Supporting your clients through the loss of their pets is one of the most important roles you’ll have to fill as a veterinarian. Here’s some advice you can offer to help make the experience less painful.
Research proves the strength of the human-animal bond – and additional research shows that many pet parents feel the death of a companion animal just as strongly as they feel the loss of a human friend or loved one. How should veterinarians support their clients, then, as they grieve the passing of their animal companions? While every situation is unique, the following advice is often helpful.
1. If euthanizing a pet, prepare your clients for the experience
We as veterinarians know that euthanasia is the final kindness. At the same time, it is never easy for pet parents to say goodbye. We can ease the process by providing information about preparing for euthanasia, helping clients understand what’s happening during the procedure, and offering options for taking care of the pet’s body afterward.
There are numerous websites with information that can help everyone on your care team provide pet parents with the support they need during difficult transitions.
Similarly, if a client comes to you wanting to terminate their dog’s pregnancy, remember that they still may go through the same feelings of guilt and grief. The dog is also very likely to experience a period of mourning, so it’s a good idea to provide information on how to prevent pregnancy in the future, and give advice on how they can best care for their dog and themselves during this time.
2. Encourage pet parents to allow time and space for grieving
Let your clients know that it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions as they process their loss. People often feel anger, shock, disbelief, and numbness. Many find themselves feeling a sense of relief that their companion’s suffering has come to an end. Guilt, sadness, regret, and anxiety are part of the spectrum, too.
Losing a pet leads to big changes in a person’s daily life. There are moments when that loss might be felt with great intensity, and at those times, it is important to acknowledge and release those emotions. Your clinic may wish to provide information about the stages of grief and encourage people to seek counselling as a way to fully process their emotions.
3. Encourage clients to memorialize their pets
Even though death is permanent, memories live on. Reflecting on those happy, carefree times can help pet parents work their way through grief and experience a sense of gratitude for the wonderful bond they shared. Encourage clients to remember the sweet moments, the fun times, and the silly antics that made their pets unique. Remembering good times balances the pain of grief.
Pet memorial sites, special headstones, and even pet memorial jewelry offer different methods for memorializing pets while reminding your clients of the special ways their animal companions enriched their lives.
Saying goodbye is an important part of closure and pet parents might find it helpful to write letters to their pets, particularly if the loss was sudden and unexpected. Writing is a tangible way to express grief and it’s an excellent way to create a tribute to a pet – even if no one ever reads what has been written.
4. Emphasize the importance of self-care
The pain of grief can bring life skidding to a sudden halt. During the first few days following the loss of a pet – and sometimes for a longer period than that – your clients may find themselves sleepless, suffering from a low appetite, and even isolating themselves from others.
Encourage pet parents to make self-care a priority. Remind them to eat nourishing foods and urge them to connect with others who care. Other self-care practices including warm baths, meditation, walking, or simply watching favorite TV programs can be very helpful. The same principal goes for pets who may be mourning a brother or sister, or may have gone through a termination pregnancy.
Some employers might feel empathetic and allow a little time off work after the loss of a pet. In case time off isn’t granted, veterinarians might encourage their clients to spend the next few weekends focusing on enjoyable activities.
5. Offer tips on caring for other family members
If your client has other pets and family members, encourage them to take special care of them in the period following their loss. Family members, friends, and living pets are an important part of a pet parent’s support system – and in many cases, they’ll feel the loss of the pet, too. Cats are likely to isolate themselves when they’re missing a friend; dogs actively search for other pets after a loss; and children experience intense grief when a pet dies.
Veterinarians can help by providing resources for helping other pets during this transition. It may be helpful to provide families with tips for explaining a pet’s death to children as well. Maintaining structure and going through the motions of familiar rituals can ease the pain and help families find a sense of normalcy over time.
6. Remind people that there’s no hurry to get a new pet after a loss
It’s a question many vets hear often: “When should I get a new pet?” There’s no need to be in a hurry. Pet parents need to allow themselves time to grieve fully, and to view a new pet as a unique individual. After all, there’s no replacement for a pet, just as there’s no replacement for another person. The time is right when a pet parent can remember their original companion animal with a sense of gratitude and fondness, and when there’s a sense of eagerness toward building a new relationship with another pet.
If a pet is aging and your clients are mentally preparing themselves for the loss, they may ask for an opinion concerning when to get a new pet. Many families do find it helpful to adopt a new pet before an older one passes away; it sometimes helps ease the transition and allows your new pet to become part of the family before that final “goodbye”. At the same time, another pet may provide comfort and support during the older pet’s transition.
It’s never easy to cope with a pet’s passing, but with help from compassionate veterinarians, grief counselors, and pet loss support groups, people may find the transition a little simpler.
Dr. Pete Wedderburn, BVM&S CertVR MRCVS, qualified as a vet from Edinburgh in 1985 and has run his own 4-veterinarian companion animal practice in County Wicklow, Ireland, since 1991. Pete is well known as a media veterinarian with regular national tv, radio and newspaper slots, including a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph since 2007. Pete is known as "Pete the Vet" on his busy Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, regularly posting information on topical subjects and real-life cases from his clinic. He also writes a regular blog at www.petethevet.com and We’re All About Cats. His latest book: “Pet Subjects”, was published by Aurum Press in 2017.