Lending a Heart

October 2022 |

Ways to help your clients through end-of-life pet care.

As co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, Mary Gardner, DVM, knows a thing or two about terminally ill pets.

Caregiver burden is the physical, emotional, social and financial strain of providing care for a chronically or terminally ill, disabled or geriatric loved one. “In veterinary medicine, that care could range from managing pets’ appetite and food preparation to administering treatments to hygiene and cleaning up after them,” Gardner says. “And it can be a lot.” To help your clients struggling to care for a geriatric or terminally ill pet, Gardner suggests:

Take time to talk. Ask clients about their caregiving experience, including the pet’s struggles and their own frame of mind. This in-depth conversation allows you to assess the quality of life of both patient and owner. Evaluate the caregivers’ sense of well-being, confidence in their ability to provide care, and additional support needs. “We need to make sure neither the client nor the pet is suffering,” says Gardner.

Educate. Clients considering euthanasia for their pets may benefit from information about the appointment itself and about saying goodbye. “A lot of times they’re scared and grieving, and they don’t know what to expect,” Gardner says. She also suggests providing links on your website to social workers, local agencies or caregiver-focused websites such as caregiver.org and petcaregiverburden.com.

Encourage social support. Let clients know that they will need support from others along the way. Illness-specific support groups for pet owners abound on social media, says Gardner. “Families can rely on the members not only for support but also for tips and tricks for caring for their pet,” she says. And, taking time away from caregiving helps ease the burden.

Encourage caregiver clients to reach out to friends or family so they can get a break—whether it’s for a few hours or a few days.

Give permission to let go. In Gardner’s experience, primary caregivers are often under a great deal of stress, especially when considering euthanasia. “Sometimes the primary caregiver wants to hold on, and other times they’re the first to let go,” she says. For those who are struggling, Gardner offers permission.

“When it comes to an end-of-life decision, there’s a period of time where I’m not going to say goodbye to a pet, a period where I’m going to insist that we say goodbye, and then a big subjective time in the middle,” Gardner says. Hospice, terminally ill and very old pets fall into that subjective time period—also called the roller coaster—with good days and bad days.

“Give these clients permission to be tired and stressed,” Gardner advises. “Ask what you can do to help, and give them permission to stop treatment at any time with your full support. Make sure the owners don’t feel guilt that they could have done more.”