Dr. Diane Eigner the ‘Cat Whispurrr’ Offers Home Hospice and Palliative Care for Cats

Photo by: Supplied Photo

Barnegat, NJ — Arguably the hardest experiences in life involve saying goodbye to loved ones. Worse still is helplessly witnessing them suffer. For pets, who have shorter life spans, every moment counts for their quality of life. Veterinary professional Dr. Diane Eigner of Barnegat has dedicated her retirement to bringing education and awareness to palliative and hospice care for pets.

“It’s hard to describe myself without mentioning my connection to veterinary work,” Eigner said. Her love for animals began when she was just a young child who watched “Lassie” on television. Her father was a doctor, and two of his four children followed suit.

“There was kind of an expectation that we would pursue a medical profession, and I was always drawn to animals. It was that simple.”

Eigner attended a religious high school where, she recalled, young girls were discouraged from pursuing difficult professions. As a result, she did not receive the advanced math and science she needed to prepare for veterinary school.

“Still, the work never seemed daunting to me, so I forged on.” She described spending her youth and teen years in the library, researching science and math on her own.

“I was ignorant to the fact that competition was fierce for veterinary school applicants in the ‘70s, especially for young women. There were only about 18 schools at the time,” Eigner explained. She was rejected twice before she was invited to reapply at University of Pennsylvania, where she was ultimately accepted.

“After Penn rejected me the first time, I made an appointment with the administration committee to understand where I needed to improve,” she said.

Eigner shared she owes her unwavering determination to her parents. “Too often, people allow rejection to dash a dream, rather than allowing it to be an opportunity for growth.”

After graduating, Eigner accepted a position at an office in Point Pleasant. “I was considering limiting my practice to cats, specifically. There were very few practices doing that at the time.”

She applied for a residency in Florida, and although she was rejected, she was offered an associate position at a practice specifically for cats the same day. A few years later, she embarked on her own journey, opening her own hospital.

“When I was 28, I bought a property by the art museum in Philly,” she explained. “My goal was to live upstairs, which had obvious economic incentives, but it also meant I was in close proximity to my patients, which is what I wanted.”

Over the next 34 years, Eigner grew her practice into a fulfilling career. “At our height,” she shared, “we had three doctors and a staff of 15.”

Eigner’s practice was close to the University of Pennsylvania, and consequently, she received enormous support. “I owe a big debt to the veterinary program at Penn,” she explained, “and a lot of gratitude to Penn’s academic and clinical faculty who supported me as an alumna during my early stages, when I needed mentoring. There were times I wouldn’t understand something about an X-ray, so I’d drive it to Penn and have the radiology department help me figure it out.” Eigner later became president of the veterinary program alumni association and remained on its board for years.

In addition to her participation with Penn, Eigner got involved with the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “What that did was put me with the best and brightest cat doctors in the country, and our focus was on education,” she explained.

Rather than allowing herself to be intimidated by obstacles or competition, she embraced them as opportunities. “I always surrounded myself with professionals who were smarter and better than me, so I could learn from them,” she explained. Eigner advises today's youth to invest themselves in associations with like-minded, goal-oriented people, and to feel encouraged, rather than threatened, by the skill and success of others. “It allows you to grow as a person and a professional,” she said.

Retirement Leads
To Different Focus

When Eigner was about 60, she decided to sell her hospital at the peak of its profitability, but with her patients in mind.

“I wanted to sell it to the best doctor at the practice, because I was afraid she would leave after I retired,” she said. Eigner had to find another buyer when her associate declined.

Prior to selling, Eigner pursued further education. While she was ready to let go of the stress of management, she knew there was still work for her in the veterinary community.

“I didn’t want to be among many retired practice owners,” she said. “I wanted to do something different.” She returned to school and earned her MBA at Temple University. Soon thereafter, she was invited by Penn to teach veterinary students practice management.

A year after selling her practice, a cat she had adopted became terminally ill. According to Eigner, her cat was suffering kidney failure and could not be cured, so she focused on comfort care.

“I was able to keep her alive for almost a year,” Eigner said. “How special, to create an experience for my cat that was all about her and her comfort. In the end, I was able to put her to sleep in my own home.”

Eigner became inspired to empower cat owners to have more say in terms of end-of-life care for their pets.

“Pet owners are very protective, and sometimes we err on the side of putting our pets to sleep because we are protecting them from any suffering.” she said. “But there is so much we can do to alleviate discomfort, and provide that comfort care. I wanted to make that available to people.”

Thus, at 62, Eigner embarked on a daunting educational process. “The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care was launching a certification program – over 100 hours of practice and very challenging material to master. And I became certified in hospice and palliative care.”

For the last three years, she has offered hospice consultations and in-home euthanasia to cats under the fitting business name “The Cat Whispurrr.”

According to Eigner, sometimes when a cat is approaching end of life but is not quite ready to “cross the rainbow bridge,” it just needs a proper diagnosis, some medication for symptom management and/or a referral to the right physician.

“I am passionate about owners having a special experience of saying goodbye in a way that’s best for both them and their cats.”

Eigner explained her palliative care work allows her to be a better instructor for her students, as she recalled having fear in being promoted to adjunct assistant professor.

“You don’t want people lecturing who are never in the trenches. I never wanted to find myself too far from what vets are actually experiencing,” she explained. “Every time I go on a call, it reinforces what I want to communicate to my students.”

The service Eigner provides is a unique niche in the greater veterinary world. According to Eigner, the majority of veterinary students do not receive comprehensive education for end-of life-care and euthanasia because it is simply not in the curriculum. It was thus she proposed an elective course for end-of-life care to Penn and was accepted. She has taught the course for three semesters so far.

Eigner shared IAAHPC was so excited about the curriculum, she was invited to join the board of directors.

“I am so convinced vets should be educated more formally in euthanasia and the communication involved during a very sensitive time,” she explained. According to Eigner, many students lack the training for end of life care, such as coping with owner grief and honoring the death of a pet. “Unless you have a good mentor to model your behavior after, you won’t have that,” she said.

Eigner’s ultimate goal is to make the course a part of the core curriculum for all veterinary schools.

She imparts the affirmative attitude that helped her over the hurdles in her education and career to her patients’ owners. “If you’re not satisfied, understand that maybe what you need is not that vet’s strength.”

Eigner emphasizes the importance of finding solutions to problems rather than criticisms. “Try not to be judgmental. Just know there are professionals out there who can help you. And there are some amazing online resources.” She cited pethospice.com and iaahpc.org for information regarding quality of life assessments.

In addition to empowering students and pet owners, Eigner also aims to empower senior citizens, especially women. “Yoga has allowed me to become part of an amazing community as an older woman,” she said. She has a daily practice of yoga, and even teaches a few days a week.

“As a doctor, I am drawn to the science of the many benefits yoga has for the body,” Eigner shared. She was pleased to share Dr.Loren Fishman’s, which show how yoga offsets the loss of bone density. “I’m 65, and I am so open about my age because I want to serve a population of women and men who do not give themselves credit for what their bodies can still do.”

The same principle of finding strength in challenges is present in her yoga practice. “We often say in yoga, take it to your comfortable edge, and then soften.”

According to Eigner, what is most important about all of her work, with felines and humans alike, is encouraging a solutions-driven attitude toward the pursuit of a healthy and fulfilling life.

Eigner can be found on Facebook at @catwhispurrr.vet.


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