How Veterinarians Are Handling Euthanasia During COVID-19

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Guest post by Sarah Chauncey

Losing a pet is devastating at any time, but several factors come together to make it particularly painful during this COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us are already feeling the stress of physical distancing, and for many, a companion animal may be the only living being we’re allowed to touch right now (I’m in that situation). To have to let go at a time when all of us want to hold on is an unthinkable situation.

This is the first post in a three-part series. In this first post, I’ll look at how veterinarians are handling euthanasia during COVID-19. In the next post, I’ll offer some ways you can take care of yourself while you’re grieving in isolation and find people who understand. In the third post, I’ll share some resources to help you cope.

AVMA guidelines for veterinary practices during COVID-19

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued guidelines for veterinary clinics, and they include what we’re all used to by now: maintaining 6 feet of distance, washing hands frequently, staying home if a team member feels unwell, not touching their face, not touching others’ personal items (e.g, phone, water bottle), and wearing PPE as appropriate.

Most vet clinics are doing curbside drop-off: you park in the parking lot, call the clinic to let them know you’ve arrived, then place your cat (in the carrier!) on the curb or sidewalk in front of the clinic. A staff member comes out, picks up the carrier, and takes your cat inside for the exam. After the exam, the vet calls you on your cell and discusses the situation. When your cat is ready to go home, a team member brings the carrier back out and sets it down for you to pick up, along with any prescriptions or paperwork.

The (possible) exception: euthanasia

The AVMA has left it up to individual veterinarians whether people are allowed inside for euthanasias. Some vets have decided not to allow the guardian into the room (as is their prerogative), but many vets are allowing at least one human in the room, with extra precautions—after all, they understand the pain of loss better than anyone.

“We are all so raw right now,” says Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, founder and CEO of Chico Hospital for Cats and a past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “To lose a beloved feline family member is just that much more devastating. We could not, with any shred of compassion, deprive people of being there if they wish to be.”

However, clinics must also be mindful of team members’ health. To that end, Dr. Colleran adds, “What we have settled on is to allow one family member into the exam room closest to the door. Everyone is required to wear PPE, including the client, which, if they don’t have it, we will provide. We are asking people not to bring anything from their homes, and we are disinfecting the carrier before entering the building. After their departure, the room will be fully and ruefully cleaned and disinfected and any PPE discarded safely.”

Dr. Mary Gardner, co-founder Lap of Love, a nationwide hospice and in-home euthanasia service, explains how her team of vets across the country are handling their services during the pandemic. “We have a lot of protocols in place now to protect our veterinarians, because people may have it and not know, so we have to be careful regardless.” Those guidelines include wearing PPE, minimizing human contact and performing euthanasia outside when possible. Lap of Love has also suspended their mobile hospice services during the pandemic.

“We have been helping families in unique locations and situations for a decade, so we are prepared to get creative,” Dr. Gardner says. “I have delivered angel wings on boats, under pool tables, on docks, in cars and even standing up. We even have techniques to euthanize pets from a distance.” Dr. Gardner notes that not all veterinarians are prepared for these situations.

Dr. Kris Chandaroo of 100x Vet, a mobile veterinary service in Ottawa, Ontario, explained in an interview with Mikel Delgado that he and his RVT, Tarra, have been experimenting with a different euthanasia technique that circumvents face-to-face human contact.

This includes doing the initial consultation by phone, giving the initial sedation to the cat while the human is in a different room, and inserting extra-long IV lines. Dr. Kris and Tarra then leave the room and call the person or family, who then enters the cat’s room. The final drug is administered from another room (or outside) via IV, leaving the family in privacy with the cat. As Dr. Kris told Delgado, “We call the owner and they can be with their cat as he falls asleep. As far as the cat knows, nothing has changed. All they know is all they’ve ever known, there’s nothing new or stressful.”

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Dr. Kris in protective gear

Making the euthanasia decision during a pandemic

“Regardless of making this decision during a pandemic or not, it’s hard,” says Dr. Gardner. “It is the most emotionally stressful decision pet parents will face.” She created a half-hour video that goes through the decision-making process in great detail. You can also read my account of making the decision for my cat, Hedda, as well as Ingrid’s story of her hospice and decision-making process for Ruby.

