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Cradled in the Lap of Love

This successful Gator100 business has shown that pet owners want quality care for their beloved companion animals until the last goodbye

Gator veterinarians Dr. Dani McVety (shown here making a hospice visit) and Dr. Mary Gardner founded Lap of Love in Tampa in 2009 as a way to give pets hospice care and a peaceful passing in the comfort of their homes. Lap of Love now has 225 vets in 33 states and is among the 100 fastest-growing Gator businesses in the nation. (Photo courtesy Lap of Love)

The little tan Chihuahua lay quietly on the examination table, her distraught family gathered around her, as Dani McVety (BSA ’04, DVM ’09) prepared to euthanize the 20-year-old pet.

As Dr. McVety readied the catheter, the tearful client met her gaze and said, “Please, please — can you leave her on my lap, instead of that cold, sterile table?”

Only three months out of veterinary school, McVety knew she was supposed to take the animal to a back “treatment room” to begin the short euthanasia process. But the woman’s plea was too raw, too heartfelt, to refuse.

Quickly improvising, McVety lifted the frail Chihuahua to the woman’s lap and gave her a slow, peaceful passing, surrounded by the humans who loved her deeply.

Three months later, Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice was born in Tampa, Florida. What started as a way for McVety to pay off her student loans grew into a thriving nationwide business with cofounder and fellow Gator veterinarian Mary Gardner (DVM ’08). Not just an at-home euthanasia service, Lap of Love provides hospice care for geriatric and terminally ill pets, as well as counseling for owners so they can say goodbye with no regrets.

Since its founding in 2009, Lap of Love has grown into the nation’s largest network of veterinarians dedicated solely to end-of-life care at home. Known informally as “Dr. Dani” and “Dr. Mary,” McVety and Gardner employ more than 225 vets in 33 states, as well as 120 trained care coordinators who coach pet owners virtually and by phone (those coordinators handle roughly 10,000 calls a week, said Gardner).

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For hospice vets, counseling pet owners is just as much a part of their work as tending to geriatric and terminally ill animals. “That’s a hugely important part of what we do, validating the decision to say goodbye,” says Dr. McVety. “At the end of the day, we are left with an intense humility for life and death; the work we do provides meaning.”

For seven consecutive years, Lap of Love has been listed on the Gator100 list of fastest-growing Gator-owned businesses in the nation — the first firm to sustain that record.

“Oh, my gosh, we are so honored,” said McVety when she first heard the news in April. “We won the Inc. 5000 award a few years ago, but this is the one that means something to us.”

Friends since their freshman year of vet school, McVety and Gardner are seeming opposites who together create the perfect business “whole.” McVety is gentle and empathetic, with a background in human hospice and an entrepreneurial bent; Gardner is playful and upbeat, with software expertise and a passion for research, in addition to her medical training.

While neither intended for veterinary hospice to become their life’s work, both embraced it wholeheartedly once they saw their impact on animals and “pet parents,” as they like to call pet owners.

Their work might seem sad, but it is far from it, they insist.

“The most challenging part is when we first get to the home and the families are struggling so much,” said McVety. “That’s a hugely important part of what we do, validating the decision to say goodbye.”

Once owners understand their pet will be in no more pain and they are making the best decision, much of the guilt lifts, McVety said. Performing euthanasia in the comfort of the pet’s own home ensures that its final moments are peaceful and dignified, rather than tainted with anxiety and fear — or worse, disrupted by a sudden medical emergency.

Afterward, clients feel immense relief and gratitude, and they show it, McVety and Gardner said.

“My greatest joy is the hugs we get at the end of the day,” said Gardner. “I get hugs from big, burly guys that you would never expect. It’s very humbling.”

Lap of Love cares for all kinds of small animals, including cats. Here, tabby Nala gets a home-health visit. (Photo courtesy Lap of Love)

“I wish everyone on the face of this earth received the gratitude that we receive for what we do,” said McVety. “At the end of the day, we [hospice vets] are left with an intense humility for life and death; the work we do provides meaning.”

For pets with weeks or months left to live, medically supervised hospice can make a profound difference in their quality of life.

“Veterinary hospice is not about extending suffering, but rather, preventing suffering from occurring at all,” explains an article on the Lap of Love website.

Lap of Love vets and care coordinators advise clients on recognizing their pet’s pain and treating it, helping senior pets with mobility issues, managing incontinence and more. As with human hospice, the goal is ensuring the pet’s comfort throughout the end stages of life, not on finding a cure.

If started early enough, hospice can help clients and pets make the most of their remaining time together. Sadly, studies Gardner has done show that more than 50% of dogs and cats will not be seen by their primary care veterinarian within a year before they die. Lap of Love would like to see that paradigm change.

“I’d like for all pets to be seen at least twice yearly by their primary care veterinarian by the time they hit the double digits,” said Gardner.

Those regular visits mean veterinarians can treat age-related ailments and give a heads up when problems are terminal, meaning it is time to consider hospice. Timing is everything when it comes to senior pet care, Gardner stressed.

“Ideally, I would like clients to approach us three months before the pet passes because so much can be done in that time,” she said. “Making bucket lists and doing those things — having a picnic in a favorite spot, doing a last photoshoot together while the animal is still well enough — that enables clients to have no regrets.”

The exponential success of Lap of Love points to a broader trend: the growth of geriatric and end-of-life veterinary medicine.

When Lap of Love began in 2009, few veterinarians were specializing in this type of medicine. Today, the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care has 1,220 members throughout the world, including 181 Lap of Love members, said IAAHPC Executive Director Coleen Ellis.

The IAAHPC is one of several bodies that certifies vets in animal hospice and palliative care, and its leaders have watched with pride as Lap of Love has grown along with the field.

“Dr. Dani and Dr. Mary are such pioneers in our field and are truly amazing ladies,” said Ellis.

The pair’s expertise has also come full circle with their alma mater. Since 2014, they have regularly taught an end-of-life medical course at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. While it is an elective, more than 80% of UF students specializing in small animal medicine take it, noted McVety.

Medically supervised pet hospice enables pets and their owners to get the most out of their last weeks or months together, with no regrets, says Lap of Love cofounder Dr. Mary Gardner, shown here. “Veterinary hospice is not about extending suffering, but rather, preventing suffering from occurring at all,” she says.

The college’s support has meant a great deal to the Lap of Love entrepreneurs, McVety said.

“When I first started doing hospice work, I heard from a lot of people inside and outside the veterinary profession, ‘You know, this is never going to be a full-time job, clients aren’t going to want this,’” she said. “I have got to tell you, right from the start, the UF veterinary school was always so supportive of us, being our cheerleaders.”

“Our anesthesiology professor at UF, Dr. Sheilah Robertson, is now Lap of Love’s senior medical director,” she added proudly.

Increasingly, American pet owners are willing to keep their aging pets with them as long as possible, reports the American Animal Hospital Association. That includes being willing to take on home-nursing tasks and to reach out for hospice care and advice.

Those trends suggest Lap of Love has many years of growth potential ahead. And at the heart of that ever-evolving success story is a true orange-and-blue friendship.

“It’s great to be in business with a classmate and a friend,” said Gardner. “I am so incredibly happy we can share this experience together.”

Visit Lap of Love’s extensive, resource-filled website to learn about veterinary hospice and to find a provider in your area: https://www.lapoflove.com/

Browse the videos on Lap of Love’s YouTube channel to find out about senior pet care, creating long-lasting pet memorials, the company’s mission and more: https://www.youtube.com/user/Lapoflove