How to Support Yourself and a Pet Owner During Economic Euthanasia
Euthanasia represents one of the most challenging elements of a veterinarian's career—and it's even more difficult for the pet owner, who often considers their cat, dog, or other pet a member of the family. It's even tougher when euthanasia becomes the only option possible for owners who can't afford the cost of care.
This is a huge source of stress for veterinary professionals and can lead to compassion fatigue, burnout, poor productivity, and career disenchantment—all of which can push valuable team members out the door permanently or require a mental health leave of absence.
Since these difficult conversations are inevitable, the key to overcoming stress is learning how to manage your emotions as well as client communications when a situation such as economic euthanasia arises. While you can't control what the pet owner thinks, says, or does, you can handle and respond to it better when prepared.
Here are four tips to help support yourself, pet owners, and staff through a difficult situation, ensuring you can communicate clearly, help the pet parent, care for the pet—and protect your own well-being.
1. Engage the Parasympathetic System
It's hard to help pet owners through a difficult situation when you feel your own nervous system ramping up, which can inspire a fight, flight, or freeze response. Unfortunately, you will be less likely to stay in control of the situation if you feel and act in a defensive manner. When signs of this response arise, do what you can to step back into a parasympathetic state to reduce stress. This will not only help you manage the situation with a clearer head but will benefit your own health and wellness.
One easy way to activate your parasympathetic system is through parasympathetic breathwork techniques. It requires no special space to practice, and you can use it in the exam room even when a pet owner is struggling in front of you. If you can't, though, feel free to excuse yourself for a minute to do so.
2. Communicate Clearly and Simply
When a pet owner (or anyone) is distressed, their ability to comprehend what we're saying decreases, which is why it's important to communicate as clearly and simply as possible. Do your best to avoid the following communication barriers:
- Medical terminology: Make every effort to use simple, common, and conversational language.
- Too much detail: Going into too much detail about what is going on medically can be overwhelming, so minimize where you can.
- Judging the pet owner: Pet owners facing economic euthanasia can often be mired in shame and guilt. Avoid any communication that could be perceived as judgmental.
Also, keep in mind that most human communication is non-verbal. As such, it's important to make sure your non-verbal cues demonstrate empathy and understanding. Making direct eye contact and mirroring the client's body language can be helpful. Reflective listening can also be a powerful tool that lessens client defensiveness, increases cooperation, provides opportunities to correct misunderstandings, and communicates respect to the client.
3. Lead With Empathy
When pet owners see you care, they tend to respond more positively. Even simple actions can go a long way, like saying aloud, "This is a really hard situation." Ask the client how they're doing and wait for their answer. When we show our humanness to them by asking a question like this, it opens the flow of communication, mutual respect, and connection. I have found that many clients were surprised that I cared enough to ask them, and it strengthened our bond.
Furthermore, pet owners facing economic euthanasia are often drowning in guilt and shame. In these cases, I found it helpful to reassure them they were doing the right thing, saying, "Ending your pet's suffering is a brave choice. We are stewards of our pets' lives up until the end, and right now, the most loving thing we can do for them is to end their pain. It is a brave, hard thing you are doing." A comforting statement like this often eases the emotional suffering that pet owners are experiencing.
4. Create a Safe Space for Expression
You're far from the only one affected by economic euthanasia; the vet techs, front desk team, and animal assistants all witness these cases and experience their own emotional trauma. Many of them will try to suppress these feelings because they are taught to be stoic in this profession. It will mean a lot to your team members if you follow up with them after emotionally difficult cases and create a safe space for anything they want to express. It's even better if your hospital has an employee assistance program in place to provide a firm foundation of counseling for any team members—yourself included—who need further support.
Although we may not be able to avoid these difficult situations, we can manage our emotions and responses through them so we arrive on the other side unscathed—or much less so—especially when combined with other coping strategies for difficult situations. Most importantly, when you look in the mirror, give yourself credit for the love, care, and dedication you display for your team, clients, and their animals. Remember: You are making a difference in all of their lives for the better.