5 questions on the most difficult decision - DVM
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5 questions on the most difficult decision


Offer your condolences. My experience has been that clients are deeply touched by a sympathy card personally signed by doctors and clinic staff that highlights something personal and special about his or her pet. Clients have shown me hand-written letters of condolence from their veterinarian (for great examples of letters, see the books I Still Miss You; Letters of Comfort for Cat Owners and I Still Miss You; Letters of Comfort for Dog Owners by Jack Titolo, DVM).

Some doctors make a follow-up phone call the evening of the euthanasia to offer support, dissuade feelings of guilt and reassure owners it was the right decision. A memorial donation serves a dual purpose; it supports a worthy cause and memorializes the pet. A bouquet of flowers or a plant may be appropriate for special clients.

Second, consider "linking objects" to give clients something to remember their pet by. Clay paw prints are popular at our hospital (World by the Tail Inc. offers these products Clay Paws™). We use them for bearded dragons to thoroughbreds. An ink paw print serves the same purpose. Clippings of hair, feathers or a braid of mane or tail can be a treasured keepsake.

Clinics that keep digital photos of their patients during their lifetime may give the family a photo. Of course, make sure to return to the family any of the pet's belongings that are at the hospital such as a collar, blanket or toy.

DVM: Do you think veterinarians play a role in helping clients grieve?

Weber: Absolutely. Consider this: "Veterinarians must realize their approach to caring for a client whose pet has died has the potential to alleviate or aggravate grief."

That was a conclusion of a study by Cindy Adams, PhD, MSW, Brenda Bonnett, PhD, DVM and Alan Meek, PhD, DVM called "Predictors of owner response to companion animal death in 177 clients from 14 practices in Ontario" (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000; 217:1303-1309).

When the doctor gives the vision-impaired woman time to say goodbye to her guide dog before the euthanasia, she helps her cope. When the doctor encourages the parents to involve the teenagers in the decision about whether to euthanize the family Springer Spaniel that is "like a son," he helps that family cope. When the elderly widow who's become depressed after his dog died following surgery gets to sit down and go over the case and get his questions answered, the doctors have helped him cope.

Many clients tell me that friends or family don't understand. "It's just a dog" is what they hear. But at the hospital, every person on the veterinary team can convey to the client that they understand and care.

DVM: Are veterinarians at risk for developing compassion fatigue?

Weber: I think they can be depending on the type of work that they do. The more emotional the work, the higher the potential for compassion fatigue. The challenge of facing death, trauma possibly abuse and upset clients or staff can drain one's compassion if it's not protected and replenished.

Other professions that have been studied in relation to compassion fatigue are emergency-room nurses, disaster workers, policemen, mental-health workers and physicians.


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