8 ways to offer compassionate care to cat owners


Guiding clients through end-of-life issues cements the bond forged since their first visit.

You're often a witness to the pain and sorrow of pet loss, and it can be a heavy burden to guide pet owners through the journey of saying goodbye to their furred family members. Though this process is difficult, choosing the right approach for each pet and client you work with can be the best gift you can offer.

Cindy Adams, MSW, PhD, directs the clinical communication skills program at the University of Calgary, Veterinary Medicine in Calgary, Alberta, and recently participated in a roundtable discussion on compassionate care sponsored by Virbac Animal Health. "Doctors get more cards about how they manage end-of-life than any other heroics that they do," Adams says. "If it's done well, it builds the practice and it builds the team."

Client education tools can be a big help when it comes to end-of-life decisions. (Click here to download a client handout titled "Assessing your pet's quality of life.") But the most important thing you can offer, Adams says, is a personalized touch. Just as every pet is unique, each client needs an individualized approach.

Diagnosing the client

Simply put, it's difficult to offer compassionate care if you're using a one-size-fits-all approach. Different clients have different needs as they prepare for and cope with pet loss, Adams says. Try these ideas to help improve your communication skills and guide clients through the end-of-life discussion:

1. Assess your physical practice environment. For example, blinds on exam room doors offer privacy.

2. Make sure other team members in the practice know you're dealing with a dire pet. This will allow them to adjust the schedule and keep other appointments and tasks moving, Adams says.

3. Manage each discussion individually. Your conversation about quality-of-life issues will change in tone, tempo, and intensity, depending on the client.

4. Share the decision-making process. Balance offering clients the information they need to make decisions with pauses that give them a chance to share their views.

5. Stay focused on the client. Remember to steer the conversation away from yourself and make your goal to serve your clients and understand who they are. For example, instead of, "I know how you feel," you might say, "I can't imagine how you're feeling right now."

6. Respect each client's individuality. Decisions about end-of-life issues are very personal, Adams says. Some clients may prefer to nurse the pet until it passes away. Some need to thoroughly understand the compassionate nature of your euthanasia protocol. A tactile client may benefit from feeling a pet's lump, while a visual learner might need to see radiographs to understand the pet's illness.

7. Hone your communication skills. Using signposts and reflective listening skills can help guide the conversation. For example, you might say, "I'm going to share with you three important things. First, I hear how desperately you want to keep your pet alive. Second, I hear how much you care, and I do too. And that brings me to my third point. We have to work together and figure out a plan where your pet's OK and you're OK."

8. Create a self-care plan. Compassion fatigue is a very real threat, so it's important to plan ways to recharge yourself and your team members as you deal with these heavy issues. This may include regular meetings and conversations in the practice as well as continuing education.

"When done well at the practice level, facilitating end-of-life conversations can build a stronger team and even offer economic benefits," Adams says. "And it's an ethical responsibility. You're not a therapist, but you do have a role in talking with clients and acknowledging their grief."

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