Jen Smiga of knew the end was near for B.T., her feline friend of 15 years. He had lost his sight and his facilities to nasal cancer, but he was still managing some quality of life at home. That is until things went from bad to worse, the way a winter afternoon quickly turns from dusk to black night.
He began seizing violently and wouldn't stop. Smiga knew it was time to end his suffering, but when she called her veterinarian, he was on his way into surgery.
You have two options, he told her, you can bring him into the animal hospital where he can be put to sleep, or you can call Dr. Wendy McCulloch, who will come to your home.
The thought of the cold metal table of an examining room being the last place her beloved pet would see made the decision easy. She called Dr. McCulloch of Pet Requiem who made an emergency run to her home.
"The most logical setting is in the home."
Dr. McCulloch is a resident and vet who provides in-home wellness and end of life care for pets. She specializes in hospice care and euthanasia for animals whose owners can't get to the vet's office or who prefer a home setting to a hospital for their pets' final moments. She also does a good bit of business in New York City where going to the vet means lugging your ailing (or rambunctious) pet into the back of a cab.
It's not the career that McCulloch ever would have imagined. In fact, it's been a long, strange trip from New Zealand to Red Bank. A home economics teacher down under, she traveled first to Europe and then the states in 1991, where she became a rock and roll and movie production associate.
While living in Miami with her then-husband, a member of the Bee Gees, McCulloch began taking in stray cats that came off the beach. In addition to their care and feeding, she took the cats to be spayed and neutered. To help pay for it all, she took a job at a local animal clinic in between her rock and roll gigs.
That experience pushed her to restart her life at 40 when she entered veterinarian school, split with her husband and eventually moved to New Jersey.
Now instead of blazing through Japan on a tour leg with the Rolling Stones, she's flipping back and forth between Red Bank and the city. One thing that hasn't changed are the rock and roll hours.
Some days she gets to sleep in, other days she's out early and not home until midnight, answering emergency calls from clients like Smiga, whose pets have taken a turn for the worst. The 52 year-old veterinarian estimates that 75 percent of her business is hospice or euthanasia services.
That might seem like a morbid business to be in. Not so, she says. "People need somebody to help them through those last few months and tell them about some of the ups and downs they might go through." Through phone calls, visits, and even texts, Dr. McCulloch says, "I can be their hand holder."
"My job is to stop suffering, to be an advocate for the animals, and to treat humans with sensitivity."
Dr. McCulloch's end of life pet care fills a niche market, she says, because vets and animal hospitals are in the business of keeping pets alive. When it is time for an animal to be put to sleep, she said, a person needs time and space to grieve. "That's difficult to do that kind of sensitive work in a busy hospital." Part of her work is taking away the body of the expired animal. Dr. McCulloch works with a crematorium which will return the ashes to the pet owner.
Most of her referrals come from animal oncologists whose clients have elected to stop treating their pet's cancer or from vets with whom she has built a relationship.
When Smiga called Dr. McCulloch in to end her "tough cat's" suffering, she didn't have any idea how far away from the cold examining room table the experience would be. The main difference? "It's the peace. Our other pets were able to say goodbye. You don't think of the effect the death of a pet has on the dog. I go to work and they're there with each other," she said of her dog and B.T. who were great buddies.
Before and after B.T. passed, Dr. McCulloch allowed Smiga's other cat and dog to see and smell B.T., who passed away peacefully in Smiga's lap. As she does for all her clients, she made a print of B.T.'s paw. "Even after he expired," Smiga said, "she was so gentle with him."
"It feels good people are really, really grateful."
Dr. McCulloch helps her clients as much as she does her patients. Pet Requiem's Facebook page has become an extension of the grieving process where pet owners post pictures and thank yous.
Deborah Slater of NYC writes, "It was heartbreaking to put Shayna to rest ... but I thank you dearly for your kindness, warmth, support and gentleness to both of us during the difficult hour. You are a gem of a person and a most compassionate vet... and were a gift to us... G-d Bless You."
Before her experience with Dr. McCulloch Smiga said, there was no way she could imagine social networking about her pet's death.
"My cat's gonna die and I'm going to post it on Facebook? Who does that?" Smiga recalls thinking. But afterwards she said, "I went right on and posted his picture."
"You love your pet. And that redeems a lot."
Not every house call Dr. McCulloch makes ends in a passing. Often she'll get a call to put an animal down that turns out to have a few more happy months, or years, left in it.
"So what if everybody says, 'Oh my God, look at him, put him to sleep'?," she says.
If the animal has its wits about it and it's care can be managed through medication or herbs (or even acupuncture), Dr. McCulloch will recommend her patients be on hospice care. "Sometimes clients can start the grieving process when they get the diagnosis." Later when the animal is finally put to sleep, or expires naturally, "They've got no regrets."
Sometimes, she says, what animals need is some specialized care, and the people, just "a dose of common sense."