This part of our newsletter is a feature on someone we’ve come across who is a hero for animals in this world. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, all colors, and walks of life. Our heroes could be clients of ours, or someone we meet in the many communities we serve and places we visit.
At HousePaws, we celebrate the human/animal bond every day in our practice. We love finding people who show the strength of that bond. We find them inspiring and hope you will too!
HousePaws Q&A with Michele Allen & Monkey’s House Dog Hospice & Sanctuary
HP: This month’s HousePaws Animal Hero is Michele Allen & Monkey’s House Dog Hospice & Sanctuary. Michele, many people have seen and read about Monkey’s House online on your fb page Monkey’s House Dog Hospice and Sanctuary, www.monkeyshouse.org and on television features like this one. For those who haven’t heard about Monkey’s House, can you tell us about your decision to start a non-profit organization dedicated to providing life-long hospice care for terminally ill homeless pets?
Michele: Knowing that homeless dogs with terminal diagnoses are being put to sleep in America’s shelters is something that haunts me every single day. No one wants to talk about hospice care or managing end of life challenges. So everyone is struggling, everyone is inventing the wheel. It’s time for that to change. Many of these dogs were loved but their owner died, others were not so blessed, regardless, allowing their life end in a scary, loud shelter is doing them and us a real injustice.
HP: The inspiration of your organization was a little shelter dog named Monkey who, because of serious health reasons, was deemed unadoptable by the shelter veterinarian–so you took him home to foster. Can you tell us something about Monkey that you still think about regularly today?
Michele: There are 3 things that stick with me about Monkey-his infectious zest and love of life, how fast he was breathing when he joined us and in spite of the things I had hoped to do for him, in shelter medicine there is absolutely nothing that could or would be done had we not adopted him and taken matters into our own hands.
HP: Many people dread getting a prognosis similar to the ones of the dogs in your care. Your history with fostering unadoptable ill dogs predates Monkey’s House, and even Monkey, himself. What originally got you into volunteering for something that most people fear and avoid whenever possible?
Michele: It happened by accident. I was asked to foster a sweet old golden who wouldn’t lay down or eat in the shelter. She needed to do both as she was scheduled to have a mass surgically removed from her side so she could be made available for adoption. Getting her to lay down was easy but she wouldn’t eat a thing and I certainly
tried everything. She would stare at the wall, have a distant look while resting in her comfy bed. I had a very strong feeling that surgery was the wrong thing to do for her and that if she was my dog, that would not be happening. I spoke with the shelter, they felt she would be fine and that I just needed to try my best. Over the course of the next week, I had taken her to my own vet who agreed I had good cause for concern. Appetite stimulants, sub Q fluids, nausea meds, smelly foods, eating in front of her- nothing helped. She was sweet, gentle and yet distant. My frustration grew as her surgery date approached. After some detective work, I located the vet who was to do her surgery and made an appointment. I explained to the vet that I was there on my own, was responsible for whatever expense was incurred and that I was so frustrated and worried about this precious dog who had eaten 3 hot dogs in 5 days. Dr. C listened while I shared what we had tried and how I felt surgery was the wrong move for this sweet pup. She did a thorough exam, some testing and xrays. The last 5 minutes of the exam, Dr. C told me she was 99%sure Goldie had a brain tumor. She admired all that I had done for her, including getting her to Dr. C before her surgery. She appreciated my frustration and understood my tears. Dr. C told me that in taking my foster mom responsibilities to heart, I had become Goldie’s advocate and I had done my job well. I left feeling both heartbroken and empowered. We adopted Goldie but were never successful in getting her to eat. We released her to the Rainbow Bridge shortly after but promised to love her forever. Traveling alongside her on this journey had cost me about 1,200.00 in medical care and was my first exposure to the lack of resources available to homeless dogs with terminal diseases. I also understood on a much deeper level what it meant to be voiceless. After Goldie passed I was asked to take another sick dog, and then another….
HP: You mentioned in another interview that your volunteers will often request time with the Monkey’s House residents who are in the most terminal of situations. Do you attract a certain type of person in volunteering, or does Monkey’s House have an impact on people to inspire this remarkable culture of empathy?
Michele: It’s a combination of both. We are all crazy dog lovers here and in this environment where the people sit on the floor because all of the pups are on the sofas, we strive to make every day as great as it can be for them. Their final moments are no different. The pups bring out the very best in us.
