ABSTRACT: The loss of a pet can be a highly emotional, stressful and sometimes traumatic experience for any pet owner and veterinary professionals – whether a surgeon, nurse or receptionist – who are at the forefront of dealing with people on a regular basis as they go through some very difficult times. Pet toss support for clients and colleagues is something that forms a significant part of the working week for veterinary nurses and yet is little covered in training. There are a number of things to understand and skills that may be learned that can make it easier for everyone involved.

Dealing with grief

While there are many wonderful aspects associated with working as a veterinary nurse, there are also the more challenging ones that form part of day-to-day practice, none – more so than the nurses involvement with the owner who is contemplating the end of their pet’s life. It’s true to say that the vet and veterinary nurse have to deal with grief and bereavement more than most other professions.

Often, through the Pet Bereavement Support Service, we hear comments from veterinary nurses such as, “I don’t know what to say”, or “I never know what to do to make it easier”. It’s a very small part of VN training and yet the need to support grieving clients is commonplace in veterinary practice and it is critical that staff get it right!

The good news is that there are a number of things that can be done to make this process easier for everyone – the clients, your colleagues and you. If we can understand why people behave in the way they do when they are facing the challenging circumstances of losing a pet, it can help us to provide genuine compassion, empathy and effective support.

Understanding the relationship

Firstly, we should consider the human- companion animal bond; the connection that we humans have with our pets and the returned connection they have with us. You may have noticed that a significant number of your clients – and indeed your friends and family – refer to their pets by using terms that are equally applicable for use with family members. For example, they may call their pets their “babies”!

This is because the human-companion animal bond is a relationship based on attachment and this type of relationship is most often seen between parent and child (Figure 1). It is a relationship that can offer comfort and safety; provoke pleasure upon reunion, and anxiety upon separation.

Figure 1: The human-companion animal bond is a relationship based on attachment

Many of you will be able to recall a particular client whose misplaced concern for the health of their pet actually hindered its well-being? Equally how many of you can remember a time when a client has been so anxious about leaving their pet with you for treatment or surgery that they have made themselves ill, or have left staff at the practice feeling stressed or concerned?

Understanding why a person’s bond with their pet may be intensified by their environment or circumstances can help us to be non-judgemental when their behaviour challenges our professional and personal opinion or standards.

For example, one possible scenario may be as follows:

Mrs Smith becomes extremely anxious about leaving her beloved 'Max’ with you for a procedure. If you take some time to get to know her, you might discover a background along the following lines:

Mrs Smith has been living on her own with her pet since her husband passed away several years ago. Her family have moved away and she rarely sees anyone during the day apart from her beloved pet, Max, who belonged to her late husband and thus provides a link to his memory for her. When Max passes on, there is a strong possibility that it will bring back emotions and memories of her husband's death too and Mrs Smith lives in fear of this event.

Elderly clients – who you might think have a greater experience of loss and grief by virtue of their longevity and who you may assume will be less affected when they are faced with the loss of their pet – are actually a client group that are particularly vulnerable when losing a pet and may need special consideration.

Think about the client who went through a very difficult divorce last year. Her dog provided a comforting and non-judgemental ‘listening ear’ and unconditional affection for her. In fact, she feels that she wouldn’t have made it through without her dog beside her.

Of course, all of your clients will have circumstances in their lives that will affect the bond that they have with their pet. Taking time to get to know your clients’ background and situation can help tremendously. It can help you to provide the emotional support that they need, to understand what they are going through and to find the right words to comfort them.

How can you help to limit the distress?

Show empathy. Put yourself in their position and think to yourself, “If I were them right now, what would I need from me?”

Active listening skills. You can also learn and develop active listening skills. This doesn’t just mean listening attentively, although that is important in itself. Active listening skills are specific ways that we can offer emotional support to one another. They are skills that can help when we don’t know what to say.

Reflecting, restating, paraphrasing and summarising are all examples of active listening skills. Asking open questions that allow the person to tell you about their is useful, rather than closed questions that only require a “yes” or “no” response.

It is most important to remember that clients will experience grief and loss in different ways and will have varied and different needs. Some may wish to talk about their pet, whilst others may withdraw and not wish to talk at all. Some may cry, whilst others may not. Some may even seem cold and unfeeling about the situation; but this does not indicate what they are feeling inside – try to be non- judgemental and understanding.

Whilst you are dealing with pet loss on a regular basis, it can be significant, emotional, and sometimes traumatic for each client, so take care not to fall into autopilot and use auto responses’.

Listen carefully. Be genuine. Don’t be afraid of silence … sometimes you don’t need to say anything … sometimes you just need to listen.

Think about what things you can change at your practice to improve pet loss support. What can you do to make the environment better for your clients during this difficult time? Perhaps you could consider:

   booking euthanasia at the end of the day in a longer time slot so the client will not be rushed; providing an exit that does not require walking through the waiting room;

   ensuring there are tissues available;

   sending sympathy cards;

   providing information sheets to the client about grief and after-death body care options; and referring people to the Pet Bereavement Support Service or other appropriate services.

Spending time talking with your practice team about pet loss support protocols and procedures is a valuable exercise and as a result you will almost certainly be able to compile a list o
f the things that you could do to improve pet loss support at your practice. This in itself is great, but don’t forget to assign responsibility to an individual who will facilitate the issues that you have identified!

Support for practice staff

Finally, and very importantly, don’t forget to look after yourself. You are not expected to become a counsellor to your clients and colleagues, that is something very different -and it demands extensive training. But you can offer emotional support which will help your clients come to terms with what can be a devastating loss. Recognise when it is time to refer your client on to another professional, such as a GP or qualified counsellor.

You may feel the need to talk about your experiences of pet loss yourself, perhaps to a colleague, friend or family member. Remember too that the Pet Bereavement Support Service is not only available for your clients; when you have had a rough week dealing with pet loss, there is always someone there to listen to you as well.

The Pet Bereavement Support Service has been providing a free help line since 1994 and is now run jointly by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) and the Blue Cross.

SCAS also offers a distance learning course specifically for those in veterinary practice. Approved by the BVNA, the course covers many aspects of pet loss support, including skills that can help you to support your clients, colleagues and yourself through crisis, grief and the difficult experiences of pet loss. This course can be booked directly through the SCAS website, www.scas.org.uk. BVNA members qualify for a special discounted member’s rate.

The BVNA is also teaming up with SCAS to offer a number of regional workshops in Pet Loss Support. Look out for details as they become available on the BVNA website. 


Julia Dando MA

Julia has been involved in delivering training for over a decade and joined SCAS as its training manager towards the end of 2010. Amongst her roles she supports trainees through the Pet Loss Support in Veterinary Practice distance learning course, delivers bespoke training and also mentors trainee volunteers for the Pet Bereavement Support Service.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00131.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 28-29


Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 27 • January 2012 •