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Will death do you part?

How a veterinary practice handles pet memorialization can either make or break its relationship with clients

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Many veterinary practices give clients the option of a private cremation where ashes are then returned in a special box or chest. Photos courtesy Penn Vet Ryan Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
Many veterinary practices give clients the option of a private cremation where ashes are then returned in a special box or chest.
Photos courtesy Penn Vet Ryan Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

The bond between humans and pets is unique, deep-seated, and, in many respects, everlasting. There’s an underlying expectation among pet owners that veterinarians understand this, a trust that the practice of choice will provide guidance and thoughtful care throughout the pet’s lifetime … and upon the pet’s death. How a veterinarian handles this end-of-life process can determine the client’s future relationship with the practice.

“[A client’s impression of a veterinary practice] tends to be on the most emotional and difficult time, and on the most recent times,” said Michele Pich, MA, MS, veterinary grief counselor and instructor at Penn Vet Ryan Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. “For this reason, making end-of-life decision-making a priority, and giving supporting options for memorialization and counseling, can make all of the difference in whether that owner returns to that practice or veterinarian.”

Memorialization and compassionate care are the two most impactful ways veterinarians can help bind clients to the practice, according to Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio.

“There is a difference between being caring during their grief and helping them through their grief,” Foster said. “Caring for people doesn’t stop with the heartbeat of the patient. It carries on into the coming weeks and years.”

Honoring pets

Helping clients memorialize their pet is one of the best ways to express support and empathy for bereaved clients, according to the 2016 AAHA/IAAHPC End-of-Life Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, an implementation toolkit put out by the American Animal Hospital Association and the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.

Memorialization of a pet can be something tangible—a paw print, a charm containing the pet’s ashes, a locket of fur—or some form of recognition—a donation to a veterinary school in the pet’s name, a personalized condolence card, or planting a tree in the pet’s honor.

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Kings Veterinary Hospital gives clients a clay paw impression that can be decorated then baked as well as a sympathy card. The hospital also donates $5 to each of the two local humane associations in the name of the pet.

Memorialization of a pet can be something tangible, like a clay paw print, or some form of recognition, such as planting a tree in the pet’s honor.
Memorialization of a pet can be something tangible, like a clay paw print, or some form of recognition, such as planting a tree
in the pet’s honor.

Offering a diverse array of memorialization products and services is important, according to Katina Stewart, DVM, of Martensville Veterinary Hospital in Martensville, Saskatchewan, Canada.

“Options should include something for different budgets, and different comfort levels with remains,” Dr. Stewart said. “For example, we offer different types of cremation, as well as resources about different urns and jewelry incorporating remains. But we also offer items that do not include remains.”

Memorialization options can be helpful in validating the feelings of grief and loss that pet owners experience, according to Pich.

“[Having a memento] can serve as a powerful reminder that their lost loved one leaves a legacy with them and that even after the loss, the love and memories remain,” Pich said. “It is a way of feeling connected to an animal companion that is no longer with them.”

Even with the best intentions, however, Pich recommends asking clients if they would like any form of memorialization instead of assuming they do.

“Some [clients] might find it more painful than helpful to have a reminder of their loss,” Pich said.

Grief services

The death of a loved one—human and/or pet—can spark various emotions, including loneliness, guilt, confusion, and even anger. Clients may benefit from some kind of support group to help them through the grieving process.

A staff member from Martensville Veterinary Hospital calls clients two days after an unexpected death to help them through the loss and to provide them with any resources they might need, such as letting them know about their own monthly support group.

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“It’s amazing to see clients help support each other through the grieving process and form bonds that extend beyond the clinic,” Stewart said.

Pets play such an important role for many people, and because of that, the death of a pet can have a profound effect on the owner, said Donna Shugart Bethune, director of public relations for the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories.

“For many pet parents, it’s the same process of grief that they would go through with a human family member,” Shugart Bethune said. “Sometimes, it’s more difficult. There’s an unconditional love. … There’s no other bond quite like it.”

As grief doesn’t have a timeline, veterinarians and staff will need to exercise patience.

“Pet owners are often looking for answers about what caused their pet’s death and reassurance that they made the right choice—if there was a choice—regarding treatment and/or euthanasia,” Pich said. “Owners may call the vet after the loss—days, weeks, or even months—later inquiring about specifics of their pet’s case. … Much of the day of the loss can be a blur and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes clients need a reminder that they did the best they could for their pet, and that whatever they did or did not do was in their pet’s best interest.”

Veterinarians and staff have a huge and unique responsibility when taking on end-of-life care, Foster said.

“No effort that we make in this area is wasted,” she said. “We have clients who have been coming to us for several generations of pets. We believe a large part of that is being ‘good at death.’”

“Good at death” may sound like an odd phrase, Foster added, but end-of-life decisions are hard, emotional times, and clients need support from staff in those moments.

