Royal Canin

Supporting clients during euthanasia

Genie Bishop DVM VHSC

The death of a patient in a veterinary clinic has a ripple effect. It can affect everyone from the pet’s owner to the veterinarian and any staff member who had ever interacted with that pet or client. The emotional fallout and consequences that may result from the loss need to be anticipated.

Euthanasia from the client’s perspective

First let’s look at euthanasia and consider the feelings of the client. Making the decision to end the life of a pet is fraught with emotions. When a favorable outcome to an injury or illness is not possible, it may appear to be the best option to the veterinarian. After all, “the prevention and relief of animal suffering” are words straight out of the veterinary oath. But many clients can’t bear the thought of making the decision to euthanize their pet. “It’s murder.” “He’ll just have to die on his own.” “I just hope he passes in his sleep.” It is in cases like this a veterinary social worker can be valuable. Even if the animal is obviously suffering, it can take an agonizingly long time for a client to make any decision. A trained individual, even a practice manager or client services representative with good communication skills can offer the client much needed support and information.

Making decisions

It is preferable that the client is made aware of all the decisions that go along with Euthanasia as well as the paperwork they will be required to complete. Permission to euthanize, cremation or burial, ashes returned or scattered, ink pawprint or clay impression, to be present or not present: the list goes on. Prepayment of the bill should be considered rather than payment at the time of service from an emotional client. Taking care of all these decisions before the time arrives could make the event a little easier for the owner.

Suggestions for preparing the client for this difficult decision:

• While not always possible, removing paperwork from the patient’s room may be beneficial.
• If the owner is unable to drive home afterward, offer to call someone to pick them up.
• A review of the clinic’s standard protocols should be completed to make sure the experience will be as painless as possible for both the pet and the owner.
• Studies show that clients turn to their veterinarian for comfort. Designate a staff member or, ideally, a licensed professional to help support the client. Many clinics have a veterinary social worker on staff to provide necessary resources.

How to console the client:

• The client may suffer from feelings of guilt. “What did I do wrong?” “Maybe I should have noticed the signs sooner.” “I’ve been so busy I haven’t given him the attention he deserved.” The reassurance of a veterinary professional can go a long way in comforting a grieving client; this is one of your best tools.
• Be a good listener. Let your client know you understand how they are feeling.
• Share good times with the owner. “I remember when you first brought Skippy in as a puppy.”
• Refrain from cliches (“He’s not suffering anymore”), but do offer positive comments, such as “You took excellent care of him.”
• This is not the time to suggest getting another pet unless the owner raises the issue.
• Your client may be experiencing “disenfranchised grief,” the sense that the nature of their loss is relatively less significant. It is important that the veterinary staff validate the owner’s grief.

What you can do and expect after euthanasia

Sympathy cards show thoughtfulness and should be sent no later than two weeks after the death while feelings are still raw. Personal messages from staff members are more appreciated than a card stamped with the clinic name. Many clinics also choose to donate to a memorial fund in the pet’s name and send a notification to the owner. Others may make an ink paw print or clay impression. Whatever the gesture, the sooner the better.

According to studies, some clients will choose to never return to the clinic despite their excellent care because it will resurrect painful memories. All you can do is your best in these situations, for both the animal and the owner. And even if you never see that client again, knowing that you were there to support them at a difficult time is consolation.