by Dani McVety, DVM
When I first started Lap of Love (which, for perspective, was three months out of veterinary school), I thought everyone made the decision to euthanize their pet the same way. In short, my lack of experience let me assume it was simply when the family couldn’t afford the care or the pet was actively dying. For many cases, this is true. However, helping hundreds of families say goodbye to their pets in a very short amount of time did lend a certain insight into minute familial differences that allowed me to better predict problems, concerns, and “blocks” owners faced during the decision making process. Understanding these trends quickly shaped how I communicate and coach families through the end of life experience with their pets.
1. First-timers make the decision “too late.” To be clear, this isn’t my opinion. Rather, it’s what the families tell me after we’ve said goodbye. Families that have never been through the process of euthanasia before tell me this they are waiting for “a sign” or “that right moment.” After, however, they comment “I don’t know what I was waiting for, she didn’t need to go through those last few days/weeks, I wish I would have called you sooner.” We can all empathize, we know what it’s like to search the house looking for that handwritten (or paw-written) note that says “Mom, I’m ready now,” but it never arrives. In fact, I’ve asked hundreds of veterinary professionals if they “knew exactly when it was time” for their own personal pet. One to two-percent of us do. The irony here is that many times we tell clients to “go home, call me when you’re ready,” but fail to understand the burden that leaves pet owner in, especially those who have never been down that road before. When I tell families about this trend, their shoulders relax, they sigh, and they hand over a bit of the burden to me… which, in my opinion, helps relieve the massive amount of guilt they are already experiencing.
2. Clients make the decision sooner and sooner with their next pets. This may not be true in every case, but I cannot emphasize how often families say “I did everything for my last pet, but it was extremely difficult for us emotionally, expensive, and we waited too long, I’m not doing that again.” They cut back on advanced diagnostics, are more liberal with requests for pain medicine despite potential long term problems, and request palliative care sooner. These families are the most open to early hospice care while remaining very grounded in their ability to define and accept a decreased quality of life.
3. The grief doesn’t get easier with more pets. I’ve helped numerous families with 5 or more euthanasia’s over the past 9 years. In fact, many times it’s the only “meeting” I’ve ever had with them. Through my work with these incredible pet parents and my own personal experience, it’s obvious that the grief does not lessen. In fact, in my own experiences, the grief of the loss of a personal pet seems to compound. Some report “feeling the loss of all my pets all at the same time” for each additional death.
4. Millennials and teenagers are the hardest to coach. Basically, anyone from about 13 years of age up into the mid 30’s. Many times, this pet was the one they adopted in college, or right when they moved out of their parent’s home. It’s the first time they were ever responsible for another soul outside of themselves. This dog or cat was there with them through boyfriends or girlfriends, through breakups, marriages, and every other major life changing event that happens in young adulthood. Saying goodbye to him/her is saying goodbye, in a way, to their youth. To make matters worse, this young adult stage can sometimes come with an altruistic view of society and of medicine in general. They can sometimes feel that death is happening because medicine failed in some way, or because the someone didn’t “fight hard enough.” They may not have yet faced other major losses in their life and learned to come to terms with the finality of death. Whatever the reason, this age group can show signs of anger when faced with immense grief.
5. It has nothing to do with money. Walking into the homes of families has given me an immense insight into the economic status of veterinary clients. Yes, there are some massive mansions, but more than likely I’m pulling into the home of a low-to-middle class neighborhood with a sign on the front door that reads “man’s best friend lives here.” It is not uncommon for the family to have not been to the veterinarian in the past 5 years, feed the least expensive dog food, and have a completely unique view on hygiene. But let me tell you, these families love their pets like family members. Regardless of what things look like on the outside, the only common denominator with all of our clients is that their pet is immensely loved. They may not all receive the same kind of care we’re taught in vet school is the ‘gold standard,’ but they are absolutely, positively loved as a member of the family. One of my biggest lessons in the business of veterinary medicine is this: What someone can afford and what they are willing to afford are two very different things. (This is also why we trademarked the term “Because Pets are Family”!)
6. They don’t want it to be their fault. Personally, this is the most important realization I learned about euthanasia in veterinary medicine. It breaks my heart to hear a family say “I’m so sorry” to their pet, especially when saying goodbye in such a loving way! I want to take that “sorry” and say “don’t you see you did an amazing job? Don’t you realize how incredible you are? There’s nothing for you to be sorry about!”. When I started to evolve my statements from enforcing the “clients choice” to taking more ownership over the euthanasia decision, owners seemed less burdened. Their guilt seemed minimized and they didn’t feel so alone. After all, my clients do not practice veterinary medicine, I do. I’m the one that pushes the plunger and delivers that life ending medicine, not them. So yes, I must take full responsibility for the decision that they are allowing me to make. Sure, they must partner with me in that important choice, but I never say something like “you’re making the right decision.” Instead, I say “we are making the best choice together, what a lucky boy Max is to have a family that loves him so much.”
Identifying and communicating these trends have been essential to our team when helping families through the most important moments of their pet-parenting life. They see themselves in the stories I share and are better equipped to make it through the experience peacefully. They release from pain may be the greatest gift we give the pet, and the release from guilt is the greatest gift we give the family.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the UnchartedVet editorial team.
Dani McVety, DVM is co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, the nations largest network of veterinarians dedicated solely to end-of-life care. She is also a certified body language instructor and frequently writes and speaks on related topics empowering listeners to provide the highest standards of care and communication. Dr. McVety and Lap of Love have been featured on numerous local, national, and professional media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, The Doctors Show, and many more.