It may be hard for an animal lover to imagine, but many elderly and terminally ill dogs and cats are abandoned by their owners just when they need their people the most.
And that's where the ASPCA of New York City's "Fospice" volunteers step in. These volunteers open their hearts and their homes to animals at the end of their lives. The animals chosen for the Fospice program are not adoptable, and are instead placed in homes that are part foster, part hospice.
"It's a very special call, and not everybody is up for it or can do it. But we've never had anybody drop out of the program once they've gotten in," said Diane Wilkerson, director of volunteer programs.
The program grew out of a need to place animals that weren't easily adopted out.
"We started to get this subset of elderly dogs and cats. Sometimes it was animals that had a terminal illness," said Wilkerson. "They weren't suffering, they could still move along, but it brought back their ability to be adopted. So we got to thinking about how we could help these animals out and decided to hybrid hospice and foster."
While the baby animals tend to get adopted quickly, the same isn't true for older pets.
"They love to be around people, they're still eating their food, but they're at the end of their lifespan and not just suitable for adoption," said Dr. Jennifer Lander, director of Medicine at the ASPCA of New York City. "People aren't coming in and saying I'd like a 15-year-old Labrador Retriever, they're coming in looking for puppies or younger animals."
There's a wide range in the health of the dogs and cats in the program. Many are simply old. Others have a more serious condition.
"In years past, when an animal was diagnosed with cancer or organ failure, it was sort of a death sentence but it doesn't mean that it's a death sentence on that day," said Lander. "It's a matter of watching and managing and doing what you can do while balancing quality of life."
The shelter provides full support for the Fospice parents, including all medical care and even sheltering the animal if the family needs to go away.
"We consult with the foster parents like they're the owners or adopters and they get literature with a lot of information. They get websites to refer to so they really understand the animal's medical condition, and they have a support network so when they have questions or problems we can answer," she said.
Being a Fospice parent may require a little extra patience, but five-year volunteer Kathy Crawford insists it's " . . . never a burden. Sometimes they are old, they may require a few more walks or getting outside a little bit more. They just may need a little more attention."
For the volunteers, the hardest part is when the time comes to say goodbye.
"I know these dogs are older, in some of my cases they have been terminally ill, so I know that going in. What balances it emotionally is that these dogs that I've had have had a comfortable home, a quiet home, a secure home in their final years," said Crawford.
There are no special skills required to become a Fospice volunteer, said Lander. Only a love of animals is needed.
People who are interested in a Fospice-type program should call their local animal shelter and ask if there's a subset of the foster program – very common in shelters around the country -- that deals specifically with elderly and terminally ill animals.