Euthanasia can be the last act of love an owner shows her pet once disease or time has made death a greater comfort than life. This is the euthanasia veterinarians can accept and perform guilt-free.
But now euthanasia has taken on a new and unsettling meaning for some veterinarians’ clients. Economic euthanasias are occurring at higher frequencies in practices where the community has been hit hard by the down economy.
An increase in euthanasia performed when treatment is medically feasible leaves veterinarians to question how they can remain financially stable while helping clients and patients get what they need.
The logic behind clients’ reasoning for pet euthanasia can be colorful, and veterinarians might question if they could have said something different to change the owner’s decision. But they are in a tough position when the treatment option is eliminated because of the cost.
“We are seeing more euthanasias now than ever,” says Terry McInnis, office manager at After Hours Animal Emergency Clinic in Youngstown, Ohio. “The worst part is more clients are taking their pets home to die when they’re in need of treatment.”
The After Hours clinic takes emergency visits for general practitioners on their off hours and on weekends. Since every animal examined at the practice needs urgent care, the specialty practice has had a higher incidence of euthanasia than a typical small-animal practice, but even that number has increased.
"One of the most challenging moments in veterinary medicine is helping owners decide if euthanasia is right for their pet."
~ Dell Rae Mollenberg, Colorado State University ~
“The stop-treatment figure has changed dramatically,” says Patty Khuly, VMD, of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami. “The bottom 20 percent of my clients are less likely to treat than in the past. I haven’t been performing more euthanasias than usual, but I see it coming.
“My clients’ lack of preventive medicine and lack of treatment for in-need pets will catch up with them. Come talk to me about a year from now and the effects of economic euthanasia will be obvious.”
No national tracking of euthanasia exists, but vets, humane organizations and industry officials say they have noted an increase.
Humane agencies and shelters have taken the brunt of the economic euthanasia burden. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 million to 4 million animals are euthanized annually in the U.S. Those numbers are expected to rise in 2009.
“In time of economic need, the euthanasia count always increases in practices and shelters,” says Richard Bachman, DVM, a shelter veterinarian for HSUS who serves on the leadership council of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Assn.
“People’s top reasons for leaving their pets at a shelter are having to move and being unable to care for the animal. The abandoned animal rate is increasing, especially in house foreclosures. It’s a tough time for veterinarians and their staff, mentally and emotionally, to deal with medically unnecessary euthanasia.”
The American Animal Hospital Assn. advises that clients be encouraged to invest in pet health insurance. This can help minimize the more expensive and unexpected costs.
AAHA spokesman Jason Merrihew says the organization is working to raise owner awareness of financial assistance and pet insurance.
“We have been providing grant money to owners through the AAHA Helping Pets Fund, but we have had to temporarily suspend the grants due to depletion of funds,” he says. “Since November 2008 the number of requests for funding has tripled. We have helped more than 3,000 pets receive needed care through more than $800,000 in grants.”
Only about 3 percent of the 154 million U.S. pet owners have pet health insurance, according to industry averages. The figure is much higher in the United Kingdom—30 to 50 percent.
“I think U.S. pet owners have a hangup with insurance in general,”says Janet Tobiassen, DVM, who writes about veterinary medicine on About.com. “Encouraging your clients to use pet insurance can help meet the emotional and financial needs for everyone. In addition to offering your best medical advice, you need to make yourself available to clients so they can discuss their needs with you.”
Most clients don’t prepare for the worst scenario until it’s sitting in their lap, some vets say.
“As a vet you can refuse to perform healthy euthanasias, and that may deter clients from making an unnecessary euthanasia decision,” says Nancy Kay, DVM, the author of “Speaking for Spot.” “Compiling a list of client financial assistance programs can be helpful, too.”
Clinics also can set up emergency funds. Clients who have been fortunate in the current economy may be more generous than usual.
“I have been seeing a lot more donations for my needy patients than in the past,” says Dr. Khuly, a Veterinary Practice News columnist. “I’ve had more donations in the past 12 months than I had collectively over a 10-year span. Recently, a client donated $500 to help another client’s cat that had a horribly broken leg and needed amputation. It’s nice to see acts of kindness. It’s sad, but in cases like this one, euthanasia would have been the only other humane option.”
Surviving these economic times can be a challenge mentally and emotionally for veterinarians, but organizations throughout the industry have come through with advice and money in many cases.
Colorado State University’s Argus Institute is offering a printed guide to help veterinarians support clients making tough euthanasia decisions.
“One of the most challenging moments in veterinary medicine is helping owners decide if euthanasia is right for their pet,” says Dell Rae Mollenberg, who works in public relations at CSU. “Each section of the guide describes the emotional process they’ll go through and offers help with decision making.”
The guide—“What Now? Support for You and Your Companion Animal”—is available for $3. Click here to request a sample.