HP: How do you balance the need for hope versus the need for clarity or realism about a serious or terminal condition?
Michele: If there is pain we can’t manage, breathing problems that are getting worse or seizures that we can’t stop, then we have only 1 option, our greatest responsibility, to have a veterinarian help them cross gently. With everything else-diabetes, heart failure, Kidney failure, cancer, liver issues-everything requires action-vet care, lab work, specialists, supplements and Hope. Always hope that we will make it over the hurdle of the moment, hope that if we can get them comfortable and keep them comfortable, that tomorrow might be a little better. Most of the time it is.
HP: What have you learned from living with dogs in hospice? How are they similar to the human patients you helped in your career prior to Monkey’s House?
Michele: Dogs seem to have an advantage over people facing their final chapter. Living in the moment, they are open to starting over and for allowing for the day to be awesome even if the night prior was long. They don’t waste precious time on regrets or mourning what they still have. They don’t waste time thinking “this is my last Christmas” or that they will never see the cherry trees blossom again. It’s very normal for people to have those thoughts and they are encouraged to express their feelings. Dogs keep moving forward, milking every moment they have left and cramming as much regular, ordinary life into each moment.
HP: How does today’s Monkey’s House compare with the idea you had for it originally?
Michele: Monkey’s House has far exceeded my dreams and expectations. The quality we are able to help most of the dogs achieve is consistent and reproducible. The whole journey feels surreal. The degree of acceptance and love for out super senior hospice pups is incredible and the notion that we have inspired others to adopt a senior or embrace their dogs last chapter and stretch to make it better, makes my heart sing.
HP: What’s in the future for Monkey’s house?
Michele: We are working with other hospices and with fosters in other rescues that provide end of life care. We provide guidance and share resources when we can. We hope to take some of the fear and stigma out of a scary diagnosis and to encourage people to embrace this final part of living. None of us are getting any younger either. We are hoping a grant writer will join us and help open other revenues for funding, we are always hoping for more volunteers-people that can commit 4 hours every week.
HP: What advice can you give pet parents who have been given very bad news about their pet’s future? Are there things that you find specifically helpful to do? Are there things that you find specifically helpful to avoid?
Michele: While I caution the use of social media, there are some great support groups available. Having a resource to turn to in the middle of the night when you are worried you are having a problem is a lifesaver. If you want to get a second opinion or try alternative therapies, do it sooner rather than later. Don’t waste too much time mourning when they are still here, there will be an eternity for that after. Avoid saying that you can’t deal with this because sooner or later you will.
HP: What questions would you recommend pet parents ask their veterinarian after getting a terminal diagnosis?
Michele: The best advice I can offer is to have a great relationship with your vet. Make sure you feel you understand what is happening and what you can expect as the disease progresses. I often ask my vet to keep talking while I’m crying. I can’t always stop the tears but I can still listen. Discuss financial concerns, ask if there are things you can be taught to do yourself like sub Q fluids. Ask about follow up appointments. Ask your vet to outline what an emergency might look like and what criteria they should consider to help make the decision to euthanize.
HP: Are there things that you’ve discovered that help dogs in hospice stay happy and comfortable as possible?
Michele: Keeping myself positive, keeping the pups in a routine, getting the pups outside everyday, doing something everyday-even if it’s an extra ear rub. I believe strongly in the power of love and nurturing when it’s something the dog can see or feel-like simply holding them in your lap. Engage them everyday with a food game, a car ride or just stroking them while telling them a story or singing. All they want is our time, our love and attention. Give it to them.
HP: Do you have any recommendations to help people prepare for and cope with the experience of hospice and watching the decline in their beloved pet’s health?
Michele: Have NO regrets. Don’t think about doing a bucket list, start that moment. Stop at a coffee shop and share a pupaccino. Don’t ask, “what is their quality of life?” Instead ask what you can do to bring more quality to them. Have NO regrets. Put yourself in their shoes, if they are vomiting, how do you feel when you are vomiting, what makes you feel better and are you glad you continued living after that experience? No matter how sick or not the pet is, that final day comes way too soon. Have no regrets. Embracing this final part of living can help with the grieving after. Not initially but down the road a bit. Consider in home euthanasia, it can help the last moments be less stressful on everyone especially the pup. Have a plan to celebrate them after they are gone, and be sure to follow through.