Honoring Dr. Amir Shanan, the IAAHPC Founder and Visionary

As founder of the IAAHPC, Dr. Amir Shanan has been the driving force behind the launch, mission, and vision of the association. Quiet, yet powerful and introspective, he truly has established a strong foundation for the future of animal hospice and palliative care for pets and those who care for them.

Dr. Shanan recently made the decision to step back from his leadership and advisory role at IAAHPC. I wanted to hear from our founder, what is the next path in his journey? What are his thoughts on where the IAAHPC and the field of animal hospice and palliative care are headed?

It was a cloudy, yet warm day in Dallas when I finally connected via phone with Dr. Shanan on a cloudy, yet cool day, in his home in Chicago. We both settled in, and I was excited to get to the heart of Dr. Shanan, both professionally and personally.

“I know you’ve shared your reasons for formalizing this movement of animal hospice and palliative care. But what got you into it? Was it an event? A special pet?” I started our interview.  I’ve been a colleague, and friend, of Amir’s for years. I knew the story he’d shared with everyone about formulating his ideas, but I wanted more!

“What preceded the vision for IAAHPC was 15 years of work in the field, providing end-of-life care and family support wherever it was needed, 7 days a week. My interest in supporting families approaching their animals’ end-of-life started all the way back in 1992 when I was introduced to the Delta Society and the human-animal bond work. No, there wasn’t a particular personal animal or patient that triggered my vision. I was fascinated by the human-animal bond, anxious to learn more about it, and excited about making it a bigger part of my practice. I wanted to build my practice by supporting my clients’ bond with their animals, and I had to figure out how. THAT was the start.”

“Next thing, I was introduced to the idea of pet hospice and envisioned it as a vet-directed home nursing service for sick animals. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far. Then in 1994 a client asked if I would do something I never heard of before: euthanize an animal at home. I walked out of that home visit with my head spinning. I knew that THIS was ‘a thing’… a BIG thing. I placed an ad in the Yellow Pages advertising home euthanasia, not hospice. The phone started ringing, and for the next few years, I was focused on making home euthanasia an option available to Chicagoland pet owners. However, time after time, before I would leave their home, clients would tell me “We needed someone like you months ago!  Where were you?!! Why couldn’t we find you back then?”

“That’s when I realized that HOSPICE was what they were missing. There was a huge GAP in care, a widespread, profound and unmet need for guidance and support as pet owners were preparing for their beloved pets’ last moments.”

I could feel Dr. Shanan’s passion flood the proverbial phone line. I knew if I was sitting with him there in his kitchen, I’d see his eyes lit up, talking about his life’s calling, helping families through their most difficult times of loving a precious pet.

I wanted to know: now that this movement has gotten this far, what vision do you have for pet hospice in the next 10 years?  “Most certainly there will be more attention to animal end-of-life in our society and in the veterinary profession. We’ve grown ten-fold in the last ten years, and we’ll grow another ten-fold in the next 10!!”

“The vision for the field I articulated in 2009 and the IAAHPC Guidelines published in 2013 are still the most in-depth documents that define the components of and the professional terminology for animal hospice. As our impact continues to grow, the ideas constituting the foundation for our work must evolve to reflect changing realities.”

“We have issues that need to be further defined. This movement is ripe for open discussions to sharpen and clarify our message and mission, so we can make an even bigger impact in the future.”

As a veterinarian determined for end-of-life care for animals to make an impact in the world, what areas do you see as large-scale untapped opportunities?” I Asked. Dr. Shanan didn’t hesitate for a second. “The hospice teams are not as developed as I think they can be. Animal hospice is doctor-centered right now. With our dedicated veterinarians as busy as they are, this is an obstacle for expanding our services in areas where doctors aren’t equipped with the time or skills to do everything our patients and clients need done.”

“We also need to be fully open to support those families who want their pets to die without  euthanasia. There is no reason to be afraid of hospice supported natural death. It needs to be an option. It needs to be the family’s choice. We need to talk about it and tell the family it IS an option.”

I was curious, was there a family that stood out to him, one who had made an impact on him in his journey of end-of-life services for pet lovers? “I’ve learned from and was influenced by so many families. But the first home euthanasia I was called to perform was transformative. It was a couple with no children, and they had cared for their 80-pound Doberman Pinscher who was quadriplegic for 8 months before saying “it’s time.” I remember they asked me to say a prayer after performing the euthanasia, which I did – it just came straight from my heart. I left that appointment with my life changed.” 

As a veteran and a pioneer in AHPC, I wanted to hear from Dr. Shanan what advice he has to offer to those just getting started in this field. His advice hit right to the heart of what it takes to support dying animals and their families. “The most important skill to develop is listening: 1) listening to the family, and 2) listening to the animal. Listening to the animal is separate from and distinctly different than medically evaluating the animal. They are thinking and feeling beings that have opinions, preferences, and a capacity for resilience. We need to pay attention to and respect what they communicate.”

“What’s Dr. Shanan’s next journey,” I asked. “Professionally, I’m back to working on my goal from almost 30 years ago – to develop a model for a service that’s veterinary-directed, but services are delivered primarily by veterinary nurses/technicians as well as other personnel that support the family, and ultimately pulling in trained hospice volunteers onto the team as well.” “I’ve made some strides over the past two years and now have a team of 3 veterinary nurses serving families in their homes. Most recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve added the power of telemedicine to our support for clients/families”.

“I’d love to go back to writing, sooner or later… but right now, Liat and I are at the tail end of a big move and still settling in. Liat is ready to get back to her jewelry studio work. Our granddaughter will be 2 years old this summer. Our 3 boys and their families all live close by us right here in Chicago. They’re beautiful human beings, and they’re a huge source of pride and joy!”

I felt so honored to spend a bit of time with Dr. Shanan, and thanked him profusely on behalf of all of us for the work he’s done. I wanted some final thoughts from him, as a patriarch for the members of the IAAHPC family. “Remember: what we do is not just a service, it’s a social service. Our ultimate goal is emotional well-being for the animal and the family.”

Powerful. Deeply reflective, and the perfect advice.

Godspeed, Dr. Amir Shanan, in your next journey. Thank you for inviting us along for this ride!

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