Interdisciplinary research on pet loss gets global attention
Seneca team creates guidelines for supporting end-of-life pet care
Nov. 12, 2020
Professor Kirsti Clarida of Seneca’s Veterinary Technician diploma program has come face to face with death many times in her career. A registered veterinary technician, she has vivid memories of taking part in the euthanasia of pets.
“You feel guilty,” she said. “It’s very intense for people who work in veterinary medicine. We experience losses repeatedly. We take the brunt sometimes and it becomes this very difficult place where we are not taught how to handle complicated situations.”
To address a gap in training and support for veterinary teams when it comes to dealing with pets’ end of life, Ms. Clarida and Professor Angie Arora of the Social Service Worker – Immigrants & Refugees diploma program collaborated as co-investigators on an interdisciplinary applied research project to develop best practice guidelines for veterinary professionals who support pet owners during this difficult process.
With a Seneca Innovation grant, the research team partnered with VCA Canada, the country’s largest network of animal hospitals, and recently published Pet Loss Best Practice Guidelines for Veterinary Teams (PDF). The report has been getting international attention from as far as Australia and the United Kingdom.
“It’s validation that the guide is accessible and being used,” said Ms. Arora, a veterinary social worker. “People are reading it and asking us for permission to integrate our work into their training.”
This month, training sessions are also being conducted to support VCA staff on how to support clients during their pets’ end of life — support that was nowhere to be found when Ms. Arora’s dog of 18 years, Montey, died of cancer in 2004.
“I turned to the community for support but there was very little out there,” she recalled. “It was a light-bulb moment for me, and Montey has now morphed into a legacy.”
Ms. Arora has since worked as a veterinary social worker with Pet Vet Hospitals, PawsWay Pet Discovery Centre, Halton/Peel Pet Loss Support Group and the Canadian Centre for Pet Loss Bereavement. She is currently a facilitator for a pet loss support group with VetVine and is on the inaugural board of directors for the International Association of Veterinary Social Workers.
“I have worked with clients who have had their pets die while in their care. Those are the traumatic ones,” she said. “The most important thing I do is listen. I provide the space for them to talk about it, to release, to validate.”
When Margaret Steffan heard about the pet loss project earlier this year, the Seneca student, who graduated from the Veterinary Technician diploma program, jumped at the chance to work as a research assistant.
“I thought it was a really good opportunity,” she said. “There hasn’t been much research done previously. It’s something that’s really missing in the field. There’s compassion fatigue, and we often have to go from euthanasia to an appointment with a puppy. Our emotions are quickly changing in response to the circumstances.”
Another Veterinary Technician graduate, Daniella Zamora, who also worked on the project as a research assistant, says she wanted to help create a point of reference for veterinary professionals when responding to clients’ needs.
“For many pet owners, losing a pet is like losing someone in their life — it’s a very significant loss,” she said. “But there isn’t the same understanding in society. Some people expect you to get over it and get on with your life. They don’t understand that you are allowed to grieve in the same way.”
While the pet loss project is not going to solve grief, Ms. Clarida hopes the best practice guidelines will help address those high-stress situations and help pet owners and animal care professionals to get closer to “good death.”
“I’ve had experiences where it was good. The owner was prepared and medically it was the right decision,” she said. “We would be crying, all of us. I would cry with the owner and we would hug each other. It’s very difficult because we make decisions with them about things they can’t undo.”