Research has shown that the human grieving process following a pet's death is similar to that experienced by people who have lost a family member or close friend. Telephone helplines and support groups have been used for some time to address grief associated with the end of human-human interrelationships, but have only recently emerged as a means of assisting pet owners in dealing with the death of their companion animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes the benefits of pet loss support helplines and groups for pet owners, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, students and faculty at colleges of veterinary medicine and veterinary technology, and lay employees of veterinary practices, and encourages their responsible establishment.
The Internet has also attracted considerable attention as a new medium for delivery of pet loss support. Although it may serve as a source of information for grieving pet owners, it has unique characteristics that make it a more limited and risky medium for delivery of counseling services.
The primary purpose of pet loss support helplines is to provide emotional support, via telephone, for pet owners who have experienced, or are anticipating, the death of their companion animal. This service is usually provided by volunteers who have been trained by a licensed mental health professional. These volunteers are often veterinarians, veterinary technicians, students and faculty at colleges of veterinary medicine and veterinary technology, or lay employees of veterinary practices. Helpline volunteers actively listen to callers and attempt to answer their questions, concerns, and needs by providing information verbally, in print, or through referral to private counselors and crisis centers.
Pet loss support helplines also provide education for volunteers in the social service aspects of veterinary medical practice associated with companion animal loss, grief, and bereavement. Colleges of veterinary medicine and veterinary technology will find that helplines benefit students by providing them with real-life examples of the depth and implications of the human-animal bond. Veterinary organizations, practices, and hospitals hosting or contributing to pet loss support helplines benefit from skills learned by their members or employees and from positive public response engendered by these helplines.
People often attend support groups as they attempt to address grief associated with personal crises or the end of human-human relationships, but only recently have people sought out this resource as a way to cope with the death of their pet. The AVMA believes that support groups may be of substantial benefit to animal owners in addressing the emotional aspects of attachment and loss if these groups are conducted responsibly.
As for helplines, the primary purpose of pet loss support groups is to provide emotional support for animal owners who have experienced, or are anticipating, the death of their companion animal. Support groups provide a structured environment in which members can release strong emotions, while being educated in psychological models that can help them understand the grieving process. Group members benefit from the realization that their painful experience is shared by others.
Establishing pet loss support groups also benefits the veterinary profession by communicating its concern for grieving clients and by increasing the effectiveness of veterinary hospitals and clinics in dealing with emotionally distraught clients.
Skilled interpretation of nonverbal (e.g., gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, and inflection) and verbal cues is necessary for effective grief counseling, and face-to-face contact is the best medium for this service. This is particularly true when a specific diagnosis and ongoing treatment are required. Although standard telephone contact does not provide visual cues, it does permit transmission of auditory nonverbal cues, and can be used effectively for brief crisis contact, referral, and provision of educative information. Because standard Internet communication eliminates even auditory nonverbal cues, the AVMA recommends that Internet assistance be limited to provision of educative information, such as display of articles written by qualified veterinarians and counselors, or referral to appropriate books and articles. Internet sites can also provide lists of licensed counselors and veterinarians who are qualified to establish a relationship in person. Receiving counseling through the Internet, beyond provision of information, may place pet owners at risk of being harmed by inadequately trained individuals.