How Vets Can Help Soften the Blow of Losing a Pet

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Man walking with dog at sunset

By Sydney Pearce, a U of G student writer with Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK)

The death of a pet is a genuine loss for an owner. University of Guelph researchers hope to help allay the grief of losing a companion animal by improving euthanasia guidelines for veterinary clinics.

“Literature equates pet loss grief to human loss grief — we experience the same symptoms of denial, anger, guilt,” says Alisha Matte, a master’s student in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). “The difference is that pet loss is largely not socially recognized as a valid form of grief.”

Often, the healing process is prolonged as pet owners return to regular life — and regular stressors — immediately. But veterinarians can make a difference with grieving where it begins, at the clinic.

Little research has been published on euthanasia appointments and management of owners’ grief, says Matte. Most procedures draw upon previous experiences and recommendations made by veterinary regulatory bodies and associations.

Looking for the best ways to ease client grief, Matte and population medicine professor Deep Khosa investigated clinic protocols for euthanasia appointments.

Deep Khosa, pet loss, University of Guelph

Prof. Deep Khosa

At nearby clinics, researchers interviewed staff about practices and protocols before, during and after euthanasia. Focus groups discussed issues such as veterinary employees’ understanding of grief during euthanasia, and their follow-up procedures such as sending personal condolence cards.

Matte found staff members avoided using certain words in post-mortem discussions with pet owners. Storing deceased animals in a freezer is an essential health and safety practice, but staff members might use the words “cooling device” as a less insensitive alternative to “freezer.”

Interviews revealed that clinic staff members were generally diligent about assessing owners’ previous experience with pet euthanasia. Staff would often navigate each appointment based on the individual owner’s experience and comfort level.

Matte and Khosa will analyze the focus group findings and develop guidelines to help manage veterinary euthanasia. That could improve clinic protocols and, ultimately, help owners through the legitimate grief of losing a pet, says Khosa.

“Ideally, we need to improve society’s validation of pet owner grief, but until then, vets certainly can and do help to reduce it. This study, and future studies, may help society’s progression towards that.”

This research is funded by the Pet Memorial Program of the OVC Pet Trust, a charitable fund at the University of Guelph. The program honours the memory of deceased pets and the special relationship between pets and people — owners and veterinary caregivers alike.