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How the pandemic has changed how we say goodbye to our pets

Sept 2020:

Even if you don’t have a pet, this conversation is a great reminder that all businesses need to intentionally re-design their processes to ensure that they maintain, and even strengthen, their direct and personal relationships with customers.

Our family had to make the very difficult decision to put down our very beloved cat in the middle of the summer. We ultimately opted for saying goodbye at our vet’s clinic, after previously coordinating with Compassion4Paws. The process left me processing the deep emotions of grief, while wondering how the work of saying goodbye to our pets has changed, at a time when we find ourselves needing them even more.

Interview with: Dr Sara Hopkins, founder of Compassion4Paws, which offers at home euthanasia, hospice and palliative care.

Your work is to come into peoples’ homes to help them say goodbye to their pets. Obviously, that intimate approach is far more difficult these days. For us, we decided at the last minute to have our cat put down at a clinic, rather than outside in our yard, because the thought of saying goodbye while kids were playing and joyfully screaming next door, was just too much to consider.

Yes. It can be a lot harder to say goodbye to our pets outside. With strictly indoor kitties, this might be their first time going outside. With pets who can longer move easily, the process to get them outside can be difficult. It can even be difficult to find an outdoor space if the pet owner lives in an apartment. And, of course, we have to take so many more precautions to keep everyone safe.

But, really, with the pandemic, it has especially affected how we are able to grieve, when we can’t say goodbye to our pets in the way that we want. There are so many restrictions on everything we do including, now, grief.

And, that’s why I started this practice. I wanted to make this whole experience beautiful and peaceful. I had been in general practice for years - people would bring their pets in to be euthanized and the animals would be scared and terrified. I just thought, these are their last moments on Earth and now they're in the place they hate the most…there has to be better way of doing it.

How has COVID shifted your work as a business?

At the beginning, there was so much uncertainty – we really had no idea how our business would be affected. But, we worked really closely to keep everyone safe. We are doctors, so we were very focused on building the processes we needed to keep our customers and ourselves safe – the last thing we would want is to make someone sick, while they’re saying goodbye.

I think one of the hardest things for us, is not being able to have that human connection with our clients. We hug probably 98% of the families we help, even though we've just met them. And to not be able to have that connection is hard. It makes the process feel more sterile, more mechanical. So, we've been trying to figure out other ways to make this a special experience, outside. We encourage people to bring out their pets’ toys or beds. We’ll ask if they want to send some flowers with their pet when we take them away. We try to explore the ways in which we can be helpful, but it's definitely a different world.

Let’s back up a little bit. You started your business in 2012 because you were looking for a better way to approach euthanasia. What has surprised you most about growing this business?

One of our biggest surprises is that so many people have no idea this is even an option. But, in spite of that, our service has grown a lot. We just hired our sixth doctor and we could easily hire another one.

We have the best clients in the world. People always ask me: how can you do this work all day? How can you euthanize animals all day? But, for me, this is the best job because I get to see the very best of the human animal bond.

The people who have us help them understand that it's not just a dog or a cat, this is a family member. They invite us into their space during a very difficult time.

My first job out of vet school was at a mixed animal practice north of Bellingham. It was rural and we saw a lot of farm dogs and barn cats. It wasn’t a situation where animals were part of the family - the attitude there was so different. It's not bad. It's just different. But that I found really exhausting – that was where I experienced compassion fatigue.

And, it isn’t just the euthanasia, but also our approach to hospice and palliative care. There’s so much we can be doing to keep our pets comfortable. We are at such an advantage being able to see them in their home environment. We can really observe them when they’re relaxed, which can make it easier to assess what they need. We can see that ‘it looks like it’s a little painful when he does this’, whereas in a in a practice, if they're trembling and panting, we have to determine whether that are in pain or anxious or is it both? We are able to focus more on keeping them comfortable and educating owners on options and process. We can give them more time, so that they manage the shock and keep digging into understanding.

I’m curious if you’ve seen the pandemic affect how people make end-of-life decisions for their pets.

Yes. Especially in those first few months, people really waited to make the call and they waited until it became more of an emergent situation. It was really challenging because, the shutdown forced brick and mortar firms to really adjust their services – they were not even allowing people in to the building for euthanasia. Families didn’t know what to do, so the decision was pushed up until the last minute.

We've also seen a lot more focus on hospice and palliative care - a big increase. I had an appointment a few weeks ago, and when the owner greeted me outside, she said it was so nice to be able to talk to a veterinarian face-to-face. Her dog had been to the specialist and to the oncologist, but all of her conversations with the doctors were done over the phone. She was missing that face-to-face communication with the doctor. I think we’re seeing an increase in hospice cases just because people want to sit in their backyard for two hours and talk to us about their pet.

I know none of us has a crystal ball – we don’t really know what lies ahead. But, what is your team thinking about for how your work may continue to shift? Especially considering how the outside services may become more difficult come the rainy season.

There are a couple of things we're looking at. One is that we're actually looking to find some sort of a physical space that we could offer as a comfort center. It wouldn't be a veterinary clinic – just a comfortable space where people could be with their pets for euthanasia. This would give them a space to say goodbye and it would allow us to have more control over the cleaning and disinfecting.

The other thing is that we are exploring ways that we can step up our game with protective equipment, so that we can go back into the home. The pets we see are geriatric, they're sick…they can't be out in the cold or in the rain. So, if we increase the amount of gear we’re wearing and staying inside for shorter times, will that be adequate?

Has anything surprised you over the past 6 months that you might carry forward?

There are some logistical changes that we have made, that we will carry forward. Normally, when we arrive at a home, we would have the owners sign an electronic consent form and take care of the payment. Even in the best of times, those can be awkward conversations. But, we’ve shifted to managing those processes ahead of time and that has been a nice change.

Again, we have great clients – they are so respectful and accommodating of the changes we’ve made to keep everyone safe. I have friends who are vets in brick and mortar practices and their customers are stressed – they may not want to wear masks in the office, there are longer waits, and they’re missing the face-to-face communication. We haven’t had to deal with that.

Have you shifted anything internally, with your team?

We have the best doctors. We also have three care coordinators, who act as the receptionist - they are amazing. I tell everybody how much I appreciate them as often as I can because they really are phenomenal. One of our biggest challenges is that, because we're all mobile and we don't have a central location, we can feel isolated from each other - we just don't see each other on a on a daily basis. So we do a lot of texting. - that's probably our main way of communicating throughout the day. We’re also really big on respecting boundaries and ensuring that doctors keep their work week reasonable…about 35 hours a week. We really try to encourage self-care, time away and vacation.

To keep this

going, we gave everybody bonuses after COVID because they were really stepping it up. For example, for our care coordinators, a phone conversation now, is just that much longer and has a lot more delicate pieces to cover. So, we’re really trying to show appreciation to everybody, for working so hard.

Is there anything that you wish pet owners understood more fully about your work at this moment?

Despite everything, we still want to make this a beautiful, peaceful, compassionate experience. And we still can do that. It's just going to look different.

And, ultimately, we want to remind them that their pet is still so loved, no matter they choose to say goodbye.

Hey, Seattle, here's how you can learn more:

  • Learn more about Compassion4Paws

  • And, if you do have an older pet, consider how you can best feel supported in providing for their care and treatment during this time.

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