Saturday, November 16, 2019

Tone-deafness in pet loss and grief may contribute to animal homelessness, negative outcomes for pet care and veterinary businesses

A good friend sent me a message a few days ago, it’s tone abrupt and the latter three words laced with a staccato that was easily palpable, even in a text.

“I got this in the mail for the third straight month…”

The accompanying photo showed what at any other time could be seen as innocuous, even helpful, but today and during the past year, gutting.

Not the first time since the sudden death of the dog last December, the local veterinary office handling vaccinations and such for the pet has sent periodic reminders just like the one pictured to his family for preventative care.

It seems important to mention that the dog died suddenly while being boarded
at their facility while my friend and I were traveling out of state. And that the after care for said pet, including my own clear requests to have a clay paw print impression be made and a lock or two of fur be clipped and carefully set aside for my friend prior to transport for cremation were met with “the crematory will handle that” and never were honored. And then, upon my friend arriving to take custody of their pet’s ashes, there were even more missteps on the vet practice’s part.

A message from a family-of-record asking if I would consent to being a reference for them after they decided they were ready to take the plunge and be considered to adopt a new-to-them dog from a rescue organization was met with the kind of joy those of us who are in the fold as Certified Professional Pet Sitters and Pet Loss and Grief Companions are super-charged by. In the months leading up to this ask, the family had lost both of their dogs unexpectedly to cancer. But after taking a little time to navigate through their grief and eventually feeling ready, they started browsing Petfinder. It wasn’t long before they saw a dog they felt would be a great fit for them and then submitted the necessary paperwork with the rescue organization—which included information on verifying their having a history with a veterinarian—they waited. And waited. It wasn’t until a short time later when the family checked in on their application, it was discovered that they’d been denied because their current dogs hadn’t had veterinary care in awhile.

Can you imagine the awkwardness that swooped in when the rescue’s representative heard my client say, ‘That’s because they’re both dead’? (Thankfully, this family wasn’t daunted, but they did relay the exchange to me so it had made an impression.)

Simple missteps, mistakes, you might think.

But from the vantage point of a family who’s suffered the loss of a pet—especially traumatically so—or that of a pet care professional who is also an end-of-life doula, these are cases of an egregious lack of common sense and I’ll come out and say it: tone-deafness.

It goes without saying that those who are connected to animal rescues can be more easily forgiven for this seemingly easy detail to pick up on because many of them are volunteers and may not have that much exposure to the dynamics of pet loss with families. However, with veterinary practices, it seems logical that more mindfulness and tact when it comes to the deaths with their clients-of-record’s beloved pet would be par for the course.

The problem is, sometimes, it’s not. Veterinary practices don’t always have the training, skills, protocols in place, not to mention the time to have more thoughtful interactions with families when a pet dies. Protocols like each staff member being educated on how to handle phone calls about inquiries from a family worried about their pet’s quality-of-life or regarding euthanasia and ditto for questions about end-of-life care; on how to handle after care for a pet including paw print impressions and cremation, if that’s in the family’s wishes and as importantly, how and when the family will get their beloved pet’s ashes. Protocols to immediately denote the pet’s death on their file so that the family isn’t getting notifications via mail or electronically for wellness care or otherwise.

Not having these protocols, dropping the proverbial ball only highlights what is known about why 20% of families surveyed don’t return to their vet practice of origin after after a pet’s death. My friend certainly made it clear that was how they feel, and it’s hard to blame them.

Poor experiences like the ones illustrated demonstrate the apprehension and frustration that families feel about the tone-deafness by after a pet’s death and because of the depth of their emotion, and as a pet loss professional, I can confidently say that few are willing to articulate it to those on the other side of the equation. In fact, they take those hits in silence, tuck them into private, dark place and for many, they inform their choices about the way they might approach a pet’s care when it’s most needed in the future. Rather than leaning in to the experience and partnering with veterinary care professionals when those chips are down, a pet owner might decide to wing it and make less-than-ideal decisions for their pets. Because to them, those previous negative experiences with a pet’s life-limiting illness or age-related decline, end-of-life, euthanasia, death, aftercare and how they themselves were tended to after are far more scary to them than that unknown road of going it alone with a pet who needs exceed their capabilities.

As a pet care professional specializing in palliative and hospice care, I assure you that’s not what anyone wants.

And as for animal rescue organizations, it’s just as important for those handling applications and interviews to use a little intuition and thoughtful communication when sorting out the details offered.

The above statistic, reported by Compassion Understood, doesn’t reflect the percentages of families whose experience may affect their willingness to welcome a new pet at all in the future. Though, I can confidently say that I’ve heard families mention that in order to avoid having to go through what they had before, they’d go as far as to resort to that. And again, this is understandable, but not something that anyone wants to see happen, either.

How can we in the pet care industry and those in the veterinary and animal rescue communities help families avoid these feelings?

Shift the focus, get the education and expand the horizons

I see many veterinary practices, animal rescue organizations and pet care professionals home in on reducing pet homelessness, and though I understand that putting so much of their attention on getting animals currently without homes into a forever, stable arrangement is important, it’s hard to ignore that can be somewhat short-sighted. As a professional who has a specialty in the fourth-life stage (palliative, hospice and end of life care), I’m all-too-aware that walking with families through this important time of life is more powerful than one might think when it comes to reducing pet homelessness.

Though not everyone’s role is or can be in hands-on care during the fourth-life stage, having the soft skills that are so desperately needed to lend a sense of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and understanding where a family is (or has been, essentially, ‘meeting them where they are’) can be a boon. All of us can join and support organizations whose missions are geared toward facilitating as whole and peaceful a transition for pets and families alike through the fourth life stage. We can gain education (some even have transferrable CEU’s for specific professionals) about communication, best practices, standards-of-care and the all-important self care strategies in this area.

Regardless of our role in these fields, the access to the best information, education and skills are accessible.

It would be foolish to not acknowledge the matter of hard it is to hurdle one’s own fears, biases and viewpoints of all that encompasses the fourth-life stage and death. In having this common obstacle in front of us, it’s difficult to see, hear and acknowledge those who have death, dying and loss -- or the remnants of it -- squarely in their lap, no matter our capacity.

With a lack of soft skills, the standards-of-care, the sensitivity, the time needed to give these situations, sliding into the tone-deafness of the trauma of losing a pet is much more easy. And that tone-deafness comes at a cost to veterinary practices, the pet care industry and animal rescue organizations. And so, if we want to help make a bigger dent in keeping families from losing trust in the ways that we say that we want to be helpful to them, and yes, in ending pet overpopulation and homelessness, we need to acknowledge the broadened scope of what is contributing to it and fix it.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.