Junior has only a few months to live, but the spunky 8-year-old tuxedo cat will die at home, surrounded by his humans and his favorite blankets, bowls and catnip toys.
Junior's aggressive cancerous tumors were treatable, but traditional veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania and VRC in Malvern priced the treatment at well over $10,000.
Cancer treatment would extend Junior's life by a year, perhaps, and he'd suffer the pain of chemotherapy and radiation. So, instead, his humans brought in veterinarian Brad Bates, who operates a Center City franchise of Lap of Love, a palliative care and hospice service offering "comfort medicine" so animals can die at home, amid loved ones.
Many animal owners can't afford expensive care for terminally ill or elderly pets, even with excellent veterinary schools in the area offering discounted treatments.
So they call Lap of Love, whose veterinarians perform home hospice medication and nutrition, as well as at-home euthanasia, for furry family members. Lap of Love started in Florida and now has vets in nearly half the United States.
"Most people want to die at home, and we put all our feelings on our pets - some of them rightfully so," said Bates. "A lot of people want their animals to die at home, as well, but vets generally don't offer that.
"Pets are just such a big part of our family, they're an extension of us," he said. "When someone hears about us, it becomes a logical financial thing to do, as well."
As a result, Lap of Love has grown quickly.
Bates charges $275 for an in-home consultation for hospice, plus extra for medications. Lap of Love also offers additional euthanasia and cremation services for a fee, depending on the size of the animal and whether the owner wants the ashes.
What does hospice treatment for animals involve?
Palliative care includes an exam, assessment of your pet's quality of life, and a treatment plan including pain medication.
"Palliative care is comfort, nutrition, sleep, and antianxiety medication, very similar to hospice for an elderly person," Bates said. "Many pets go into hospice not because they're dying, but because they're older. We're not helping keep them alive, we help them pass peacefully. At Lap of Love, we don't fight the death process."
Bates graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary medicine school and practices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. (For more information, visit www.lapoflove.com.) He is a member of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.
Wallace Sife, who started the Nutley, N.J.-based association, is a psychologist and author of the book The Loss of a Pet. The APLB now boasts 900 members, double the number of a decade ago.
"Grief over pets has changed because society realizes they're members of your family. Why hide your grief in the closet?" Sife said.
The APLB will host its 2016 conference in October in Atlantic City, with about 200 veterinarians registered to attend, up from 150 at the last conference two years ago, Sife said.
When Bates opened his Lap of Love operation in Philadelphia in 2011, he treated one patient a month and performed in-home euthanasia about a dozen times a month.
This year, he said, he's seeing an average of three patients a day, both for hospice care and euthanasia. He expects the calls to increase over the next few years.
"Palliative patients we care for over a period of a few months," Bates said, and that's the bulk of his clientele. With in-home euthanasia, he also creates a clay paw print and a clip of your pet's hair as keepsakes.
Veterinary costs are starting to approach that of human medicine. Moreover, with traditional diagnostic tests by vets, "there are no co-pays like with people and medical care. Everything is paid up-front, and that can get very expensive," Bates added.
"The worst part is that our pets can't tell us what's wrong, and then everyone is frustrated," he said.
Primarily, Lap of Love vets treat dogs and cats, but it also has performed palliative care for rabbits, guinea pigs, and farm animals such as horses, cows, pigs and goats.
"One vet did euthanasia for a show chicken who was very sick," Bates said.
Aside from being a doctor, Bates also has pets: three cats and a chinchilla. He called it an honor to help pets pass in comfort at home.
"I remember my little Laker," he recalled. "He was a sickly kitten, born with feline leukemia. At two years, he developed lymphoma. I tried to help. But there was no medicine that could make him better. Once I thought his quality of life was diminishing and not improving, I let him pass peacefully.
"It was the most difficult day of my life, and that time was the most difficult time of my life to this day, and probably forever. But the thought of him suffering or becoming sicker was worse.
"I thank the stars every day that I was able to let him pass peacefully before he suffered to death," Bates said. "He will be in my heart forever."