Vet Students at Washington State University Learn Grief Counseling Skills

Grieving Boy

Story at-a-glance -

  • The evolution of the human-animal bond means veterinarians need to learn the “soft” skills necessary to communicate with anxious, scared, and grieving pet owners.
  • The College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University offers a class for vet students called “Pet Loss and Human Bereavement.” The course provides students with an understanding of what clients experience when they lose a beloved pet.
  • WSU also offers a Pet Loss Support Hotline staffed by vet students. Pet owners can call the hotline to talk about their loss. The students who man the phone banks receive first-hand experience in how to communicate with a grief-stricken pet owner.

By Dr. Becker

Dr. Kathy Ruby is a licensed counselor who works at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University (WSU). She teaches a class for vet students called Pet Loss and Human Bereavement. “Veterinary science training is great on the medical side. It’s my job to concentrate on the other end of the leash,” says Ruby.

Dr. Ruby’s class provides students with a theoretical understanding of a pet owner’s experience of euthanasia and pet loss, so vet students graduate with the skills necessary to deal with this important aspect of their practices. The course is now also open to WSU counseling psychology students.

Vet Students Need Soft Skills to Communicate with Clients

Most of the training vet students receive involves learning the hard science they will need to work in their chosen careers. Learning the softer skills necessary to effectively communicate with human clients hasn’t been much of a focus. But fortunately, things are beginning to change in veterinary schools.

Once upon a time, vets primarily treated large farm animals like cows and pigs. Farmers and ranchers don’t often bond with their livestock. There was also a time when most family pets were kept outside.

But times have changed. Our cats and dogs now live indoors with us. Many people go to bed at night with a cat on their head and a dog at their feet. Dr. Ruby calls this new arrangement “interspecies families,” which is wonderful, but as she points out, “it also makes for great challenges when our pets reach the end of their lives.”

The fact is most pet owners will outlive the animals in their care. We witness the gradual decline of our pets, and most of us face euthanasia decisions at some point. According to Dr. Ruby:

“In ‘people medicine’ we still see death as a failure. With animals we often choose a good death at a particular time.”

Students Staff Phone Banks at WSU's Pet Loss Support Hotline

Fifteen years ago, Ruby created the Washington State University Pet Loss Support Hotline at (866) 266-8635. It’s a toll free hotline people can call when they are grieving the loss of a furry family member.

Vet students staff the hotline, which gives them the opportunity to interact with and learn from people across the U.S. and even around the world that have lost pets to trauma, illness or euthanasia.

Each student works the hotline for four sessions. According to Ruby, the first time they sit down to take calls, the students are nervous, but they work past those feelings as they gain experience talking with pet owners.

The hotline is staffed Mondays through Thursdays from 7:00pm to 9:00pm and on Saturdays from 1:00pm to 3:00pm. Times are PST. Messages can be left outside those hours.

People also send emails to plhl@vetmed.wsu.edu. According to Ruby, “We sometimes get them sent to us at 1 a.m. from people wondering if their grief is normal or if they are going crazy.”

Grieving? You Don't Have to Be Alone.

Teaching the technical skills necessary to be a competent DVM is necessarily the primary focus of veterinary schools. But given the societal evolution of the human-animal bond, it’s also important that vet students graduate prepared to deal with the human side of veterinary medicine.

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