 

LITTLE DETAILS, BIG IMPACT
Photo © BigStockPhoto.com

Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, receives hundreds of cards from clients thanking them for the compassion the staff has showed during the end-of-life process, according to Stephanie Foster, the hospital’s practice manager. A simple donation in the pet’s name to some kind of animal group and/or a clay paw can really make a difference in the practice-client bond.

“Those little touches make such a difference in the experience for the client,” Foster said. “We had a family bring their 19-year-old dog in for a quality-of-life conversation. In the end, they opted to euthanize her, as she was showing some significant behavior changes due to dementia.

“The two teenage children and their father gathered around to say goodbye. When we presented them with the clay paw impression, they were so touched. They asked if we could make one for each of the children so as they headed out of the home into their adult lives, they would each have something to remember the dog that they had known for so long.”

Memorialization helps acknowledge the important role a pet had in a client’s life, according to Donna Shugart Bethune, director of public relations for the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories. It also helps clients work through their grief, she added.

“Grief is a process. It’s a journey you go on,” Shugart Bethune said. “Having that keepsake helps you through that process and gives comfort.”

The members of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories established National Pet Memorial Day more than 40 years ago to recognize the important role that pets play in people’s lives. The observance is celebrated on the second Sunday of September each year. Veterinary practices can use this day as an additional time to honor those patients who have passed on.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO MEMORIALIZE A CLIENT’S PET?
  • Donate to a charity, veterinary school, or animal welfare organization in the pet’s name.
  • Conduct an annual memorial service for all deceased pets.
  • Give the client a memorial item, such as a paw print, fur, or nose print.
  • Send a personalized condolence card.
  • Write a letter to the pet.
  • Write a poem about the pet.
  • Plant a memorial tree or provide the client with seeds to plant in the pet’s honor.
  • Obtain a professional pet portrait.
  • Create a photo album or journal about the pet.
  • Create jewelry or charm containing the pet’s ashes.

5 thoughts on “Will death do you part?

  1. My experience with our long term vet was terrible. I’ll skip over having to wait to put my beloved out of misery to the actual in the office experience. The assistant dropped my dog on the floor and her head bounced off the concrete. To make matters worse she SCOLDED my dying pet as if it were her fault! Then the assistant proceeded to strong arm me into purchasing an expensive cremation and urn. We just wanted the ashes in a small box and I asked for that. She said they had recently changed the person who did the cremation and that was all that was available. The process took three shots, not two and my baby who hadn’t sat up in two days did and stared me in the face as if to say Stop! My heart is still heavy with grief. I have been back to this vet twice now. No condolences were offered, no apologies, no grief counseling. Every night I replay these images in my head. So please if you are a vet, do not do to your client what was done to us.

    1. Barb,
      It just broke my heart to hear that happened to you and your very loved dog. I hope as the days pass, those last horrible moments will fade and it will be replaced with all the love and wonderful memories you and your dog shared. Hold those close to your heart.
      Hugs, Devra

      1. Thank you, Devra. I keep telling myself remember his goofy smile and how he made me laugh. He always could make me feel better by sidling up to me and gently burping in my ear! Seriously. Yes, that’s what I need to hold on to. Thank you.

  2. In Dec. I had to make the decision to let not one but 2 of my OES go within weeks of each other, a brother and sister. When my girl came back (in a timely manner)she was returned to me in a zip lock baggie in a cheap bag. As I came into my house the bag overturned with the ziplock falling on the floor. It was all I could do to grab the baggie off of the floor before my 2 other dogs could pick it up and run or play tug of war with it. I was furious as well as upset. 2 weeks later I had to let her brother go. I took some clay from home and made a footprint. The vet acted like he had never heard of this. I had bred both of these dogs and they were 14 years old. AT THAT TIME, I told them I would get them a nice wooden urn to place him in as I had just bought 2 knowing my girl woud be in one and he would not be long to use one. I waited and waited, and waited for the return of his ashes. After 3 weeks I called..No, they didn’t have them. I called the crematorium myself at that point. The gentleman was just upset and said he would call me back within 30 minutes. Sure enough, he called and gave me the name of WHO at the Vet Clinic had received his ashes (This was my Westminster AOM dog)and on what time and date. The next morning I was at the vet’s office as the door opened. I went armed with the information…and was met with disbelief. After 10 minutes they came to me with another ziplock bag and said “somehow he must have been pushed to the back of the drawer” I LOST IT. THEN they brought out another box they had ordered AND CHARGED ME $70.00 for! To say the least I told them where they could put that box and to get the one I brought and put his ashes in it. I was told I could do that. At that point I told them THEY WERE FIRED and I wanted all of my animals records. I had had another issue with them missing a bowel obstruction 1 yr earlier, and I had paid them quite a penny in the previous year. I’ve not put my nose back in that practice nor will I ever again.

    1. Allene, I’m so sorry to hear of what you went through. There is no excuse whatsover. I’ve since moved my surviving puppo to another vet, also.

      I hope vet practices out there are actually reading our comments. And working to improve their service. Grief is real! It doesn’t matter if you’re loved one walks on two legs or four…

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