The Winter Holiday Season and Euthanasia Rates: The Unexpected Correlation
The holiday season calls for food, fun, and family — including pets. Many people take time off to travel and spend time with loved ones or invite friends and families into their homes. It is a time marked by celebration, feasts, and gift-giving. Unfortunately, it can also be a stressful, busy time for pet owners and veterinary staff, especially if they are faced with end-of-life decisions for their pets and patients.
Anecdotally, euthanasia rates spike beginning in November through early January, particularly for older or chronically ill pets. Although there isn’t any definitive research conducted on holiday euthanasia rates, many veterinary professionals will tell you there is a noticeable increase during this season. “The best way to describe it would be there is an increased sense of urgency around the holidays,” said Dr. Dr. Dani McVety, DVM, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, the largest network of veterinarians dedicated solely to end-of-life veterinary care.
Speaking for Lap of Love, Dr. McVety states it’s even harder to ascertain if there’s an increase in her practice. “When we look at our rates there is a bit of a swing, anywhere from a 2% to 5% increase, but that can happen any month. We are a rapidly growing company, so we’re increasing business at 5% to 15% month over month.” However, Dr. McVety shared that “in Tampa, the week after Thanksgiving is typically very busy for us.”
Dr. McVety started in the veterinary industry as an emergency medicine practitioner and eventually found her calling in end-of-life care. She says, in her experience, clients can have a myriad of reasons for waiting until the holiday season.
For starters, family is often the focus of the holiday season and pets are increasingly being viewed as an integral part of the family. Dr. McVety shared, “They just want one more Christmas, one more moment together, one more time together. My son got his dog at Christmas so when that time comes for him we know we’re going to strive to get that ‘one more.’”
“Another reason is [visiting] family; they end up walking into the home and saying ‘Oh my gosh Max is still alive, he looks terrible, why are you doing this, why are you waiting so long.’” Owners who spend day in and day out with their pets might not recognize, either intentionally or unintentionally, how bad their pets’ health has declined and their eyes might be opened by those with a fresh perspective.
While the owners might recognize that the pet isn’t having the best quality of life any longer, no one wants to mar the holidays by putting down a beloved member of the family. “They wait in the early November stage because they’re just trying to get through the holidays, wait until family can get back in town,” says Dr. McVety. “So sometimes that ends up pushing it into the December timeframe, which by then is too long and they end up in an emergent situation.”
The decision as to when to euthanize doesn’t revolve solely around the owners’ emotional element; there are also financial and convenience considerations. “I do think because there is a bit of a financial constraint around this time and there is a lot going on, emotions are running high, so for certain people the idea of managing their pets’ end-of-life care can be difficult,” Dr. McVety says. “People go out of town and are concerned about leaving their elderly pet alone, and then they come back and the pet typically has declined while they’re gone.”
The end-of-life stage is hard for everyone involved, and the added stress of the holidays doesn’t help. Veterinary professionals are expected to be just that — professional. “Owners are begging us to get their pet through one more holiday or until family can see them one more time,” Dr. McVety says in explaining the emotional burden on the veterinary team. “We want to give that to them so badly that sometimes when we can’t, or maybe as a general practitioner when you wake up and realize this client had to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night because their pet crashed, there could be a lot of guilt associated with that decision.” Dr. McVety says those feelings of guilt spill into a veterinary professional’s life outside of the clinic. “You go home after a hard day around the holidays, and you want to be able to be present and jolly with your family, but it can be hard when you’re thinking about the family who just went home without their pet.”
Despite these stresses and strains, Dr. McVety finds fulfillment and bright spots in providing end-of-life care. “The thing that I stress a lot with the doctors that aren’t in this field is that when it comes to what our clients want from us, they want us to feel for them—they don’t need us to do for them,” she says. “We can get very wrapped up in what we need to do for people, but in reality, a little bit of empathy goes a long way. Just being present with them, feeling for them, that’s a huge gift to a person in this situation.”
However, when euthanasia is not part of a veterinary professional’s everyday job, it can have a serious negative effect on their mental health. “It can be a significant strain on the members of our profession that maybe don’t have that same personality or skill that doctors that do this all the time have,” says Dr. McVety. “As a hospice practitioner, this is what we’ve chosen to do, but that’s not what everyone has elected; other doctors are fulfilled by different reasons. This is what I do and I love it. If you don’t have those same skills of coping and being able to understand what we’re here to do then it can be a drain.”
Dr. McVety has the following advice for those general practitioners who struggle with euthanasia: “It would be twofold: Number one, be present with people. Just because you may not feel that it is something you want to be doing right now — maybe you don’t enjoy euthanasia — but just be present with people and feel your way through that time with them. Second, be open to the gratitude that they have for you afterwards. Sometimes we almost feel guilty that a client has gratitude for what we’ve just done — you might feel like you’ve given up and they’ve given up — but if you can empathize with them through the experience, it will change the way you experience euthanasia.”
Dr. McVety adds that “when you do end-of-life care every day, you realize we have such a blessing in veterinary medicine in that we have euthanasia, and we can provide that relief, that painless passing and peaceful ending . . . but you’ve got to be open to that gratitude because it’s a positive impact we have on the world. It’s an inspiration for younger children, it’s a way we can inspire a new generation of people to respect veterinary medicine, and it’s a way we can find fulfillment in our work.”
Compassion fatigue can increase during the holiday season for a number of reasons, but for veterinary professionals, the increased rate of euthanasia, clients’ outpourings of grief, and the resulting guilt can have a rough impact on what is supposed to be a joyous season. Being aware of these negative feelings is important, but also recognizing the overall good you’ve done can help you through it. Find comfort in your co-workers and family, make sure you’re taking time for your mental and physical health, and remember why you do what you — to provide exemplary services to pets and owners.
Watch the Spark! video below to hear Dr. Dana Varble expound on these coping tips.