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LOS ANGELES (AP) - As Mike Kelley stroked his cat Andy for the last time, he recalled how the feline would eat yogurt every morning and meet him at the door every night.
Kelley told stories about his beloved pet before Dr. Mary Gardner gave the 10-year-old cat a shot and he went to sleep for the last time. After Andy developed liver disease, Kelley sought the support of the hospice veterinarian, who came to his home, listened to him talk about his cat and eventually allowed Andy to die with dignity. It's in line with a continuing trend of animal lovers committing increasing time and expense to pet care.
About four years ago, Gardner of Yorba Linda and Dr. Dani McVety of Tampa, Fla., co-founded Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice Inc., a national network of veterinarians providing end-of-life services for sick animals like Andy. The vets don't just manage a pet's nutrition, medication, mobility and cremation arrangements, they comfort grieving families and prepare any fellow pets for the tough days ahead. And, ultimately, they will euthanize when the vet and owner agree the time is right.
"He was my best buddy. He was there every day for me. I would have done anything to keep him here," said Kelley of Newport Beach. But he didn't want Andy to suffer after medication stopped working and the cat lost his appetite.
Lap of Love is the first organized group of its kind in the country, said Colleen Ellis, director of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. The group helps with the last hours of life and the first hours of death of animals ranging from dogs and cats to hamsters and pot-bellied pigs.
The association says there are many vets, vet techs and even a Northern California animal sanctuary that take in terminally ill or elderly pets for hospice care and, eventually, euthanasia. Lap of Love is the biggest organization and the only one composed entirely of experienced veterinarians.
There are 68 Lap of Love partner vets in nearly 20 states that handle euthanasia and funeral arrangements, as well as talk to children and help owners say goodbye, Ellis said. They only accept pets nearing the end of life and are often referred by the animal's regular veterinarian or a surgeon.
"Veterinarian hospice care is a lot like human hospice care. The goal is comfort. We are not trying to cure, just manage the symptoms so that they are as comfortable as possible," McVety said. "Vet hospice is where human hospice was 50 or 60 years ago."
McVety started the business in 2010. Six months later, it was growing so fast that she sought help from Gardner, who'd been a vet school classmate. They decided to team up and soon were getting calls from vets all over the country wanting to take part.
Every partner vet keeps in touch with the veterinary community, sharing ideas, going over cases and getting and giving advice, McVety said. A typical veterinarian with a practice might euthanize two pets a week, she said, while she will euthanize 20 to 30.
Lap of Love has a free online journal owners can use to help them decide when it is time to call for help. There is also a memorial website that allows owners to tell their pets' stories and post their photos.
Costs of the services vary across the country, but they range from $200 to $400 for hospice care and about the same for in-home euthanasia. There are extra costs for evenings and weekends, holidays, extended travel, pets over 100 pounds, aggressive animals and some exotic species.
The vets can arrange private or communal cremation, and many pet insurance companies cover euthanasia costs.
For Kelley, who plans to sprinkle his cat's ashes in Newport Beach, Gardner's services made a big difference.
"She was there for me and really nice to the cat. He was so comfortable. He wasn't stressed at all. Everything went as smoothly as it could go," he said.
Gardner said she became a vet to help animals, no matter what form that takes.
"That doesn't mean I save them, but I do help them die peacefully," she said.