How veterinarians cope with patient death

A new study questions how professionals develop coping skills and strategies to manage and learn from emotional impacts

Every veterinarian experiences occasional complications, sad outcomes, or patient deaths, but some have developed coping skills and strategies that help them manage the emotional impact and learn and grow from these events, according to a study authored by Sara White, DVM, MSc. The study will appear in the February 2018 issue of the journal Anthrozoös.

The study questioned 32 shelter and spay-neuter veterinarians about their experiences, thoughts, and reactions as they coped with life-threatening complications or death related to spay-neuter. Qualitative thematic analysis was used to identify themes and patterns in the responses of veterinarians who were successful in coping with these adverse events.

In the aftermath of a patient death or serious complication, veterinarians who were surveyed described feelings of guilt, sadness, anxiety, and self-doubt, and felt deep empathy for their clients. Some said they never recovered from the trauma of these events, while others were able to transform the incidents into learning experiences and opportunities for growth in their technical and emotional skills. The veterinarians who coped most effectively were those who were able to talk openly with colleagues about the events, and who were able to learn and improve protocols. Further, successful veterinarians had learned to place the loss into perspective, and had developed expertise in how to handle and support themselves through the event’s aftermath.

“Successfully coping with adverse events is important not just for the mental health and peace of mind of individual vets, but for their future patients as well,” said Dr. White. “The more comfortable vets can be thinking about dealing with things that don’t go as planned, the better they will be at evaluating, refining, and updating the way they care for patients.”

Veterinarian wellness and mental health have received an increasing amount of attention recently within the profession, and recent studies have indicated a high risk of suicide among veterinarians.

“This study gives veterinarians a language to think and talk about their responses to complications and patient deaths, as well as steps that they can take when they’re trying to recover from these events,” said Jen Brandt, LISW-S, Ph.D., AVMA director of wellbeing and diversity initiatives.

“Helping veterinarians understand that they are not alone in their feelings and reactions to unanticipated events may help decrease the negative impact of these reactions and allow veterinarians to respond and cope more effectively.”

Research article

White, SC. Veterinarians’ Emotional Reactions and Coping Strategies for Adverse Events in Spay-Neuter Surgical Practice. Anthrozoös. 1997;31(1)117-131. doi: 10.1080/08927936.2018.1406205.

This article is available at


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2 thoughts on “How veterinarians cope with patient death

  1. My experience with Veterinarians for the most part have been positive, however, there are some that should not be in the profession. When I had to euthanize my pets the Vets were caring and understood my grief. October 16,2017 I had the most horrendous experience when I took my 16 year old cat to The MarQueen Emergency Veterinarian Hospital at 8:00 at night in Roseville, Ca. They have a chain of them. My cat seemed to be breathing faster than normal. I told them I need to be with him because he gets stressed at the Vet’s. They took him away and closed the door. Finally after 25 minutes the Vet came out and told me we need labs and x-ray and left. I waited an hour and heard nothing. I told the front desk clerk to give them a message to just do the x-ray to rule out his heart. I waited in the waiting room for another hour not seeing the doctor or a tech to let me know what is happening to my pet and let me be with him. The doctor passed me in the waiting room to take her dog for a walk and said nothing. They weren’t that busy. Saw one dog come in with a hx of vomiting. After being there over two hours, the doctor came out with her back to me stating that it is his heart while she is charting and that he needs an IV and to be put to sleep. She left the room and I thought she would put the IV in and bring him to me to hold until I decide when to push the medication, but she returned to tell me he had already passed on his own. She said he died of stress. I knew it and at least she told the truth. I told her I want to hold him and to bring him to me. The clerk brought him to me, not a tech, not the doctor but the same clerk, the only person all the time I waited that I had any communication with. The sight of my cat was horrible. It was obvious he was dead more than 5 minutes. He had been dead a long time. His mouth was wide open as if in a scream, eyes fixed and dilated more than a half hour and in rigormortis. The clerk left him with me for a couple minutes and came in to check the bandaid around his paw supposedly where the doctor started his IV. They are not fooling me. The doctor never started his IV because he was already dead and trying to cover up their neglect. Why send in a clerk to check a bandaid on a dead cat? I wrote the owner about my treatment and how they did everything wrong and their staff needs training including the doctor on how to treat an animal and pet owners. I got a call from the owner’s husband or boyfriend. He was trying to rectify damage by inviting me for a tour of the clinic and to train the staff and he would call me in a few days to set it up. I told him I was looking forward to it and it may help me with my grief. He never called. They need to be called on the carpet and fined for this treatment. You put your trust in a Vet to care for your pet and they return your loving animal dead? Intolerable! My grief lingers because my pet suffered. Barbara E. Fulks R.N.PhD.Ret. Animal Rights Advocate, Animal Rescue, ASPCA Member

  2. Oh, Barbara, I’m so sorry for your loss and on top of that, the uncaring manner in which you were treated.

    I’m angry – on your behalf! How cruel and completely thoughtless.

    The staff, Doctors in particular, better take some much needed training! Shame Shame!

    Please remember all the perfectly wonderful years your precious house mate had with you and that you provided.

    Thinking of both of you – Clair