How to Talk to Your Clients About Euthanasia

Discussing euthanasia with your veterinary clients can be the hardest conversation you’ve ever had. Here are some tips to make it easier.

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Not only is euthanasia one of the hardest conversations a veterinarian will have with their clients, it’s one of the most common. Most veterinarians will find themselves faced with helping clients determine whether euthanasia is their clients’ best option several times a week or even multiple times in any given day.

While nothing will make that conversation easy, there are several steps veterinarians can take to ensure that making the decision to euthanize, and then dealing with the aftermath, are as easy as possible for the pets, the clients and themselves. Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a small animal veterinarian in the Los Angeles area, believes that for many of his clients, in-home euthanasia is best. But he stresses that even veterinarians in hospital settings can take steps to provide the same comforts to patients coming to the clinic.

Take Plenty of Time

Deciding to euthanize a beloved pet is never an easy decision, but often times it truly is the best or most humane option available to clients. Mahaney advocates for giving clients a quiet space where they will not be interrupted or distracted to begin talking about euthanasia as an option. Clients should have ample time to ask questions and carefully consider all the factors affecting their pet’s health. Often, clients will leave this appointment with their pets to take additional time to consider their options and to continue monitoring their pet’s condition.

Give Clients All the Information

It’s especially important to help clients whose pets have serious or terminal diagnoses to fully understand their treatment options, the cost associated, and quality-of-life factors. Clients have to consider whether or not they can afford to treat an ailment, how much that treatment may affect their pet’s quality of life (especially if quality of life will suffer), and the likelihood of a positive outcome from treatment. Mahaney suggests referring clients to a specialist if there is time and if the client’s financial resources allow so that the client can be sure they’re making their decision with all the information. 

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Remember It’s Not  Your Decision to Make

Ensuring that clients have all the information available will enable them to decide for themselves and for their pet which course of action will be most appropriate. Sometimes clients will struggle to understand the gravity of their pet’s condition, even when all of the information is clear, and may choose to continue hoping their pet will improve rather than opting for euthanasia. It’s hard to watch when a client makes a decision like this, and while part of your job as a vet is to help the client make informed choices and to offer advice, you’re not ultimately responsible for a choice that differs from what you think is best.

Use a Quality of Life Scale

Quality of life scales can help clients realistically assess their pet’s condition, though as a veterinarian, you’ll still have to help them determine whether they can realistically expect their pet’s condition to improve with treatment and time. These tools can be especially helpful for clients who are particularly hesitant to choose euthanasia, even when there is little to no chance their pet will experience meaningful improvement.

Let Your Clients Take the Lead

Every client will handle the euthanasia process differently. Most clients will opt to stay in the room with the animal, but some will prefer not to bear witness. Some clients will need plenty of time to make a decision about euthanasia while others know immediately that it’s the right choice for them. And when the moment comes, some clients will prefer privacy while others might prefer to include lots of friends and family. Maheney says that several of his clients choose to hold “celebrations of life” following an at-home euthanasia. No matter what your client wishes, you should do as much as possible to meet your client’s emotional needs during a very trying time.

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Remember Your Staff

Euthanasia is hard on veterinarians and pet owners, but it also weighs on techs, assistants, receptionists and any other staff member who might be involved with the pet’s care. Fortunately, helping your staff’s emotional well-being can also benefit your clients. Offering staff members the chance to sign a card for the bereaved client lets the client know that they’re in your thoughts and allows your staff to appropriately say their goodbyes to the pet.

Every euthanasia will be different, and none of them will be easy, but if you offer your clients plenty of time information, and respect to make whatever decision they feel is best, you’ll find that the process is just a little bit easier.

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