Does your pet have a living will?
Don't laugh. If you're a pet owner, some day you may wish it did.
Meet Dr. Katie Hilst. She's not like most vets. She sometimes cries with her clients.
"I mean, I don't break down," she says. "I don't sob until I can't function. I'm still professional, but sometimes I do cry."
Hilst graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison veterinary school in 2002, and is certified in "pet loss and grief companioning," which, yes, is a real thing. She specializes in euthanasia.
"I don't usually know the pets," she says. "Sometimes I do. That makes it a little more emotional for me."
Journeys Home Pet Euthanasia, Hilst's business, is the first local vet practice to focus on euthanasia only, and she is the only one to be certified in pet loss companioning, she says. "My focus really is on death and grief, and helping people through that time."
She wanted to grow up and work in health care, but was practical and majored in business at the UW. She finally entered veterinary school in her mid-30s.
"It was tough," Hilst recalls, "but it was what I wanted to be doing."
After stints at a few clinics, she decided that 90% of what people bring in their pets for can be done in their homes. Thus was born her practice, in 2007.
"I knew when I started that I was going to be doing euthanasia, but it wasn't what I was setting out to do," she says. "I just knew that it would be some of the calls that I was going to take care of."
Traveling vets are not unusual in the country, where large animals require farm visits. But care in the home was less usual with smaller animals, and ideal for those with dying pets. People who were not regular clients started calling her for one final act of care.
"And then I would have the same people call a couple of years later, when their next pet was becoming elderly," she says. "That made me think, 'Wow, there's really a need out there.'"
Often, people will first phone Hilst after their pet receives a bad diagnosis.
It helps to plan ahead. Making a video of your pet while healthy, enjoying activities, is a good tool for later comparison. So is a quality-of-life scale.
"A lot of times these ailments happen by degrees," says Hilst. "When you're in the middle of that, you don't notice how your pet's quality of life has fallen."
Creating a sort of advanced-care directive or "living will" for a pet will likely help you, as well as your animal companion. It notes what the animal enjoys doing, how active it likes to be, and so on. It also looks at what might have to be done when illness precludes those activities.
"One pet owner's solution might not be right for another pet owner," says Hilst.
In her practice, she has seen every kind of house pet imaginable.
Except for one. "Nobody ever really calls me about a fish."
National Pet Memorial Day is Sept. 14, 2014; for more see iccfa.com/national-pet-memorial-day.
[Editor's note: This article is corrected to clarify that Dr. Hilst's certification is in pet loss and grief companioning, and that she started her practice in 2007.]