(Pet) patient and family advocates throughout a pet’s life are necessary

Seeing a family-of-record’s phone number light up my phone late at night or in the early morning hours is not at all unusual. When it happens, I take notice: I know it’s serious. It usually means that there’s been a crisis of some sort, and that may be a family situation that they need to head out of town in a hurry for but more commonly, it’s regarding their pet. A frantic, tired voice on the other end begins with an apology that’s never needed and a rundown of what has unfolded at the emergency veterinary hospital followed by:

I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by all of this information and I don’t know if I really understand what’s happening. Calling you seemed like the natural thing to do. You always know how to sort out all of this stuff. Have you heard of this diagnosis before?

It’s also not uncommon for me to get a nervous email from a family when they’ve made an appointment with their primary vet because they notice changes in their pet, for example appetite, weight, willingness to engage in their typical activities.

What should I expect going in? What will the vet suggest in the way of tests, etc?

Whether it’s an emergency or things are changing and a family is facing even the gentlest of shifts in their pet’s health status, there is no lonelier place than the opposite end of that veterinary exam table and never does it seem more cold. One thing that I’ve learned in working with families that are in the midst of either scenario with a pet, or are experiencing anticipatory or fresh loss is that yes, the ability to hear what is said is there, but the ability to comprehend it naturally avails itself in short supply. And being slammed with the worst of news, the need to make decisions and wondering if you can trust the information you’ve been given to make them is hard. (What we know is that when a pet owner is reluctant to move forward with a treatment plan, it’s usually based on lacking two primary things: facts and trust.) Plus, many people are already weary of making decisions in general. And add stress to the mix, it becomes more difficult. I’ve learned in my experience and in my never-ending training that these families need tremendous amounts of support; the direction to know what questions to ask; the wherewithal to say, ‘I’m not sure that this treatment plan is going to be manageable because of XYZ. Do you have other options?

This is what veterinary staff members need in order to do their jobs better. A bridge for the gap.

In any case, I’m always happy to take the time to help sort everything out, give the family talking points to consider in their conversations with the vet and staff, translate what the vet and staff have relayed (and yes, sometimes as importantly, decipher what the family is having a hard time conveying to the vet staff) and support the family as they make decisions about next steps. In many cases, having a fresh, neutral eye and mind on things helps the family feel more empowered about moving forward.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang wrote about an experience that she had during a serious health crisis with her pet, in which she detailed how even a veterinarian-as-pet-parent can use some neutral, knowledgeable support during times like that. She notes that in human medicine, designated patient advocates exist to help bridge the communication gap that can often exist between the health care provider and the patient. She posited that veterinary medicine might benefit from the same kind of thing.

This resonated with me heartily.

It’s obviously something that I’ve seen exemplified in my experience as a pet care professional. Acting as an advocate for families of record when they’ve needed it has come so naturally. And in my interactions with their veterinarians, it’s been noted that doing so helps get and keep their treatment plans on track.

I also began to notice something years ago: with pets living longer, they and their families need additional support navigating those senior and geriatric years, a demographic that I most enjoy working with. I realized that they of course were the ones who were requiring more tending, intervention and interaction with veterinarians, both in primary practice and in specialty. So, I decided to use my existing years of expertise — including certifications in Pet First Aid (the certificate that I hold goes far beyond the basics) and CPR, Infectious Disease Management and the namesake of my industry — and build on it to help families. I completed training as an End-of-Life Doula. I earned a certification as a Pet Loss and Grief Companion. I’ve applied my existing skillset and added to it with regard to animal hospice, palliative care and end-of-life, a field that I truly love more than even geriatrics.

So now, my heart is in tending to families with pets needing palliative and hospice care, no matter their age, and I’m happy to serve as an advocate for them and for other families-of-record and otherwise when the call arises. But yes, sturdy, knowledgeable, fearless advocates who understand what goes on in veterinary circles, who work in the deep trenches of pet care and possess enhanced training in all things associated with these fields such as hospice care, palliative care, end-of-life care and grief and loss is so very needed. It’s because pets are living longer, better, but that’s not by osmosis: it’s because of veterinary care that has improved not only from a medical standpoint, but from a practical one — it’s (ideally) asked throughout the journey, ‘…what will this pet allow, not allow?’. It’s because families know better and want better. It’s all coming full-circle. We professionals understand that pets hold a profound place in the family, even after they’re gone, and we honor that. These relationships are rich, colorful and meaningful. We serve them in many capacities. Yes, there is such a thing as an animal End-of-Life Doula.

What Dr. Vogelsang noted about advocacy for families and pets is absolutely correct. But it only clips the tip of the iceberg.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She’s also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.

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