Article submitted by Dr. Jeanine Au, DVM; Owner, Gold Coast Mobile Veterinary Care
It’s one of the most important parts of your business and ironically the most ignored.
Peaceful Pets Aquamation has assembled an incredible group of prominent doctors and experts to share their experiences and valuable insights on a topic that has an enormous impact on your clients. Research shows that there are two times in the life of a client when you have the biggest opportunity to retain them as clients and to use them to bring in new clients. The first is with a new client. That initial visit has the greatest influence on your future with that client. A very close second though is the moment when you euthanize their pet.
In the fifth of 12 monthly articles, that uniquely focus on end-of-life and after care, Dr. Jeanine Au discusses the client experience during home euthanasia from a young veterinarian’s perspective.
Read Full Article below…
Making the decision to euthanize a companion animal is the most difficult decision pet owners face.
How to handle these delicate situations is also one of the toughest moments a veterinarian faces. Providing insightful guidance and support on when it’s the “right time” is a critical part of your practice. Indeed, this is the fastest growing specialty in veterinary medicine.
The key is simple: As vets, most of us have the “touch” with animals. We have to remember another quality we possess: The human touch.
I have been in the veterinary industry since I was four-years-old when I worked on our horse ranch with my sister. That is what initially sparked my interest in animal care. I attended Colorado State University and received a B.S. in Equine Sciences in 2002 followed by a doctorate of veterinary medicine in 2007. As part of our curriculum, I spent several weeks taking client communication classes and learning about the human animal bond. I was trained by the Argus Institute, a service providing support for those making end-of-life decisions for their pet and grief counseling for pet loss. Colorado State University had one of the premier oncology centers, so that conversation was had on a daily basis. Our veterinary class was also involved in starting the first hospice care team. Under the supervision of a practitioner, I was able to go into homes of terminally ill patients and help administer prescribed medications and pain relievers. More importantly I could provide emotional support for the families. This allowed pets to spend their final days in the comfort of their own home.
My training and experiences over the years have certainly shaped who I am as a veterinarian.
I’ve worked in over 20 hospitals, treating both small and large animals in various socioeconomic areas. It also motivated me to want to start my own practice so I could offer the level of service that I felt my clients and their pets deserve. When it came specifically to dealing with end-of-life issues, I wanted to be able to make those final moments as peaceful and as comfortable as possible for all involved. In my opinion, a sterile hospital was not the place.
I started my mobile veterinary practice part time in 2012 and full time in 2014. Although I provide many general practice services, pain management and end of life care is what I’m most passionate about. People always ask me how I’m able to provide such a service. “Isn’t it too sad and depressing to be around sick and dying pets,” they ask? My response is that it takes a special person to do what I do. Having the ability to alleviate pain and suffering for a beloved pet is a powerful thing. I try to remove the stigma associated with the process and make death something beautiful.
First, it starts with the phone inquiry and consultation. It may be a referral from another doctor, hospital, or client or they found me online through my website or yelp. I make myself available to listen. Some calls have lasted an hour. I let them tell me what is going on with their pet and help them to decide if the time is right. We discuss the differences between pain and suffering and the guidelines I use to determine quality of life. In some cases the pet is ready and for others the owner is preparing themself, as they know the end is near. Next, we discuss the process in whatever detail they desire. I address the medications used and how they work, reflexes the body goes through as they pass, and how long it takes. I also offer to send information via email so they can read it over and can discuss with family members. It is important to just listen to owners and offer advice if they ask for it. Using the words “I support you” can be very comforting.
I do not have a cancellation policy. Making an appointment to euthanize a beloved pet is very difficult. I let them know that if they change their mind or their pet is having a good day and they need to postpone the euthanasia, it’s ok. There shouldn’t be a penalty for this. That removes a lot of anxiety for the owner.
I allow anyone and everyone to be present, including children or other pets.
The death of a family pet is often a child’s first experience with loss. Depending on the age of a child, they understand and cope with death and grief differently. It is an important time for adults to teach their children how to express what they are feeling in an emotionally healthy way. I provide literature on the topic and ways that they can discuss it with their child. As a mother I can relate, but I also can support that every family needs to do what is best for them. When it comes to other pets, I often get asked if housemates grieve and does it make it easier for them to say their goodbyes. In my experience, every pet responds differently. I do feel that they know something is going on. They sense changes in the household and feed off of owner’s emotions. Clients have told me that days before they’ve lost a pet, the housemate either became distant or became attached. Cats that spent their whole lives being independent and just co-existing suddenly snuggled together or groomed each other.
I’m flexible in regards to the location. I let them choose where they are most comfortable. If it is at an owner’s home, it can be indoors or outdoors. I have euthanized pets in the family room, in their owner’s bed, in the bathroom, in a closet. We’ve been outside under a tree, on a patio chair, or sunbathing in the grass. What is most important is that the pet has chosen that spot because they feel safe there and I will not move them and cause undue stress. I’m even willing to meet people in a park or at the beach if that is what they want.
It is important to be open-minded to the ambiance or mood that is set.
Some want to be in silence with their thoughts. Others want to say prayers, sing a song, reminisce of good times and fond memories, and share pictures. Most commonly people have music playing in the background and the lights dimmed or candles lit. I’ve even had a glass of wine while sitting in a circle with the family. People will often ask, “what’s the norm, or what do other people do?” I explain that there is no right or wrong way and they should do whatever feels comfortable to them.
Once I sense that the owners are ready to proceed, I ask if there are any other questions. I calmly announce each step of the process and explain anything that the pet may display. I assure them that they are not feeling any discomfort. After administering the final injection and confirming that their pet has passed, I step out of the home to give the owners some private time with each other and their pet.
Finally, how you handle their pet once they have passed gives them a very lasting image.
I give owners the option to stay or leave the room. For some it is too difficult to see their pet be removed because it feels so final. I ask if they have a bed or special blanket they would like their pet to travel in. If they don’t, I provide a bed to carry small cats and small dogs. For larger pets I have a gurney that I lay nice blankets on. I most often transport pets to the hospital for pick-up by the aftercare company instead of having them come to the home. For me it is easier than trying to coordinate pick-up at home and there was a sort of awkwardness with the owner having to talk to a second person. It also gives the owner as little or as much time to spend with their pet once they’ve passed.
Unless the owners have already chosen an aftercare company, I only recommend one. I have worked with several companies in the past, generally whichever one was chosen by the hospital I was at. Now that I am on my own, I wanted to find someone that was reflective of what I was doing and where I think the industry should be going. I met with Jerry Shevick of Peaceful Pets Aquamation a year ago. I was immediately impressed with how he runs his service and am confident that every pet is treated with respect and dignity through every aspect of the process. It starts with how pets are transported in an individual area in a cooled van. They take several measures to identify pets so you can feel confident that you are getting your pets remains back. The decorative box for the remains is simple and tasteful and the paw print is beautifully handcrafted. But most importantly is the fact that they use the aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis process. This was the first time alkaline hydrolysis was explained to me. Now that I understand it, it should be the only method used, simple as that. When I educate pet owners to the green benefits and that it’s the process that the body goes through naturally, the response is a positive one.
My practice and who I am as a practitioner are constantly evolving. With each encounter I learn something new and use that experience to improve on the next case. I was fortunate that I received the training I did when it came to end-of-life care.
Pets are viewed as family members and owners will do anything to keep them happy and healthy for as long as they can. But what they remember the most is how they felt during their pet’s final moments and the compassion that you, their veterinarian, showed them. This will ensure a loyal client and one who recommends you to others.
Because you used the gift of your touch for both of your “clients”…owner and beloved pet.