Bereavement Counseling
Promoting the Human-animal Bond in Veterinary Practice
Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives

Times of stress require a special giving that is not taught in most veterinary schools (except those with optional "hot lines" for grieving clients). The stress is there with any major illness or injury and is often seen with even the most minor problem. The client is not trained to differentiate major from minor concerning a loved pet. Any client-perceived emergency or crisis is just that, and the compassion and concern shown by the practice staff starts the bereavement counseling process. The real challenge occurs in the consult room, when the stress of a pet problem makes the client's share their other life stresses with you, since grief and stress are cumulative. AAHA sells three great children's books about pet loss [Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Viorst), Mister Rogers on Pet Loss, and I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm)]; nonmembers can usually get them cheaper at any local bookstore. Many practices keep a couple of each available for loan. These books are not in lieu of caring, compassion, and concern, they are additional to those feelings shared in the exam room. The individual techniques vary with the practice but most successful practices utilize quality time in the consultation room or office, a follow-up sympathy card; many utilize donations in memory of the animal (as to the Morris Animal Foundation, Cornell Feline Center, a local wildlife park or zoo). When there are young children, I find that using a local zoo or animal park allows the parent to say that "these animals are kept well by our veterinarian in memory of Fluffy's love." A few even send a bud vase and card following a tragic experience by good clients; the technique must fit the practice's usual image and approach to caring or it will seem to be a hollow gesture. The bottom line is simple; it is okay to care. It is fine to feel sad, and if you cry with a client no one will think less of you. For more details, please review Appendices M, N, O, and P.

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Thomas E. Catanzaro, DVM, MHA, FACHE, Diplomate American College of Healthcare Executives