Many of us rely on our vets as our reality check when our pets are old or sick. When we’re with them every day, and especially during shelter-in-place, it can be hard to spot subtle decline. In those instances, some vets are turning to telemedicine, using Skype, Zoom or other software.

This is an immensely stressful time, even without the added pain of losing a beloved companion. My heart goes out to everyone who is having to make this decision while also dealing with all the stress of the pandemic.

Every veterinarian I’ve communicated with has expressed dismay that they’re not able to hug or physically console people after a euthanasia. Know that they are hugging you from their heart.

In my next post, I’ll explore some ways you can take care of yourself (and even find support) while you’re grieving in isolation.

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Sarah Chauncey is the author of P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna, an upcoming gift book for adults grieving their cat. She runs @morethantuna on Instagram and Facebook, “a celebration of nine lives,” and she started #tunatributes, a support community for people grieving their cat. She lives on Vancouver Island.

Photo of Dr. Kris ©Dr. Chandroo, used with permission

18 Comments on How Veterinarians Are Handling Euthanasia During COVID-19

  1. GGof9
    April 19, 2020 at 10:50 pm (1 month ago)

    Having my ‘heart’ dog put to sleep was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do but he had a very aggressive form of cancer, had become very lethargic and had not eaten in over a week. As much as it hurt, I felt it was the only humane thing I could do. There’s just never a good way… 🙁

    Reply
  2. MM
    April 18, 2020 at 6:44 pm (1 month ago)

    Not sure where the best place to post this might be, but anyone who liked the Talking Kitty Cat videos might want to know (given some language and topics, these aren’t for everyone):
    Just read the news that Steve Cash, who made the videos has died. He was bi-polar and in serious depression he took his own life. Very sad.

    Reply
  3. Carol Schalla
    April 18, 2020 at 10:27 am (1 month ago)

    I too am Grieving! I had to have my 15 yr old Cat Nona put to sleep yesterday and I can’t stop crying she was all I had and I am 68 Now somehow have to find another fur baby to love as this is seriously killing me. The only thing that makes this bearable at all is that i was with her when she went to sleep and she was at home

    Reply
    • Nancy
      April 18, 2020 at 4:48 pm (1 month ago)

      I’m so sorry Carol. I have been where you are so many times so I know exactly how you’re feeling. I’m 75 and I lost 3 cats toward the end of the year and, like you, I’m so grateful to have been with each one too. I had all 3 for years and two since they were kittens. I cried for weeks after I lost each one. It helped me to frame pictures of each cat and hang them on my bedroom walls and I look at them frequently. I have my William on my desktop so I talk to him frequently. And I have their ashes. Although the pain never goes away, it will lessen with time and you always have your good memories. I did adopt a bonded pair of boys from our County shelter recently and they are providing me with so much joy. I feel good about adopting them as I was able to keep them together which was suggested by the shelter but not a requirement. I can’t imagine them being separated. They are so funny and really make me laugh with their antics and their roughhousing with each other. We play every night with interactive toys. Please take good care of yourself and know that others are there with you and feel your pain. And cry as much as you need to – I did. I still do sometimes. Again my deepest sympathy for your loss. Sending lots of love to you.

      Reply
      • Carol Schalla
        April 21, 2020 at 9:50 am (1 month ago)

        Nancy Thank you so much for your kind thoughts I am still looking for another cat problem is no one ever gets back to me been using adopt-a pet but they keep sending me cats that i dont want! i believe i found the one i want but no one will respond and give me information Very frustrating !

        Reply
        • Nancy
          April 21, 2020 at 7:53 pm (1 month ago)

          Hi Carol – Is there an animal shelter or rescue group in your area where you could meet the cats and see if you bond with one? I don’t know anything about Adopt-A-Pet but it sounds like it’s online and you’re receiving photos of the cats? Maybe you don’t live near a shelter or rescue and, if that’s so, I hope you hear back about the cat you’re interested in. That is frustrating so just keep after them if you’re comfortable doing that. Still, meeting a cat in person at a reputable shelter or rescue and interacting with them is best if that’s possible for you.

