Last Updated on: April 28, 2020 by Ingrid King

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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