When Marsha Holfeltz got a phone call asking her to foster 4-year-old Griffin, she expected the spirited Schipperke to be adopted quickly.
The dog’s owner had left him at a Murray shelter after a horse kicked him in the face, severely damaging an eye. The Utah Animal Advocacy Foundation would arrange surgery to remove the eye, and he would heal with Holfeltz for a few weeks until a family was ready to adopt him.
But lesions discovered on his belly painted a darker future. Griffin’s intestines were infested with tapeworms that had given him cancer, and vets predicted he had eight weeks to live.
So Holfeltz instead committed to giving him a home where he could die feeling loved. She set up a heat lamp next to his bed in her Millcreek interior design store, Marsha McCord Interiors, to keep him cozy.
The Utah Animal Advocacy Foundation is one of the few groups in an increasingly crowded animal rescue community that have a focus on end-of-life pet care. The nonprofit counts on a dedicated army of approximately 50 volunteers who look after special-needs dogs; only a few of them provide dog hospice.
Without hospice care, a seriously ill animal could be euthanized; could live out its days caged in a shelter; or could possibly be adopted by new owners, who may subsequently attempt to return it when they find they can’t afford its medical bills. Foundation volunteers care for terminal dogs with financial support from the nonprofit to help cover some of the costs.
On a recent week, Holfeltz was one of five UAAF volunteers providing care for four senior and dying dogs and one cat.
“Your role is to give the best end-of-life care, however long that may be,” she said.
‘Give dogs a good life’
Maryjo Korb says she and her volunteers “have a heart for the underdog. We want to take care of those that nobody else will.”
Korb and Jenn Clayton created the foundation in 2002, after both had worked for different homeless pets organizations for several years. Korb works as a part-time receptionist at a veterinary clinic, but the rescue group is a full-time gig in its own right, she said.
According to the No-Kill Utah website, a Best Friends initiative, there are at least 60 organizations, including a number of county shelters, committed to ending the killing of pets in the state. Such a large number of rescue groups make it harder for small nonprofits like UAAF with volunteer-only staff to attract donations.
They rely on an annual September fundraiser called Ruff House to help cover a few of the never-ending vet bills, but often it comes down to volunteers asking for donations for UAAF on their birthday Facebook posts.
Korb’s commitment to unwanted old or sick pets stems from her belief that many owners view pets as disposable.
One of UAAF’s first animals was a greyhound mix that a child had put on a kitchen counter; the dog had jumped off and broken her front legs, and the family decided not to keep her. Korb recalled the sadness she felt at the thought of “a child leaving a small dog on a kitchen counter and walking away. She was the cutest thing ever," even walking stiff-legged with casts.
Owners have similar attitudes toward older pets, Korb said. “That’s how so many seniors end up on our program,” she said. “People take them to the shelter and then adopt a younger dog.”
UAAF needs more volunteers for elderly as well as sick dogs, Holfeltz said, particularly given Utah’s aging human population. Her husband, an estate attorney, has told her that adult children who move elderly relatives into care facilities often take a parent’s aged dog or cat to the Humane Society of Utah, where the odds of it getting adopted can be slim.
“There’s a big need to give these animals the same end-of-life care their owners are getting,” Holfeltz said.
She also argues for more education about ways to care for dogs when they become sick. “Just because your animal is having a bad day, that doesn't mean it’s time to give him up,” she said.
Prospective UAAF foster parents need a home with a yard and the means to feed the dog. “Look at where you work, how many hours you are away from home; make sure you can give dogs a good life,” Holfeltz said.
‘When do you say when?’
Corrine Prows was caring for two dogs on hospice care this fall, coming back for more, despite the financial hardships.
“You know if you don’t do this anymore, they are not getting help, and that spot they fill in your heart isn’t getting full anymore,” the West Valley City woman said. “It’s as much for you as it is for the animals that you save.”
Prows works in a printing shop and was struggling with the cost of caring for three foster dogs and the two on hospice. UAAF pays for most vet bills through donations, but that doesn’t cover ruined couches, chairs and flooring, food, or the gas to and from the vet.
“I’ll usually take more than others only because I don’t have a spouse and nobody can tell me no,” said Prows, as five dogs climbed over her lap, her sofa and her armchair, or nosed around the floor of her home.
Her passion for caring for special-needs and terminally ill dogs started accidentally. She adopted a stray called Angel at the request of her daughter, who was volunteering at West Valley City’s animal shelter. When Angel’s matted hair was shaved away, Prows discovered her eyes were badly damaged, just jelly in their sockets.
Even sightless, Angel could navigate the world. She knew where Prows’ legs were, to jump up to get onto her lap, and could find her bowl. “Through Angel, I learned I was judging without knowing,” Prows said. “A lot of these special-needs dogs, there’s no need to put them down.”
Prows’ first hospice dog assignment from UAAF was Izzy, a Shih Tzu-poodle mix. Prows thought she was simply underweight, but learned the dog was in kidney failure.
Animal hospice volunteers can develop a deep bond with their dogs, Prows said, which helps them know when it’s time for that final trip to the vet. That decision is the hardest part of caring for dogs at their life’s end.
“When do you say when?” Korb said. “Do they die on their own or do you make that decision?”
One of Prows’ friends suggested a strategy.
“You choose five things the animals likes to do the most, and when they can’t do two or three things anymore, it’s time,” Prows said, giving the examples of being unable to get up or to eat. “You look in their eyes and they’re not happy anymore. You know it’s time."
Korb said the decision, in many ways, is the animal’s rather than the carer’s. “When they’ve lost the fight, you kind of know when that game is over. If they’re willing to stay alive, then I’m willing to fight with them.”
Euthanasia can devastate a carer. “You question yourself. ‘Did I wait too long? Did I do it too soon?’” Prows said. “You question everything about it."
And it doesn’t end with the dog’s death. “The first couple of meal times you go and get their bowl and remember they’re not there,” she said, “it shreds your heart.”
‘There’s still value and life’
Holfeltz gave three good years to Tasia, a rat terrier mix and a puppy-mill mom UAAF had taken from a Carbon County shelter. “They tried to get her adopted, but senior dogs are so hard,” Holfeltz said.
Tasia’s hindquarters had atrophied from being kept in a cage for so long, bearing litter after litter, so she dragged herself along by her front paws like a sea lion. An inveterate hiker, Holfeltz exercised Tasia every day, slowly building back her legs and working off her fat.
“She ended up being a really beautiful dog,” she said. “Even at the end of life, a dog can still be rehabbed, there’s still value and life left.”
By August this year, Tasia was in the grip of dementia. She’d wander in the backyard and get stuck in the bushes or in trees, injuring herself. She couldn’t open her mouth to eat, chew or drink and was wasting away.
A mobile vet came to Holfeltz’s home and gave Tasia a sedative on her gums. Then an IV overdose of propofol stopped her heart. Tasia’s death was peaceful, Holfeltz said.
Providing hospice to dogs has made her look at the prospect of her own life choices.
“I’ve done this enough to know it’s the way I want to go,” she said. “I wish we had end-of-life [care] for humans like we do for dogs. It’s taught me I should advocate for the right to die.”
A year on from Griffin’s diagnosis — and the prediction he would live a few weeks — he’s still with Holfeltz. She recently reflected in her store that they have no idea how much longer he has.
Behind the counter, where Holfeltz can care for him and a special-needs dog called Emily when she isn’t showing furniture to customers, Griffin rolled on his back to have his tender belly scratched. “He loves to show off his junk,” she said.
But caring for sick and elderly dogs isn’t for everybody.
"Rescue's hard,” said Korb. “If I could do it over again, would I? It's hard on your heart; it's hard on your family.”
There are always more neglected or abandoned dogs cowering and trembling in shelters waiting for someone to care for them. “You can’t save them all,” she said with a sigh. “You hope somebody else does.”