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The New AVMA Companion Animal Aftercare Policy - Part III

  • June 14, 2021 12:13 PM EDT

    In Part 2 of this series on The New AVMA Companion Animal Aftercare Policy, I discussed the importance of encouraging pre-planning for pet parents, as it can lessen the stress of making a number of decisions (e.g. aftercare, etc.) on the day of their euthanasia appointment. They are trusting us to not only guide them to make the best possible decisions, but they are also trusting us with their beloved companion during aftercare as well. Let’s talk about respectful and dignified containment of the remains as pointed out in the new AVMA policy. 


    3. Companion animal veterinarians should […] provide adequate containment of the remains.” 

    Keeping with the theme of this new policy, which is that of dignity and respect, we are to provide adequate containment of the remains. What exactly does this mean?

    This can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but it’s safe to say we are phasing out the use of plastic bags for the storing of remains. As anyone who works in a medical field knows, we have all witnessed our fair share of less-than-pleasant sights. The status quo cannot be the definition of “adequate.”

    Pet parents are trusting us to protect their furry companions and dignity should be something we strive for. The use of an appropriate body bag is not only dignified but symbolic. Think of all the extra effort we put in for our patients, but when it comes to how the body is handled after death, the same standards do not apply. According to a survey conducted of pet owners in July of 2019, 86% of pet owners consider proper containment important. A medical-grade bag making insertion of the body easier is - so far - the best bet with regard to body bags. They are more efficient to store than boxes and look respectful when organized in the freezer. Ones made from recycled material are better in terms of environmental impact. Euthabag was designed by a Canadian veterinarian, Dr. Celine Leheurteux. She could not stomach placing pets in trash bags as this was a major conflict to her practice standard and values, so much so she created a solution to this problem.

    Overall, something comprised of quality and respect is in order. Imagine if we put humans in garbage bags. There is a reason it is not the standard. Why do we continue to do this with our beloved pets and patients? There are plenty of options available to provide adequate containment of the remains, and the AVMA is encouraging us to take notice.

    This can be particularly important whenever an owner decides to come back after euthanasia and wishes to see their pet one last time. What do you do in this event? Most often we will ask the owners to wait in a room while we locate the remains. We poise and place them neatly on a blanket or something more aesthetically pleasing. Are we being dishonest if we are not showing the owners what the real containment looks like? It’s worth giving this some thought.

    More specifically, this section in the AVMA policy states: “[…] veterinarian should handle animal remains in a sensitive manner, such that it is not unnecessarily disturbing to the owner or any other person with a valid reason to see the remains.” They go on to say “Deceased pets, whenever possible, should be maintained in a condition suitable for return to the owner or to the aftercare providers such that families may witness their pet’s aftercare.”

    Lastly, in this section they point out, “the sensitive handling of pet remains is an important aspect of veterinary practice.” This adds to our code of ethics as well as professionalism as a whole.

    It’s certainly encouraging that the AVMA sheds light on this and shifts our focus to what the pet owners will feel like if it’s the last time they saw their pet. Have we as a veterinary industry asked the public what they want?

    Like our friend Dr. Rollin, another veterinarian was curious and actually asked people what their preferences and expectations were on aftercare of pets. In a very recent study conducted by Dr. Kathy Cooney on the preferences of pet owners[1] she showed that the majority of people found it unacceptable that animals were placed in garbage bags. Much like Dr. Rollin thought, it begs the question:

    “the majority of the public does not like this … so why are we giving it to them?”

    The perception of the human-animal bond is evolving, and decisions to adhere to these higher-order guidelines help us to create a world that treats all life with respect and protects its dignity. It is something we all intuitively know, yet we must work hard to achieve. We already know what the right thing to do is and the AVMA is helping us get there. To paraphrase a concept by the philosopher Plato6: we do not teach, simply, we remind.