Despite your most valiant efforts, as vets, you will likely lose a pet-patient during treatment every now and then. It is a natural, albeit unfortunate occupational hazard you simply will not be able to avoid. As such, learning how to handle end-of-pet-life situations and cope with the painfully uncomfortable subjects of pet death and dying is critical for any veterinarian.
Before a death
Tip #1 - Make sure pet owners understand any risks involved
When a very ill or wounded pet-patient is brought to your vet clinic for treatment, you should make sure the owner knows about any risks or unpromising prognoses involved. It is important that you educate yourself, your team and your pet owner clients about medical issues and courses of treatment in great detail, yet simply and in layman terms, so that they are well-understood. It is a good idea to stock your clinic with printouts of the benefits and risks involved when seeking different courses of treatment, which you can and should hand out to pet owners, to ensure no information is left out.
Tip #2 - Support your pet owners emotionally
Provide a safe space for the discussion of concerns, fears and feelings surrounding pet treatments. Validate those feelings and reassure pet owners of your skill, expertise and proven track record, without ever giving off any false hope. Sometimes, even the most routine of procedures can become complicated, or lead to end of life care. You do not want to make promises of a healthy, fully recovered pet that you may not be able to keep.
Tip #3 - Discuss the possibility of euthanasia before it is required
It is extremely important to educate pet owners about the euthanasia procedure BEFORE it takes place. This is true of old and sick pets brought in to “be put down,” as well as for pet-patients about to undergo procedures, from which they may or may not come out in better shape. Explain how the sedation and euthanasia solution facilitates a humane end-of-life experience for their pet, detailing how the body responds to the drugs to reduce levels of anxiety and provide as much comfort to pet owners as humanly possible, by ensuring they know what to expect. This should be done before and during the euthanasia process.
Tip #4 - Strictly adhere to protocols
In your pet practice, you may from time to time come across a pet owner who cannot contain the anger he feels towards your clinic following a pet-patient’s death. While there should always be room for the expression of emotions, you still need to do your best to eliminate any liability on your part. You do not want to be the defendant in a medical malpractice lawsuit. This means following operational protocols to the “T.” In addition to staying on top of the latest, more advanced courses of treatment, adhere to the strictest decontamination, instrument processing and sterilization practices - using the most advanced sterilizers/autoclaves. Tuttnauer’s tvet veterinary autoclave can help you with that. This way, you’ll be able to save more pet-patient lives - and in the event that an animal does die, you’ll be able to confidently, albeit seriously approach the owner and say, “I’m sorry, there was nothing more I could do.”
During a death
Tip #5 - Be present, very present
If there was any time to show off your stellar bedside manner, this is it. Whether you are together with the pet owner during the euthanasia process, or in the veterinary surgery room with your pet-patient and other staff members, it is important to remain present, keep the lines of communication open and talk with a warm, loving and direct voice. You want your pet-patient and its owner to feel loved and supported during this difficult experience. You also want your staff members to learn proper etiquette from their professional role model. While disconnecting yourself emotionally from the death may help you remain focused on the job, it is important that you remain connected, for the benefit of everyone in your midst.
Immediately following a death
>Tip #6 - Acknowledge the loss
Inform your pet owner client that their loved one has passed in a clear, yet heartfelt way. Use the pet’s name and mention how great the loss is, or how obviously this pet was loved. While it is standard in the medical field not to apologize after performing a treatment, in this case saying “I’m sorry for your loss,” is appropriate - and does not constitute an admission of guilt. It’s okay to cry if you were particularly attached to this pet, or if you find yourself overcome with emotion in the aftermath of its passing.
Tip #7 - … Then listen
Once you have informed the pet owner of their pet’s passing, the time has come for you to assume the role of active listener. Be sure you hear the client’s words and read their body language, to gain a clear picture of any feelings behind those words and movements, without expressing any judgement or defensiveness on your part. This includes anger on the part of the pet owner, which you should recognize and refer to as a natural part of the grieving process. Allow for moments of silence to take place, without bowing out and heading off to treat another patient. If fitting, extend a hand, a tissue, or a glass of water.
Tip #8 - Celebrate the life that was lost
Share memories about your pet-patient; those that took place in your clinic and those you never knew about but are now suddenly being shared by your pet owner client, in light of the pet’s passing. Mention how special this pet-patient was to you and offer suggestions that can help them celebrate their pet and memorialize his life, such as creating a photo book, clipping a lock of fur to be placed inside a locket, making a clay paw print or foot cast, putting the pet’s tags on a keychain and more.
Tip #9 - Give pet owners information on support groups, and maybe seek one out yourself
It’s common for pet owners AND veterinarians to feel emotional following the death of an animal. In fact, grief is the normal and universal response to separation and loss felt by humans around the world. But, that doesn’t mean grief should not be properly dealt with. After a death, it’s a good idea to give clients information about local and online support groups, such as https://aplb.org/chat/ and http://pet-loss.net/. And as for yourself, it is recommended that you periodically visit with a grief counselor yourself, to help deal with grief and be able to continue to provide professional veterinary care.
In the weeks following a death
Tip #10 - Reach out
Send a condolence note, or better yet, reach out and call grieving pet owners yourself. Show them that your pet-patient remains on your mind, while giving them time and space to discuss their feelings, knowing they are not alone in their sorrow. If at any point you find that the pet owner needs extra support or seems suicidal, direct them to counseling services and hotlines.
In conclusion & what not to do
To sum, when dealing with pet-patient death, it is important to be clear, yet compassionate throughout the process, serving as a shoulder to cry on, without breaking professionalism at any point. When handling the death of a pet-patient during treatment, you should never tell pet owners you know how they feel, that time will heal, that they should get another pet or that they have grieved for too long. Never bring religion into the mix, compare their loss to someone else’s even your own), suggest alcohol or self-medication as a grief fixer, or use hurtful or critical words. The way you comport yourself during death experiences will ultimately define your veterinary practice and will lead to an influx of new and returning clients - or will send your existing clients straight to your competition. Word-of-mouth travels fast, so be sure any words spread about your vet clinic are positive, even in light of life-ending tragedy.
Bonus tip: Following any vet clinic procedure, including but not limited to those involving pet-patient deaths, be sure to sterilize your tools with a tvet veterinary autoclave, by Tuttnauer. Contact us for more information.