          Reply
  4. MM
    April 11, 2020 at 11:09 pm (2 months ago)

    For anyone needing regular medications, not compounded, you should check chewy or other online resources. Even if not ordered with enough for free shipping, the cost was so low that paying the small shipping fee would still be much less than getting it via the vet or pharmacy – they contact your vet or you can mail the Rx.

    Reply
    • MM
      April 18, 2020 at 6:29 pm (1 month ago)

      Sympathies to all who lost or are about to lose any kitties or family, especially when we aren’t allowed to be with them. Lost one in November, another 2 years ago this month. It’s not the same even though there are others here!
      Hard as it may be to think of taking in another, don’t look forward to potential loss, but to the current Joy they can bring you AND the life you can save now! Were it not for purrsonality issues, I’d have replaced at least one of those lost.
      I have been preparing myself for 5 years when CKD began. Since then, been through thyroid treatment (she lost 5# on the meds), found lung spots 2 yrs ago, kitty dementia started about 4-5 months ago, yet she still keeps on ticking! Recently a few ‘out of the box’ episodes and has some off days, but we have no real home euthanasia here, car rides were sideways hard for her and we can’t go in the vet’s, so hoping she’ll just go quietly when her time is up. She is officially 21 yo, been with us since April 1999.
      To those lost, both recently and long ago.

      Reply
      • MM
        April 18, 2020 at 6:31 pm (1 month ago)

        That should say ‘car rides were ALWAYS hard for her…

        Reply
      • MM
        April 18, 2020 at 6:38 pm (1 month ago)

        Looks like Emojis don’t post. Last sentence should have kitty with teardrop. =^..^= + 🙁

        Reply
  5. Georgia
    April 10, 2020 at 8:40 pm (2 months ago)

    We went through this horrible decision this week. After several vet visits it was time to let go of our beloved Dessa. We could not go into the building and had to say our goodbyes in the car, then they came and got her. We waited until they called us to let us know she was gone.
    We always cremate our cats so we have their ashes to console us.
    It’s been hard reading your posts, Ingrid, about Ruby, because we know what was coming. Our love to you.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 11, 2020 at 5:11 am (2 months ago)

      Oh Georgia, I’m so sorry. That must have been such a hard way to say goodbye. Much love to you as you mourn your girl.

      Reply
  6. Nancy
    April 10, 2020 at 2:58 pm (2 months ago)

    Ingrid – this post was so helpful as I woke up this morning wondering about this. I lost 3 cats near the end of the year to cancer and renal failure but at least before this very stressful time. I have had to take my cat Almond Joy to my vet recently and my experience was much the same as was described. I have 2 older cats but hopefully all will be well here.

    Reply
    • Nancy
      April 11, 2020 at 4:18 pm (2 months ago)

      I was reading the posts just now and realized how heartless mine sounded. Almond Joy was not euthanized, but had another issue and is doing well. I was referring to the vet procedure in coming to the car to take the cat in for an exam. My cats are my family and mean the world to me.

      Reply
  7. ellen beck
    April 10, 2020 at 12:24 pm (2 months ago)

    For our pets I aam fearful. I stocked up on Vetsulin right before this all hit hard hoping 3 months would be enough. I am hoping they have enough supply. If not our dog will not last long. I have 3 cats. One has ongoing respiratory problems and one is just plain older the youngest is fine. I worry.
    A girl down the block could not get her cat in for a week,, the cat died at home without much relief.
    I feel so bad about this for so many.
    If I could not be in the room it would haunt me.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 10, 2020 at 5:22 pm (2 months ago)

      It’s always stressful when our pets are sick, but now, on top of the pandemic, the stress levels are off the charts. All my best to you and your furry family members, Ellen.

      Reply
  8. Stephen
    April 10, 2020 at 8:20 am (2 months ago)

    My vet did a pets through the door for a week, then closed for week, then back to pets through the door now again. Picked up meds in mailbox. I live in NYC metro area. THis will probably be true for months to come. Read that some meds are hard to get.

    Reply
  9. Janine
    April 10, 2020 at 8:01 am (2 months ago)

    My vet is doing the curbside pickup. I couldn’t imagine have to put one of my cats to sleep and not be there beside them to say goodbye in the final minutes, hold their paw and hug them afterwards.

    Reply

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