LINCOLN PARK — Keeping pets happy and healthy is the thrust of every veterinarian's work. But for Lincoln Park's Dr. Amir Shanan, how to help animals, and their owners, deal with end-of-life issues is equally important.
Described as a mix of a philosopher, counselor and vet, Shanan speaks slowly, giving each idea and phrase thought before speaking.
"It's a calling," he said of animal hospice, a specialty that can include euthanasia.
Over the years, the 59-year-old Shanan slowly transitioned from being a general veterinarian. His mission to fill an empty void in the veterinary field dates to 1995. That year Shanan placed a small ad in the Yellow Pages offering euthanasia house calls for pets.
His mission was to serve the "highly attached, heartbroken and grieving" pet owners who wanted to end their pets' suffering in the comfort of their homes.
"Psychologists use the term 'helpers' high,'" Shanan said. "That's kind of how I experience what I'm doing."
A vet since 1985, Shanan has seen firsthand how families deal with terminally ill pets and the stresses the owners go through. His hospice services aren't just about ending an animal's life: His practice develops a "hospice team," including a veterinarian and a veterinarian technician who specialize in animal hospice nursing.
The owners of the terminally ill pet take an active role in caring for the animal in its final days, assessing its condition and making care decisions. Other team members might include a grief counselor.
Together, they develop a plan that includes pain management, controlling symptoms and making the animal comfortable.
When Shanan is sitting in a room with a pet owner and a sick dog, he's not only thinking of what's best for the animal but also looking out for the owners' well-being.
"I'm thinking what can we do today, tomorrow and next week so that whenever it is that the dog has passed away, you are going to look back at the decisions you made and be at peace with yourself," he said. "I see that as a contribution to society."
Shanan has become a leader in dog and cat hospice and end-of-life care. He started the International Association for Animal Hospice in 2009, which has become the world's premier organization dedicated to the topic.
Shanan found his calling in 1994 when a client asked if the vet was willing to euthanize an 80-pound Doberman in its owner's home. All of the dog's limbs were paralyzed, and the owner had been taking care of the dog for eight months.
Before administering two injections — one sedative and the second shot to stop the dog's heart — the family asked Shanan to say a prayer.
"Walking out of that appointment I was like, 'There's got to be other people that would benefit from those kinds of services,'" he said.
Over the years, Shanan's Compassionate Veterinary Care in Lincoln Park has been split between pet hospice/end-of-life care and regular veterinary work.
He personally euthanizes about 300 dogs and cats a year. Most days it's a single pet, but other days it can be three or four, often in the middle of the night.
"It's exhausting, but rewarding," Shanan said.
All his clients have his personal cellphone number and know they can call at any moment.
Shanan missed out on the staff Christmas party at his home in 2009 due to a frantic call for a 22-year-old dying cat.
"At that moment it was like, here I am hosting my staff for an annual event on one hand, and a client in urgent need on the other," he said.
Some of his clients can't stand the thought of ending their animal's life in a cold and sterile veterinarian office and walking out through a waiting room of barking dogs and curious cats without their loved one.
When Lincoln Park resident Amy Abramson called Shanan at 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 14, the vet was there an hour later. It was the second trip Shanan had made to the house that day. Abramson, 50, who lived alone with her 15-year-old dog Maggie, wasn't ready for Shanan to administer the shots earlier in the night.
For the previous two weeks, Abramson was homebound with Maggie. She canceled everything to be home with her ailing dog and needed neighbors or friends to come by for even the shortest trips to the grocery store.
"I was not OK with leaving," Abramson said.
The shepherd mix had taken a turn for the worse that night.
Shanan ended the dog's life while her owner stroked her head and talked to her.
Abramson spent the next three hours laying with her dog.
"Maggie looked like Maggie," Abramson said. "Even though it sounds morbid to be lying next to an animal that's no longer breathing, it was not morbid at all, and it was not terrifying."
The dog died where she was most comfortable, and Abramson was OK with that.
"She looked like a sleeping fawn," she said. "She was beautiful. I had every moment with her."
When Shanan was ready to leave, Abramson told him that she and her dog were "sort of like a we."
"He said, 'You were more than a we.' He said, 'Now you are going to have to learn to be with Amy,'" Abramson said. "I said, 'Yeah, that's right.'"
Shanan went home and came back three hours later, at 7:30 a.m., to get the dog's body.
Abramson hopes that more pet owners become aware of the services that Shanan offers and hopes it becomes the standard of care for animals.
Shanan has hosted three-day educational conferences for both vets and mental health professionals on pet hospice and end-of-life care over the last two years.
The next step is to define recommended practices and establish a set of standards of care for those looking to get into his field.
"It's a very rewarding experience for me," Shanan said. "That's how I can still be doing it day in and day out for almost 20 years now."