Virtual support groups for pet grief and loss

Veterinary clinics have seen sudden change during COVID-19. How does that effect end of life decisions and how can virtual support groups help veterinarians cope with pet grief and loss?

COVID has transformed everything, creating feelings of anxiety and worry among even the most emotionally resilient. Changes to daily schedules and habits as well as how we relate to others make for unique challenges. For many people, pets are the one stable element within this turmoil. Pets help mitigate the feelings of anxiety, isolation and loneliness that can accompany social distancing (see COVID-19 survey here). Yet, for some pet parents, this is also a time when they are facing end of life decisions. In these uncertain times, virtual support groups play an important role in helping veterinarians and clients cope with pet grief and loss.

The challenges of end of life decisions

In the best of times, euthanasia is a difficult decision. Yet, these times are far from normal, and the new protocols being used by most veterinarians are just one example of many changes that have taken place. Out of necessity, most veterinary hospitals have shifted to ‘curbside’ services, in which pet parents are met outside and the pet is taken into the hospital by a veterinary staff member.  Exams are conducted inside and results are conveyed to clients by talking to them outside in their cars or by calling/texting. While far from perfect, this system has allowed for the continuation of veterinary care during this time of mandated physical distancing. These protocols, while reducing the risk of COVID, create additional stress and emotional strain on both veterinarians and pet parents.

Talking to clients about end of life decisions is always challenging, but to have to do so under these conditions adds an additional layer of difficulty. Many veterinarians are struggling with how to keep everyone as safe as possible while still providing clients and pets the chance to say goodbye. Veterinary hospitals have chosen a variety of ways to handle owner-present euthanasia. Many practices make exceptions to curbside care for euthanasia, allowing clients inside the building with the caveat that everyone wears proper PPE and maintains a safe distance. Other hospitals give pets a sedative while they are still in the car and then complete the procedure inside without the owner. Yet still another option offered by some clinics is to perform euthanasia outside, but this depends on the weather as well as the specific pet and client.

None of these modifications are ideal and dealing with euthanasia under these new protocols can increase the chances of owners suffering from prolonged emotional distress and complicated grief. To further exacerbate issues, given the current unemployment rate and resultant financial struggles, many veterinarians are reporting an increase of euthanasia due to clients’ financial constraints. When these owners request discounted services, it only adds to veterinarians’ compassion fatigue as many are themselves struggling financially.

How can pet owners and veterinary practitioners get support?

Unfortunately, at the same time, given the mandates of social isolation, traditional sources of grief/loss support following the death of a pet are not viable options for most people. People cannot freely socialize and receive support from others, and often have no other option than to return to a now empty home. In the past, veterinarians may have recommended additional support for grieving owners in the form of support groups. Pet loss support groups provide a safe and non-judgmental place for owners to share their feelings and experiences. Yet, during COVID, in-person support groups are not an option.

Adequate support is critically important for clients, especially those at risk of complicated grief – and never has the need for extra support been higher. The risks of clients developing complicated or disenfranchised grief, with associated feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and emotional numbness are exacerbated by the myriad of other stressors they’re facing. One innovative solution to help support grieving clients is virtual support groups for pet grief and loss, and there are a handful of organizations that offer these services directly to pet parents (e.g., Day by Day, and Lap of Love).

One veterinary organization, VetVine has added an additional layer onto this approach to support the well-being of veterinarians. While VetVine offers support groups directly to grieving pet parents on a drop-in basis, its primary mission in creating this program is to give veterinarians the ability to offer this support to their clients.

These trying times demand creative, innovative solutions, and organizations like these help mitigate a bit of the stress and helplessness that many are feeling performing euthanasia within the current COVID-19 related constraints. Virtual support groups exemplify one way to provide support for all those who care for companion animals.

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