Sarah Rae Murray is a writer, veterinary practice receptionist and an advocate for all animals.
It was the kind of phone call that veterinary clinic receptionists dread — an appointment request for a euthanasia from a client who had never been to the clinic. It’s a conversation that can raise the hackles of even the most sympathetic veterinary care person. Was the client calling a new clinic because this was a convenience euthanasia? I was on guard.
My suspicion soon transformed into sympathy. The man on the phone explained that he, his wife and their dog were staying in the city temporarily while his wife underwent chemotherapy treatments. His voice wavered as he told me that their dog was not a patient at our clinic, but they felt it was time to seek a humane euthanasia. I scheduled the appointment.
A few hours later, a woman with a silk scarf tied over her head led her family through the door of the clinic. Her husband followed, his face creased with worry and fatigue. Behind them, laboured an old shepherd-cross with a salt-and-pepper coat and visibly weak hips. I took them to a dimly lit euthanasia room where the dog rested on a homemade quilt and basked in the quiet attention of his owners.
"As a clinic receptionist, I immediately get my guard up when a new client asks about euthanasia. What’s driving this decision? Have they approached their regular vet? Are their intentions humane or convenience-based?"
I couldn’t help but be overcome by sympathy for this family; I couldn’t help being struck by the complexity of choosing to end their dog’s life as the woman fought for her own. Throughout the entire euthanasia process, the man was visibly shaken, but the woman seemed serene. It was as though she understood something lost on the rest of us: how to confront the reality of death with courage and clarity.
This story ends on an inspiring note, but non-client inquiries regarding euthanasia can be much more problematic. For many of us in the industry, this specific type of inquiry can be a red flag signalling convenience euthanasia— is a term used to describe the euthanasia of a healthy pet whose owner wishes to have him euthanized for personal reasons. As a clinic receptionist, I immediately get my guard up when a new client asks about euthanasia. What’s driving this decision? Have they approached their regular vet? Are their intentions humane or convenience-based?
The reality is that questions around euthanasia are rarely a simple dichotomy: good or bad; humane or convenience-based. As veterinary care professionals, most of us know all too well that decisions around the life or death of a patient who can’t speak for him/herself are intensely complex.
It’s a complexity that’s built into the fibre of the veterinary field as a whole, says Brittany Patten, a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) with experience in both emergency and small practices. “Nothing in the vet industry is black and white.”
When it comes to euthanasia, human emotions can make it even harder to pinpoint the client’s motivations. “It’s always hard to judge people in those times. Everybody acts differently when they’re grieving,” says Patten. As almost anyone in the veterinary care field can attest, there’s no single appropriate approach to loss among pet owners. It’s hard to anticipate the reaction of familiar clients and nearly impossible to predict the behaviour of a new client.
So what happens when there’s no time to build trust with a client? We have to trust our own instincts, says Patten. “It kind of comes down to how you perceive the people…and if it’s a ‘good’ reason or a ‘bad’ reason. It kind of comes down to your feeling about things.” It’s an imprecise recipe of intuition, experience and observation.
Convenience euthanasia often begins as a telephone inquiry. As a member of the support team, I know it’s my job to maintain a certain level of necessary scepticism while actively and openly listening. I need to ask certain questions and outline specific policies to ensure the client and the clinic are on the same page. The trick to this discussion is diplomacy, regardless of what I think is the underlying motive.
"Nothing in the vet industry is black and white. It kind of comes down to how you perceive the people and if it's a 'good' reason or a 'bad' reason."
Veterinarian Laurina LeBoldus (DVM) finds herself less guarded after eight years of practicing in a small clinic setting. “What’s really important is just listening to people and giving them the opportunity to tell their story — and not shaming them. Euthanasia isn’t easy for most people, even if there is a convenience component,” says LeBoldus. “I want to be a place where people can come and feel safe and listened to.”
Practice owners, veterinarians, support staff and clients must all maintain a certain level of trust to ensure the animal’s care is the top priority. Clients are trusted to relay detailed and honest observations. Veterinarians are trusted to use their expertise to determine the best course of action for that particular animal. Because the patient (pet) can’t voice their own experience, the responsibility falls to the humans to communicate on the animal’s behalf. “I see [the pet] in the clinic where their adrenaline is going and it’s like this little snapshot but the client is the best person to assess what their quality of life is at home, so I really depend a lot on their impression”, says LeBoldus.
Initiating trust, determining client motivation and assessing what’s right for the patient are foundational steps that veterinary care professionals need to take within the first few minutes. It can be overwhelming. Euthanasia is a difficult reality of veterinary care. Having an established euthanasia protocol can help to alleviate some of the stress for the clinic team and facilitate a smoother experience for the client, but ultimately, you can’t plan for everything. This industry is anything but predictable.
When it comes to euthanasia requests from new clients with unfamiliar pets, experienced veterinary care providers say they rely on intuition and compassion to guide their decisions. In my experience, I’ve seen that it’s important for each clinic staff member involved in the non-client euthanasia to know that their role was played to the best of their ability, utilizing their best judgment. We have to trust our own ability to make rational decisions under emotional circumstances.
I was the first point of contact to provide a peaceful passing for a geriatric dog at the end of his life because I avoided falling into the trap of snap judgments. The owners, who were already too familiar with the fragility of life, were given the opportunity to assess their dog’s quality of life and have their decision be trusted by the veterinary clinic team. It’s an experience that has coloured my reactions at work and reminds me that choices around euthanasia are often not black and white. The acceptance of these grey areas opens up a space where we can address the reality of death with courage and clarity.
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