. I can remember the two of them cuddled on the couch together.“Smokey was supposed to be Dylan’s dog, but Smokey had different plans. Dylan was always Smokey’s boy; however, I was his everything. He never really cared for Ron, only tolerated him. I always said they had a love/hate relationship. They loved to hate each other. Smokey only listened to Ron when he wanted to, and he didn’t want Ron anywhere near me.”
Weitkamp said she ran a home daycare for several years and that Smokey loved the children, especially the babies.“Women and kids were his thing; men, not so much,” she said. “He took it upon himself to watch over them all. Smokey knew when parents dropped off and picked up and never barked unless it was someone different or if they came at a different time. I used to take the children for walks, and Smokey would come along. He never needed a leash (we walked around the back through the woods and such, not on the road). Smokey would only go a bit ahead of us and circle back. He used to like to steal the children’s shoes from the back door. He also liked to grab hold of the back of their shirts and tug. He would stop as soon as I told him to but do it again as soon as I turned my back.”
“More than anything else Smokey just liked to be with me,”Weitkamp said. “I only boarded him one time, and it did not go well. His main concern when I picked him up was to drag me to my vehicle to go home. That was how he was anytime I took him anywhere. He would be content to stay in the vehicle because he knew it was mine. I took him to my mom’s once. He wanted out of the house. He made a beeline to my van. I left him in with all the doors open. That’s where he stayed until I was done. Mom even tried giving him treats, to no avail.”She said Smokey would play the enforcer when she sent her son, Dylan, to his room. “He would nip him in the butt and bark at him the whole way to the room,” Weitkamp said.
Weitkamp said her mother-in-law told her that Smokey always knew when she was coming home. “Normally that’s no big deal, but I never came home at the same time, each day was different,” Weitkamp said. “Somehow he always knew like 10 minutes before I got here. My mother-in-law said his whole demeanor would change.”
“After Smokey had his surgery, the staff (at the veterinary hospital) were very happy to see me and took me right back to his kennel,” she said. “The look of relief on my groggy boy’s face when he saw me melted my heart. He looked so confused until he heard my voice. The staff tried to adjust his wrapping and to help him in other ways. As was typical, he wanted no one to touch him other than me. They literally threw up their hands and said ‘go.’ I heard one nurse remark that ‘he’s a grouchy old man but he really loves his mom.'”
ABOUT THE CREMATORY
Rob Lauver opened Golden Lake Recreational Pet Camp in August 1987. While operating the pet camp, Lauver graduated from West Virginia Canine College. Some pet camp clients asked if their pets could be buried at Golden Lake, since they enjoyed the camp so much, which led to the creation of Companion Animal Cremation Service, the PA State Pet Memorial and Peaceful Pet Passage at 210 Andersontown Road, on the border of Monaghan and Fairview townships, near Mechanicsburg, PA.
For more information, visit www.peacefulpetpassage.com.
ABOUT DR. CARNEY
Dr. Elizabeth (Garver) Carney grew up in the Seven Valleys and Spring Grove areas of York County. After graduating from Spring Grove Area Senior High School, she graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor of science degree in dairy and animal science, then graduated from veterinary school at Iowa State University.
She moved back to York County and practiced companion animal medicine at Shiloh Veterinary Hospital and Old Trail Animal Hospital. She also worked as a veterinarian at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, and operated a mobile veterinary service for a while.
Dr. Carney now specializes in at-home euthanasia services for pets. She said her goal is to make the last moments of a pet’s life as peaceful and pain-free as she can.
She blogs weekly at www.yourpetsneedthis.com.