LOVELAND – Joni O’Neill runs a hand along her black Labrador’s coat.
Jonah, lying down on a mat in the O’Neill family’s country-style home, answers excitedly by wagging his tail. And if dogs grin, he’s grinning.
His tongue shoots out to score a few quick kisses on O’Neill’s face. She manages to smile.
But for a few moments too long, Jonah’s old eyes stare up into hers. O’Neill finally looks away as tears and a stifled sob betray her feelings.
This is how she wants it to end.
“I wanted to put him down with a smile on his face,” she says. “I put one down suffering before, and…”
She trails off.
At about 13 years old – a wise 100-something in dog years – the whites of Jonah’s eyes have turned a mottled brown and silver hairs pepper his coat. Arthritis has seized his joints and a tumor has erupted from one of his legs. He’s losing weight fast.
Dr. Kathleen Cooney crouches behind him, taking the necessary instruments from her black bag. Her curly red hair is tied back, and a stethoscope dangles over her blue doctor’s scrub shirt. This is her job – house calls for suffering, terminally ill pets. She eases their deaths.
She delivers mercy.
Cooney speaks soothingly. Her voice carries a gentle sense of frankness and finality. No matter the words, her voice seems to say, “Everything is going to be all right, and you’re doing the right thing.”
Cooney prepares a syringe of clear liquid, which will plunge the dog into a deep slumber.
Her eyes seek O’Neill, waiting for a signal to begin.
HOME TO HEAVEN
A graduate of CSU’s veterinary school, Cooney offers her rare service of at-home euthanasia to Northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.
Other veterinarians often make house calls and put pets down there upon request. But Cooney specializes in at-home euthanasia. It’s the only service her business, Home to Heaven, offers.
A few miles before she reaches her appointments, Cooney always shuts off the music. Her dark blue Toyota van fills with silence, and the silence fills with focus.
She’s not religious, but she prays – a remnant of her Catholic upbringing.
Let it be a peaceful passing. Let everything go well.
“It’s almost like a superstitious thing, now,” she says.
Cooney recently performed her 103rd euthanasia – about 30 procedures in April, alone – unthinkable if she felt guilty, even for a moment.
Cooney believes in her work.
She has seen pet owners weeping on the floors of cold, sterile clinics. And when one of her pets had to be put down at home, something about it felt right. Her husband needed to grieve, she says. At home, he was able to.
She consults pet owners, recommending and accommodating all possible alternatives to euthanasia – including adoption, if the pet’s problem is behavioral.
But in some cases, there is no alternative.
As draining as her job can be, it’s less stressful than a traditional practice.
Death is final. There is no upkeep, no medication, no checkups and no second-guessing.
The procedure is often a last resort for veterinarians, though it is exceedingly common. At shelters, up to 15 million animals a year are destroyed to control the population of strays and the unwanteds.
The animals Cooney puts down, however, are far from unwanted.
She’s become more fluid and practiced at performing the procedure, but each home she visits is a novel world of grief.
Most of her visits last about an hour. Her longest was three, when a cat owner couldn’t bring herself to let her pet go. Another last meal. Just one more walk. A few more minutes for a final cuddle.
“We bawled together for three hours,” she says. “It was tough.”
She prides herself on her ability to shed the dark hours of tears and death. Her foremost focus is on her family – she has two children, ages 1 and 3. She has time for them, since she runs her business from her home and works a rough average of 15 hours a week.
So when she leaves a grieving master, hauling the body of a pet in the back of her van, she begins to readjust to the world of the living.
She turns the music back on.
A LASTING DECISION
For the final visit, Cooney charges $150. She then delivers the animal’s body to a crematorium, which charges the owner based on the animal’s size – generally between $30 and $80. Fancy urns, however, can cost much more.
Cooney also gives the owners keepsakes and the number for free grief counseling through a local support group.
After the costs are tabulated, Cooney prepares the owners for some of the morbid possibilities.
Sometimes, the animals convulse slightly. Their eyes never completely close during the procedure. The bowels relax, often releasing their contents. And after the heart stops, they may take a few more jerky, reflexive breaths.
Not all of this always happens, but Cooney knows that grieving owners don’t want to be surprised.
Home to Heaven’s Web site displays “memorials” from pet owners who enlisted Cooney’s aid. They praise her for the compassion, concern and comfort.
Several students at CSU said they’d prefer to have their animal put down at home, but a few would rather do it at an office they’d never need to see again.
“You may walk into that living room and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s where they put my dog down the other day,” said Jessica Gossett, a senior marketing major who had to put down her Labrador, Star, four years ago in a vet’s office.
Nonetheless, owners have hired Cooney to ply her trade on everything from livestock to lizards.
A GOOD DEATH
O’Neill rubs Jonah’s ears to distract him from the needle jabbing his leg. The clear liquid empties into the dog’s muscles, melting them into relaxation.
“He likes it when you rub his ears,” O’Neill says, half-smiling. Jonah grumbles comfortably.
She whispers to her friend.
“I think you’ve been tired for some time now. I think you have been.”
The dog’s tail slowly ceases wagging and his eyelids grow heavy. He takes a deep breath.
From here, the process is one part procedure and five parts ritual.
The two injections take only moments – the first sedates the animal; the second, a large dose of barbiturates, stops the heart. But the goodbyes and storytelling take longer.
O’Neill recalls the time her family came home to discover Jonah, then a newly adopted 6-month-old puppy, chewing on the mangled remains of a freshly planted sapling.
Then there were the mailmen who brought bones for the big dog – peace offerings, perhaps. The camping trips. The cats that slept huddled against Jonah, whose kindness extended to litters of kittens.
The dog particularly loves the snow, O’Neill says.
“He’d get on sleds with the kids and go down,” she says. “He’d be back up there before them.”
The two children grew up and eventually moved away. Jonah didn’t.
Jonah is still here, letting out sleepy sighs on the mat, blissfully unaware of the eulogy his owner is giving over him.
Cooney dabs her nose with a tissue from a box O’Neill has brought out for the occasion.
The dog’s breaths grow heavy and labored. Some resemble sighs.
“Is he dying?” O’Neill asks.
“No,” the doctor says. “He would normally recover, if we left him.”
Cooney shaves some fur off of the sleeping dog’s hind leg for an intravenous needle and produces a syringe filled with pink liquid.
She looks at O’Neill.
“Go ahead,” O’Neill says, rubbing the dog’s face. “We don’t need to wait.”
Cooney pushes the liquid into Jonah’s vein and dons her stethoscope.
“You’ve been a good boy for a lot of years,” O’Neill tells the sleeping dog. “You’ve had a real good life.”
Cooney listens as Jonah draws in a few more breaths. A few moments later, she removes the instrument.
“It’s done,” she says. “His heart is stopped. He’s died.”
Cooney presses Jonah’s big, limp paw into a small cake of clay.
O’Neill watches, saying that she had made another set of the dog’s paw prints on Jonah’s first birthday.
As Cooney removes the paw, black hairs stick to the imprint.
“I can take out the hairs,” Cooney offers, holding the keepsake gingerly.
O’Neill says no, smiling.
She doesn’t want to change a thing.
Editor in Chief Brandon Lowrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Census data of pet ownership:
For every two U.S. citizens, there is about one pet dog or cat.
In 2000, there were 60 million pet dogs and 70 million pet cats in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association.
More than 36 percent of homes have at least one dog, and nearly 32 percent of homes have at least one cat (though the average was two). Less than 5 percent of homes have birds and less than 2 percent own horses, according to U.S. Census data.
No records are kept of just how many pets are euthanized each year.
For vets, however, the high number of pets translates into plenty of business.
On average, each dog costs its owner $179 a year in veterinary care. Cats cost less – $85.
– For grief counselors at the Argus Institute at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital: (970) 217-7069
– Home to Heaven: (970) 412-6212