HPA: Giving Pets a Second Chance

Medical Matters, Lane County Medical Society

Hospice Pet Advocates started with a single dog facing abandonment, two women, and good intentions. Today it is a certified 501c3 nonprofit. Hospice Pet Advocates (HPA) provides a number of services for pet owners facing terminal illness, ranging from pre-planning assistance and education, to emergency services. The organization was born out of two medical workers witnessing a need in the hospice community for end-of-life resources for patients’ pets—an element that often gets overlooked.

The First Rescue

HPA’s founders, Thea Peck, a hospice nurse, and Ruth Helle, a medical social worker, were working on admitting a critically ill patient when they came upon a one-year-old, energetic pit bull in the home. “We were concentrating on the patient,” Peck says. “But both Ruth and I are pet lovers, so we were wondering who was going to take the dog.”  

According to Peck, there is an unfortunate trend of patients waiting until the very end of their lives to address what will happen next for their pets, which leads to case workers and nurses needing to come up with solutions in a short time frame. This stems from the misconception that people will have their pets taken away when they become ill, or assumptions being made about family or friends taking them in.

“Our goal is to always keep the pet with the patient up until the patient dies.”

- Thea Peck, HPA Co-Founder

“It was that first dog. No one else could take her, and the shelters were full - so I called my husband and we brought her home,” Peck says. “The dog hadn’t been trained. It was young, so not only did we suddenly have this dog and no structure around what to do, but she was also not an easily re-homeable dog.”

After vet visits and training, Peck was able to rehome the dog with a friend nearly eight weeks later. Other people within the hospice community began reaching out to Peck and Helle after they had heard about that first rescue.

Education, Outreach, and Care

The HPA has been a certified non-profit for just over a year now, and is entirely volunteer based. Christine Schroeder acts as the Director of Operations where she designs and documents internal infrastructure. “A lot of what we were doing was reactive in nature. We’ve really tried to turn the page and look at things proactively,” Schroeder says. “It really starts with education about pre-planning, which begins before the initial outreach to us.”

From a reactive position, the HPA is tasked with taking in a pet that has nowhere else to go. It’s often the case that the animal has been unintentionally neglected given the challenging circumstances of the owner’s illness. With cases such as these, the first priority is to get the pet healthy again. Then, the HPA works with secondary organizations—Greenhill Humane Society or Cat Rescue and Adoption Network—to find new homes for the pets.

Now, the organization is prioritizing earlier intervention to facilitate a smoother transition for everyone involved in the process of preparing to pass. “We do everything we can formulate a solution for that animal while the patient is still stable, and while the animal is still in a good place,” Schroeder says. “We have a counseling process where we have conversations with the patient about what needs to happen for the animal’s best health. In some situations, the patient is still at home and still able to care for the pet, but they’re looking for a plan. That’s really the optimum time for us to engage.”

The HPA is focusing their efforts on connecting with Lane County so people both within and outside of the medical community are aware of the resources they offer. They participate in local events, such as Bark in the Park, and have developed educational materials. “We just started doing a presentation,” Schroeder says. “We partnered with the Parkinson’s Foundation, as well as several retirement communities, in order to do preplanning presentations.”

Relief and Closure

The response from the community has largely been one of gratitude and relief, according to Peck. Many of HPA’s volunteers are also hospice caregivers, which in turn spreads the word about the organization and the referral system they are building.

“Our goal is to always keep the pet with the patient up until the patient dies,” Peck says. “What’s been wonderful is that it brings solace to so many people. It relieves the caregiver, who feels powerless, because now they have a resource. I can see the relief on the face of the patient when a plan starts to come together, because it’s so hard to know they’re going to have to leave this beloved pet behind.”

In the year since the HPA has been in official operation, they have provided direct emergency rescue to 37 animals, and have facilitated future care plans for the families of many more. The HPA maintains a Facebook page where they post all of the animals they have available for adoption, as well as upcoming community events they are participating in. Their website, hospicepetadvocates.org, has more in-depth resources ranging from how to get involved as a volunteer, to services and rescue information about how the HPA can help people and animals alike.

“We help the owners and their pets to heal, to move through grief,” Schroeder says. “Then get back in fighting shape, and ready for their new families.”