ORLANDO, Fla. — Niobe and Cha-cha raced to the couch toward hospice volunteer Jim Hays during a visit to the home of patient Joseph Luciano, in Florida’s Four Corners area.
The pooches competed to get the volunteer’s attention, barking and wildly waging their tails. They darted off only after he rubbed behind their ears.
“They took to me right away,” said Hays, 64. “I just visit with them and show them a little attention — and I bring treats. It’s just part of the visit.”
Hospice volunteers are stepping in more and more to care for the pets of dying patients — feeding and walking dogs, administering flea medication, driving pets to the groomer or veterinarian and more.
“Hospice is supposed to take care of the patient and the family,” said Lisa Gray, volunteer department manager of Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care. “For a lot of them, their family is their pet.”
Cornerstone, which rolled out the pet-care program a few months ago in Lake, Fla., paid to board Luciano’s dogs while the 85-year-old Navy veteran, his wife, Adriana, and Hays took a weekend trip to Pensacola, Fla.
Adriana Luciano, 61, said she’s still able to feed and walk the dogs — Niobe is a bichon frise and Cha-cha a mixed breed — in between caring for her ailing husband. However, she said it’s a relief to have Cornerstone in case she needs help with the dogs, who sleep with them in the bedroom.
“They’re like children. We can’t leave them alone for more than a few hours,” she said.
Throughout the country, hospices are starting to recognize the therapeutic benefits of keeping the animal and owner together until the end, said Delana Taylor McNac, founder and manager of Pet Peace of Mind, a national organization that works with other hospices around the country. Nationwide, 50 hospices offer the program.
“It’s catching on now that hospice is beginning to see a cultural change on the importance of pets,” she said.
Cornerstone, which serves more than 700 patients, is one of two nonprofits in the state to partner with Pet Peace of Mind. It received a grant to provide pet care, such as buying food for those who can’t afford it.
Taylor Mcnac, a former hospice chaplain and veterinarian from Tulsa, estimated that 10 to 20 percent of hospice patients have pets. But only about half of them are receiving pet-care assistance. She said some patients have refused to go into hospice centers out of fear of giving up their pets.