It’s All About Safe Space

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True or false:  A good euthanasia is one that is skillfullly performed and the desired death comes quickly.  The answer is true, but there is often hidden context to questions and answers.  It turns out there is so much more to euthanasia; it’s an experience from beginning to end. A grieving woman who is haunted by the last moments of her cat recently reminded me what makes for a good euthanasia.  She shares how her desire to be listened to by her veterinary team fell on deaf ears, and how her cat was roughly handled.  She tells me that in 20 short minutes, her home turned into a swirling nightmare; an unstoppable train of confusion and fear.  All this and by my account, the euthanasia itself was properly performed.  What happened to make this euthanasia appointment so hated in the pet owner’s eyes?

When it comes time to say goodbye to a beloved pet, it all begins with good communication.  Pet owners need to be heard.  They desire to have some control over how their pet’s final moments will be.  Some need a little, some need a lot.  The veterinary team’s role is to be a guide during euthanasia, a shepherd or chaperone to ensure everyone safely reaches the destination. In this case, the destination is the safe and peaceful passing of the pet patient wherein the owner feels supported.  Good communication begins during the conversation to arrange for euthanasia. This may be over the phone or in person.  Whomever is speaking with the owner has important work to do making sure the owner’s wishes are heard, and this requires asking the right questions and giving the owner space to answer.  This considerate act of listening sets the tone for trust and security.

Next in line of importance is building rapport during the appointment.  The grieving woman in our story shares how everything happened so fast.  She speaks about feeling rushed and how there was no time to fully comprehend what was taking place.  Euthanasia is scary for just about everyone, especially those who are new to it or those who have bad memories of previous deaths.  In a time of unrest and anxiety, veterinary teams do well to slow down and calm the room.  Even in times of crisis, compassion and safety presented to loved ones must take center stage.  It is possible to meet the needs of the patient and family collectively.  Picture the euthanasia setting wrapped in a warm, soft blanket.  The only thing that matters during the appointment is that everyone feels safe and supported; patient, owner, and veterinary team.  We maintain this cocoon of comfort through aligned emotional states, via kind empathy, and through the veterinary team instilling confidence in their ability to deliver a peaceful passing.  CAETA always teaches the 3 C’s of good euthanasia: compassion, confidence, and control.

Useful tips to create safe space
Understand the needs of the pet owner before entering
Move slowly with soft body posture
Learn everyone’s name
Take deep breaths throughout the appointment 
Ask questions and checkin to make sure everyone feels supported
Build in time to hear stories
Perform a technically strong euthanasia

When you design the euthanasia appointment with comfort/safety in mind, it’s hard to get off target.  Fundamentals like a slow pace, good communication, and instilling confidence become the focus of the entire experience and build a nice layer of protection for all involved.  This woman who has been left feeling like she failed her sweet cat would have been better cared for had these fundamentals been in place.  Creating safe space is not a luxury.  It’s a must.

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Dr. Kathleen Cooney

DVM, CHPV, CPEV, DACAW resident Founder, Senior Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy

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