Bella Boo, a 13-year-old Shih Tzu, came to Secondhand Hounds with kidney failure, seizures, one blind eye and arthritis. Still, volunteer Carol Marple welcomed Bella Boo into her Champlin home.
Marple, who had adopted three of the dogs she had fostered through the Eden Prairie-based animal rescue nonprofit, had no plans to adopt Bella Boo: The gray-muzzled pooch wasn’t expected to live long.
That was in April of 2015.
“Medical care, good food and love can turn things around,” said Marple, who calls Bella Boo her “baby girl.”
She is among the Secondhand Hounds volunteers who are providing pet hospice in their homes. With financial support from Secondhand Hounds and the guidance of a nonprofit veterinary clinic, these volunteers do what they can to fill the last days of these animals’ lives with tenderness.
The volunteers benefit, too, said Taylor Budensiek, a Minneapolis law student who is tending to a rescue dog that has cancer.
“I’m figuring out my priorities, and she has been a reminder of what is important,” she said.
Several times a day, Marple applies drops to Bella Boo’s eyes, gives her liquid medicine and adds hamburger to her prescription dog food to coax her to eat. So far, Bella Boo has been thriving.
“She seems to know that she’s safe and she’s enjoying life. She loves car rides, tummy rubs and just sitting in the sunshine,” Marple said. “Dogs are everything that is good in the world. I want to be a voice for them.”
Since Secondhand Hounds established its pet hospice program just over a year ago, about 20 terminal animals (mostly dogs and a few cats) are typically being cared for by its volunteers. The goal is not to prevent or even postpone euthanasia, but provide care.
“Our mission is to rescue animals that are abused or neglected and place them in qualified loving homes,” said Rachel Mairose, founder and executive director of Secondhand Hounds. “We say we’re suckers because we can’t say no to the broken ones.”
Being old doesn’t make a dog a candidate for hospice. In fact, many people prefer older dogs to puppies. But a dog with cancer, organ failure or uncorrectable incontinence issues isn’t adoptable.
“It can be very expensive to care for animals that are old, sick and fragile, and a lot of them are dumped at that point,” Mairose explained. “It’s unacceptable to us that they die alone. We as an organization accept the financial burden and cover their doctor visits and medications. The volunteers make sure these dogs live out their lives with dignity.”
‘The life he should’ve had’
Founded in 2009, Secondhand Hounds has grown faster than a Great Dane puppy. The rescue powerhouse has saved 10,000 abused, neglected and abandoned dogs, most of them retrieved from kill shelters across the Midwest and Southern states. The organization has built a network of 2,000 foster families that take in the animals while they await permanent families. The trial run in the foster home helps volunteers discover the best environment for each pet, which improves the odds for a successful adoption.
Elly Theis calculates that she has fostered 200 dogs and cats over the past three years. While volunteering for Secondhand Hounds, she wound up giving hospice care to a German shepherd mix named Dodge.
“He was pulled from a shelter in southern Minnesota when he was four months old, just the friendliest little guy with brown eyes that could melt your heart,” Theis said. “We had a family chosen for him when I took him in for his last round of shots.”
After she told the vet that Dodge’s gait seemed awkward, the vet discovered that the puppy was born without hip sockets. Because surgery couldn’t fix the problem, Dodge was no longer available for adoption. Instead, he stayed in Theis’ Carver home for hospice.
“We decided his life was going to be about quality, not quantity,” she said. “We wanted him to have a little of the life that he should have had.”
Theis made a bucket list for Dodge, which included visits to the dog park and swimming in the backyard pool, which took the pressure off his hips. “And he was crazy about beef jerky, so I gave him a lot of it,” Theis said. “I didn’t have to worry about whether it’s good for him in the long run.”
As he neared his first birthday, Dodge’s pain medicine no longer worked. He was immobilized, sleeping most of the time, and Theis decided it was time. A vet came to her home to administer the euthanasia drug as Dodge cuddled in her lap.
“That day is shrouded in sadness for me, but he didn’t feel scared,” she said. “His life was short, but he had known real love — and had given it.”
Last chance for love
While most of the dogs in hospice care aren’t as young as Dodge, they are in poor condition.
“We see dogs that are riddled with cancer, but they’re eating, drinking, peeing, pooping and wagging their tails,” said Dr. Susan Miller. “Their quality of life can still be quite good; for some of these animals, this is the first time in their lives they’ve been well cared for.”
Miller is founder of Mission Animal Hospital, a nonprofit clinic that shares a building with Secondhand Hounds. Miller not only screens, examines and diagnoses most of the hospice pets, but she also offers regular training to volunteers, teaching them how to monitor and assess the condition of terminal pets, especially as they decline.
“We want the animals to be pain- and anxiety-free,” she said. “Sometimes in my practice, I’ve seen owners who won’t say goodbye and the pet suffers too long. I think the foster volunteers can be more clearheaded. They haven’t lived with the animal for 15 years; they’re prepared and educated about when it’s right to let them go.”
Budensiek, 25, thought fostering a rescue dog would be an easy gateway into canine companionship without the commitment of ownership while she’s studying for the bar.
Tabitha, an eight-year-old Jack Russell terrier, arrived in her home last November. After a medical screen revealed that the dog had cancerous tumors, Tabitha became a hospice dog. By then, Budensiek had formed a bond with the 18-pound dog and committed to her.
“I don’t think she’s had a great life. When I first got her, she had no social skills; I think she knew how to be a mom but not a regular dog,” Budensiek said. “I’ve been able to watch her blossom; this is the happiest time of her life. She’s my little sidekick.”
Sometimes Budensiek tears up when she thinks about Tabitha’s impending death.
“I hope we have more time together, but whatever happens, she has been a blessing,” she said.
Kevyn Burger is a Twin Cities freelance broadcaster and writer.