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Are You Letting Clients Down After Their Pets Die?

Tips to provide dignified funeral services after your clients' pets pass on.


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SANDY SWANSON/SHUTTERSTOCK

Are we letting our clients down in the end?

I mean that literally. Are we failing the pets we’ve cared for throughout their lives during and after their last moments?

As veterinary health care professionals, we want to be perceived as the gentlest, most compassionate and most caring of all health care professionals. We are almost alone as healers who are with patients from birth to earth. We are physically and emotionally part of the most dramatic and sensitive part of the human-animal bond, the moment when life ends for the pet.

It’s hard to imagine anything that can destroy that perception—and damage our reputation in the community—more readily than handling this precious moment in a way that’s mechanical, manipulative or designed to maximize profit over peace of mind.

Lap of Love, a national pet hospice and home euthanasia service, surveyed more than 1,000 veterinary clients.

“Almost 25 percent of them said they would not return to the doctor’s office that performed the euthanasia, mainly because it was simply too hard to walk back into that clinic,” said co-founder Dani McVety, DVM. “An attrition rate like that doesn’t sound like a good business decision. Our product in veterinary medicine is the human-animal bond. Everything we do must support that bond, from the beginning until the last moment.”

Certified pet loss counselor Coleen Ellis also sees the problem in terms of trust and professionalism.

“Veterinary professionals have done all they can to stay proactive and up to date on their practice, from the latest in medicinal treatments to procedures that pet parents are demanding for their four-legged family members,” she said. “The death of a pet is the one thing that every pet owner and their trusted veterinarian knows will happen.

“Are you doing your part as a trusted professional to do your due diligence and to stay as proactive in death as you are in the life-care processes?”

Due diligence is something long lacking when it comes to what happens to pets after they leave our clinics. But more troubling are those veterinary practices that don’t even try.

Among the disturbing situations I’ve observed are those where the practices treat the bodies of deceased pets with disrespect, sometimes epic levels of disrespect. Horrors range from bodies filling the dumpster outside the practice, unbagged pets piled into disposal trucks and one story I can’t get out of my mind, witnessed by another veterinarian: Crematory tags stapled to the pets’ bodies.

How can clients be expected to understand how the veterinary profession handles euthanasia and the disposal of their pet’s bodies when practices in a single community can range from sending pets to the county landfill without even a bag around them, to a respectful, witnessed cremation? Of course, some of this is dependent on what the client is willing to spend, but I’m alarmed, even sickened, to think that a pet owner is paying to have their pet “buried,” not knowing that means “buried by a bulldozer in a garbage dump.”

I’m a big believer in having us, as veterinary health care professionals, play as big a part in a pet’s death as we do in his or her life. We want bookends: a good life and a great death. To provide that care requires education, training and experience. It requires that we not just get better at death but excel at it.

We can start with these seven steps.

1. Study 

Attend lectures at major veterinary conferences, consider going to the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association meeting and taking part in their pet tracks, and read some popular bereavement books.

2. Visit 

Before recommending a cremation service or a facility that offers funerals/cremation/ burial services, visit them.

“Visit the crematory unannounced,” Ellis advised. “A good, reputable crematory will be transparent and have an open-door policy, with nothing to hide.”

Don’t tie your practice’s reputation to the low-cost leader or the service that will give you the biggest profit. Give the decision of what crematory you recommend the same thoughtful consideration you give your medical recommendations.

3. Find Partners, Not Suppliers 

“I’d encourage every veterinary clinic to look for those pet-loss services that have elevated their level of care from ‘supplier’ to ‘pet-loss partner,’” Ellis said. “A pet-loss partner will certainly bring more value to a clinic than just a ‘crematory supplier.’”

4. Provide Clear, Honest Explanations 

Find compassionate ways to explain to the grieving owner the difference between disposal, burial and cremation—and try to do it well in advance of their pet’s death. Also, don’t pretend that your $50 disposal fee, which translates into a pet being taken in the garbage truck to the landfill, is the same as another practice’s more costly disposal fee, but one that involves a beautifully conducted pickup, transfer, memorial service and counseling.

5. Offer Alternatives 

Don’t hesitate to refer elsewhere if an owner wants a highly professional, carefully orchestrated, beautifully conducted final grace. For example, we can suggest a service focused on end-of-life services such as hospice and home euthanasia.

“If you cannot deliver the kind of death that you feel you would want for your own pet, refer the euthanasia to someone that can,” Dr. McVety said.

6. Choose Peace 

“There are many things we can do to make end-of-life care more peaceful for pets and their people,” McVety said. “If it must be done in the clinic, offer to come to the client’s car and sit with the client in the room. Don’t leave them alone unless they request it. Don’t remove the pet to place an IV catheter. And give the family something to take home that day, such as a paw print or hair clippings.”

Do those things and it’s less likely they’ll leave your practice because of painful associations.

7. Professionalize Comfort 

Consider creating a team in your practice that is trained in the end-of-life process. This can include home euthanasia services by a veterinarian who really wants to offer this form of care, along with a team member who can assist with grief support and counseling referrals.

Elevating the care provided at the time of death to the same level as prevention and treatment is not just the right thing to do; it will help us thrive in an increasingly competitive veterinary marketplace.

Doing so can help us retain clients by ensuring not only that they’ll keep coming to our practice but that they’ll feel emotionally able to get another pet.

“At Lap of Love, we firmly believe that a peaceful end-of-life transition for a pet means that their family heals in the most healthy way possible,” McVety said. “That way they’re more willing to open their heart and home to another furry family member. After all, aren’t these the kind of homes that we want animals to be in?”

Death itself hasn’t changed since the dawn of time, Ellis said, but the expectations we have around death have changed a great deal.

“What pet parents want to do when these four-legged family members die is different than it used to be,” she told me. “They have asked you for more in life, and they want more in death.”


Dr. Marty Becker writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is the author of 24 books, and he was the resident veterinary contributor on television’s “Good Morning America” for 18 years. When his schedule allows, he practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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