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A Vet's View - Supporting Clients and Ourselves Through Grief

    • 2 posts
    August 10, 2020 3:12 PM EDT

    The benefit of experience in veterinary practice and a social work perspective ...

    Sometimes unique life experiences create ‘light bulb’ moments. For me, this experience was changing role from veterinarian to social work student on placement in both a human hospital / community setting and child protection agency. These placements were undertaken in communities in which I had previously practiced as a new graduate veterinarian, and another where I currently work as a casual sessional veterinarian.

    Curiosity coupled with my involvement in research as an academic and social work student led me to delving into the topic of grief and veterinary practice. More recently, my periodic work in the veterinary practice setting (without ongoing case management responsibility) has enabled me to experience fresh insights into grief experienced by both clients and veterinary staff members.

    Most new veterinary graduates have minimal preparation, training, and ongoing support for managing the grief of clients or the grief they themselves experience as part of working in a veterinary practice. Traditionally it’s simply thrust upon them as they enter into veterinary practice. My recollection of starting out as a new graduate was that of the ‘sink or swim approach’ where skills for supporting clients tended to be self-taught and based on a combination of intuition and practise. This experience was not unique to me. Approximately 4 years ago a survey was conducted of veterinarians practising in the same state in which I have worked throughout my career. Just over 85% of respondents reported that most of the skills they use when relating to grieving clients were self-taught.1 Additionally, just over 85% of the veterinarians from the same survey also reported having experienced grief at the end of an animal’s life. This validated the significance of my own grief experience working as a veterinarian in private practice. 

    While 40% of respondents reported that their physical / mental health had been impacted by dealing with client grief and end of life issues, this same survey1 also found that none of the veterinarians had personally accessed support services (e.g. help-lines, professional psychological services) for help with the stress of dealing with client grief and end of life issues. Interestingly, approximately 80% of survey respondents thought that providing grief support resources would be useful and that providing support for grieving clients was time consuming.1 However, just over 10% of the vets in the study surveyed reported offering contact information for pet loss support groups or someone trained in supporting owners with the grief process.1  

    Reflecting back on the first 20 years of my professional career and working in practice, I never fully appreciated the significance of the grief that can be experienced by both clients and veterinary staff. I was immersed in the hustle of my full-time work in a busy veterinary practice. I was also unaware of the value or availability of support options for dealing with grief. If only I had been aware of these tips for new and recent graduates.

    As a veterinarian I recognize that we play a significant role in supporting clients through their pet’s end of life experience. This can be a significant source of job satisfaction for veterinarians. It needs to be recognized, though, that supporting the mental health and wellbeing of clients in the context of the animal relationship does call for a multidisciplinary approach.  


    1. Dow MQ, Chur‐Hansen A, Hamood W, Edwards S. Impact of dealing with bereaved clients on the psychological wellbeing of veterinarians. Australian veterinary journal. 2019 Oct;97(10):382-9.