Euthanasia After a Dysthanasia; Helping pet owners the next time

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Ask anyone who has experienced a difficult euthanasia (dysthanasia) with a beloved pet and they will tell you they never want to go through that again.  For many, the emotions are as real today as the day it happened, no matter how long ago. A difficult euthanasia can mean the pet experienced more pain and distress than anticipated, and lead some owners to avoid making the euthanasia decision ever again.  They don’t want to repeat it.  This leaves another veterinarian or veterinary team in perhaps a tricky situation, trying to convey that things will be different this time and how they can be trusted to deliver a gentle euthanasia.

Euthanasia is more complicated than many realize.  It is a medical procedure that owners want to be present for, and this means they see the successes and challenges veterinary teams face first hand.  It can be hard for them to decipher what is normal or abnormal, but one thing is clear.  They do not want their pet to experience pain or distress.

If a pet owner has witnessed a euthanasia that caused them concern (sometimes actual primary traumatic stress), there are steps the new veterinary team can take to support them during the euthanasia of another pet.

  1. Open up dialogue about previous experiences – Start by learning what occurred so everyone understands.  Be inquisitive. Most of the time owners want to talk about their concerns and it’s important to provide a few minutes for them to explain.  
  2. Describe the procedure – Once you have learned about that difficult euthanasia experience, review what will be different this time.  Describe in moderate detail how you plan to help this pet with a gentler passing.  And you may need to be very descriptive to relieve genuine fear of the procedure.  Knowing the extent of the trauma the owner went through before the appointment starts is helpful.  Whoever schedules the appointment can pass along this knowledge to the team.
  3. Explain what may have happened last time – It’s possible that the previous euthanasia was more peaceful than the owner realized.  What may have looked distressing may not have been to the pet, even though it was upsetting to the owner.  Be careful to acknowledge what occurred without dismissing their feelings.  If the time is not right to review the details, offer to circle back with them and talk later.  You can also direct them to the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy’s (CAETA) complimentary Euthanasia Review Department to review the difficult experience with one of our expert veterinarians.
  4. Lengthen the appointment time – Having supported these owners in the past, I have seen how most want to slow down and take their time.  This is not always the case, but in a safe setting many will display the need to ask questions and understand the steps.  They may want to talk about what happened in detail thus planning on extra time is warranted.  Owners need to be understood before they can understand what you are telling them.  Create an emotional partnership, then use all of the wonderful skills you’ve learned with CAETA to ensure a peaceful passing for their pet.

Supporting pet owners post-dysthanasia creates an opportunity to show what a good euthanasia can be.  Help them to see how you and your team create a safe environment, full of trust, compassion, and skill to deliver a gentle death.  

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Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CCFP Founder, Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy