As in any intimate relationship, when an animal companion dies or is ill, people are likely to feel stress, sorrow, and grief. This may include the animal's family and neighbors in the community, as well as the veterinary team that has provided care. The significance of pets dying and the consequent emotional impact on clients is clearly profiled within the veterinary profession, with educational materials and support groups, hotlines, and counseling available. The relatively short lifespan of dogs and cats means that clients face losing several animals during a lifetime. (See also Euthanasia.)
An extra burden comes in assuming responsibility for the moment of death by euthanasia. The philosophical dilemma is the same as that posed by human euthanasia. One must weigh the desire or perceived duty to relieve pain and suffering with the wrongness of killing or a religious argument for reverence for life. The difficulty of this decision overlays the loss with feelings of guilt and the thought that there must have been some other step that could have been taken. Even with family support, these feelings may not be assuaged. Among married couples in one study, about half of the wives and more than a quarter of husbands reported they were quite or extremely disturbed by the death of the family pet.
As an alternative to euthanasia, it is important to offer instruction in providing palliative care for clients who are prepared to offer it. Procedures developed in hospice care can assure high quality, end-of-life care for animals. As in human medicine, families can combine good medical care with pain relief for the animal. The technical aspects of treatment no longer override the compassionate care, as a specific approach is offered for dealing with the family's and animal's distress.
Notwithstanding the anguish that veterinary clients experience, the process of animals dying, especially the act of performing euthanasia, poses a time-consuming and emotionally wearing duty for veterinarians, accounting for 2–4% of encounters. One study found that euthanizing animals resulted in perpetration-induced traumatic stress for 11% of the study sample of veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and research and animal shelter staff. Lower levels of stress were reported among those who were more satisfied with their social support and had worked longer with animals. In a recent study, almost all veterinarians felt they were untrained in making explanations to clients at such times. Almost half regretted a specific occasion of euthanasia, and a majority of private practice veterinarians reported feeling guilty after performing euthanasia. After euthanizing their own pets, a majority felt depressed and 30% felt guilty. These figures were elevated among women veterinarians, suggesting that their impact may have risen in the intervening years with the gender shift of the profession.
Compassionate veterinarians include themselves in the circle of remembrance of their clients' animals and respect the families' regard for the animal throughout the relationship. A veterinarian can assume that many grieving clients will need a year of recovery to pass through the holidays and family traditions before somewhat accepting a loss and may consider sending a remembrance card to the family after 1 yr.
Last full review/revision March 2012 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD