As part of the research for a project we were working on last year, we sent veterinary practices a request for help in gathering feedback from clients about their experiences of pet loss. We received a lot of interest but in the end we only had 2 practices that were willing to help us. The main reason for their reluctance were that they thought the topic would be too upsetting for their clients to think about, or that it might “highlight them in a bad way”, if the owner’s experience had been less than good.
In the end, we reached out directly to pet owners to ask them to share their experiences, and we were touched by the amazing response we got. (We have to say a special thanks to The Good Vet Guide here). Contrary to the perceptions of the vets, this was not a subject that owners themselves were shying away from. The very opposite was true; the fact that we were asking pet owners about their experiences, for many, validated what they were feeling and couldn’t express because of societal norms. Their memories of pet loss and the emotions associated with it ran very deep indeed; the expectation by wider society was that they should ‘get over it’ and that showing grief for a pet was in some way trivial or unjustified.
The question we should ask ourselves as veterinary professionals, is whether we are unwittingly reinforcing this ‘stiff upper lip’ view, by not engaging with the emotional aspects of the owner at the end-of-life stage. We support those bringing along their new young pets to our surgeries, welcoming them on board the wonderful voyage that is pet ownership. We provide nurse clinics for a whole range of preventative health care services and management of long-term medical cases. Yet we seem to struggle to find the words or know what to do as the pet enters the end-stage of its life. Yes, we’re good at carrying out the technical bits, but we seem to clam up when it comes to discussing death.
So why does the vet profession seem to lack confidence in this important part of the pet’s journey? I do believe it is a confidence issue and that it stems from the very small amount of training that most vet professionals will have had in end-of-life support and communication skills. So much of the knowledge in dealing with end-of-life, including euthanasia communications, has been learned ‘on the job’ and from colleagues who similarly had no specific training. And this is why Compassion Understood was born; to provide much-needed training in this end of life journey – for both clinical and client-facing support staff.
I’ll leave you with some of the comments from over 600 pet owners who helped us with our survey, which might give you pause for thought:
“oh god I wish so much they (the vet practice) had given me websites and phone numbers for resources to help me with my grief. I still struggle with it. I found some good links online to blog posts before and after but it would have been nice to feel more heavily supported by the vets”
“(I would have liked) not to be rushed. He was just a little bunny but his life was important to me”
“I know vets have to do this a lot and get desensitised but pet owners typically don’t go through it regularly”