The Power of Pre-Planning

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If you ask me what my super power would be, without hesitation I’ll tell you Time Travel.  The ability to go back in time and alter future events is enticing. Alas no luck with that yet. With regards to euthanasia of companion animals, I like to remind professionals there are no ‘do-overs’. Getting it right the first time is the best chance we have of meeting our clients’ needs and providing our pet patient a gentle death. Pre-planning, aka taking time to discuss what’s best for everyone is like time travel; the best kind of foresight.  Why do we need to go back in time when we got it right the first time?

Pre-planning is empowering to clients and doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s a matter of opening up dialogue around euthanasia appointment parameters before the appointment itself.  The goal is for the veterinary team to learn what’s important to the family and consider what is going to be best for the pet:

  • Where to gather
    • Home – preferred by more and more as a way to reduce anxiety during the last moments of life.  Where in the home will the pet be most relaxed?
    • Hospital – a safe room offering comfort and privacy. Which room is quiet and even offers a private exit after?  Is it large enough to accommodate everyone?
    • Favorite place – a neutral location where the pet loved to spend time. Ideas here include the park, the beach, or even near the future burial site. Keep in mind that some jurisdictions require a permit to perform euthanasia in a public place.
  • When should it take place
    • Before a possible crisis – many clients will err on choosing euthanasia just this side of a crisis to prevent the pet having to endure added suffering
    • Significant time of day – there may be a special time like sunset or day of the month of importance worth honoring
    • Loved ones able to attend – timing often centers around when loved ones can be there; assuming the pet is not in crisis or needs more immediate assistance
  • Who should be there
    • Family and friends – it’s important to encourage the family to consider who wants to be present to say goodbye.  Assuming the space is large enough, many loved ones can be in attendance.
    • Children – most experts agree that children who want to be present for the death should be allowed.  It becomes that much more vital for veterinary team members to describe the procedure in an honest, yet minimalistic way.
    • Other pets – most experts also agree that other pets do well being present and have the best chance to understand that death has come.
  • What special touches to include
    • Music – music can be played by the family or the team can select songs that reflect the love and loss. Remember that music should not be forced.  It can complicate the grieving process.
    • Photo shoot – families may want to hold a pre-euthanasia photo shoot to capture images of their pet. This can be done days, if not weeks ahead of time.
    • Ceremony – this one is often overlooked.  If a small or large honoring ceremony is possible, either before or after death, arrangements can be made before the window of opportunity has passed.
  • How aftercare will be managed
    • Personal preference – which crematory does the family want to work with? It is more ethically sound to let them guide the choice.  If they have no preference, the veterinary team can choose the one best suited to the family needs.
    • Memorialization – pre-planning opens up the opportunity for keepsake creation before the pet’s body is interred or cremated.  Do they want to create things while the pet is still living or after euthanasia?

The above list is just the start of all the pre-euthanasia arrangements that can be made.  Talking beforehand also provides the veterinary team time to lay out professional expectations for the procedure. It’s beneficial for clients to appreciate the team’s approach, such as pre-euthanasia sedation, what technique will be used, and how the pet’s body will be handled after.  A deeper understanding of the procedure can reduce fear of the unknown and strengthen trust in the experience.

Pre-planning can begin during a geriatric exam or during any conversation wherein the client learns the end is drawing near.  The Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA) provides veterinary teams with complimentary brochures titled ‘Understanding Companion Animal Euthanasia; Your guide for making preparations’. Tools like this can be handed over to clients with the intention to safely open up conversation around choices.  This brochure can be found on the CAETA website.

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Kathleen Cooney

DVM, MS, CHPVFounder, Director of Education for the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy
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