On Ryan’s first day of fifth grade, his mother, Sara Tripp, took Mandy to the veterinarian. She was told Mandy most likely had cancer, and they could try a feeding tube if she wanted, but the outlook was not good.
“I had to tell him when he came home from his first day of school,” she said. “I said we would do whatever he wanted, and that this was the very first grown-up decision he was going to have to make.”
Ryan decided Mandy was in too much pain, and it was time to say goodbye. His best friend of seven years was hurting. But, he had one request from his mother: for Mandy to die at home.
Tripp was searching for a solution and came across an article for Dr. Kathy Bissell, who performs in-home pet euthanasia.
Almost three years ago, Bissell relocated to Aiken from Columbia. She had owned a cat-only veterinary clinic and had almost 30 years in the business. She said she was burnt-out, done with the paperwork and the hassle. When she thought about what she would do next, she realized the one part of her business in Columbia she really thought did the most good was her in-home euthanasia service.
She decided that helping cats and dogs “transition” was her calling and would be the entirety of her business. She volunteers for the Aiken Animal Shelter and the Aiken Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but she spends most of her time administering drugs to end the lives of pets.
Bissell, who has had up to 12 cats at one time, knows that some people think what she does is a little creepy. She has seen people take her card and stare at it for 10 minutes while they try and figure out what they are looking at.
“They don’t understand,” she said. “It freaks people out.”
According to people who have used her service, however, there is nothing freaky about it.
Gary Willoughby, the president and CEO of the Aiken SPCA, said he refers people to her when they are looking for options. Having the option not to have to bring their animal into an office and start crying in front of a lobby full of people is nice, he said. And some owners with large dogs might not even be able to lift them into the car.
For Tripp, giving her son the gift of spending Mandy’s last moments with her in their home was priceless.
“He asked me questions, he asked if she would be in pain,” Tripp said. “It was so peaceful to not be in a room full of people with healthy pets. We were home, Ryan had her wrapped in her favorite blanket and she was on his lap.”
Another service Bissell offers is to drive the cat or dog’s body to the pet crematorium, which was a service the Tripps used as well. She said Bissell placed Mandy in a basket and took her straight over, saving Ryan the pain of having to look at her body.
“She made a really bad situation less scary for him. It takes a special kind of person to do that for another person,” Tripp said. “I think it would have broken him to have done it at the vet.”
In fact, Tripp said, she had to put down two dogs about five years ago at the vet office. After that experience, she had to change vets.
“I told them, ‘I cannot walk back in your door,’” she said. “And they were wonderful. But I couldn’t face it.”
Anther of Bissell’s clients, Cec Nieminen, knew they had to say goodbye to her toy Yorkie, Snickers, about a year ago. The dog had lost her vision and hearing and was unable to make it up and down steps.
One morning, when Nieminen picked her up, she let out a little yelp.
“We had been praying for God to tell us when it was time,” Neiminen said.
Neiminen and her husband put Snickers in their favorite chair and answered questions from Bissell about her personality.
“It was so much more comfortable to do this at home for (Snickers),” she said. “(Bissell) wasn’t in a hurry, she seemed to genuinely want to know about Snickers.”
When asked if she misses the healing part of being a vet, Bissell paused.
The answer was no. She feels what she does is a form of healing because she is ending the suffering of animals, which is in the veterinarian’s oath.
She conceded, however, that some of her new projects, including one where she will be starting a trap, neuter and release program for feral cats, may be a subconscious way for her to be with animals in another way.
She does think she will be in the pet life-ending business for a while, though. She has a friend who does the same thing in Colorado. Bissell often calls her for advice.
Bissell is certain about one thing. What she does is a helpful service that should be an option for pet owners.
“Everything’s a circle. Life and death,” she said. “What I do is a calling.”