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The Rock Doc: Veterinarians learn grief counseling

Modern veterinary science is a technically advanced field. Some animals receive not just X-rays but sophisticated scans such as MRIs. If you visit a large veterinary hospital you will find cats getting chemotherapy and dogs on the receiving end of complicated surgeries.

Naturally, a lot of the training vet students receive is focused on the “hard science” parts of what they will do as practicing veterinarians. But there’s also a softer side to veterinary medicine that’s increasingly being recognized where vet students are trained. I learned about it from Dr. Kathy Ruby, a licensed counselor who works for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University.

 “I teach a class for vet students called ‘Pet Loss and Human Bereavement,’ ” Ruby said. “Veterinary science training is great on the medical side. It’s my job to concentrate on the other end of the leash.”

 In the old days, vets mostly dealt with livestock like cows and pigs. These so-called large animals didn’t inspire close bonds with their human owners. But now many of us deeply care about the smaller animals that live in our houses. Our cats don’t just live in the barn catching mice, but spend their days in our homes. Dogs sleep at the foot of our beds or even between the sheets.

 “In some ways we now have what you could call interspecies families,” Ruby said. “That’s wonderful, but it also makes for great challenges when our pets reach the end of their lives.”

It’s a simple fact that we generally outlive the animals in our homes. That means we are often quite involved in an animal’s decline. And at the end we may face decisions including euthanasia.

“In ‘people medicine’ we still see death as a failure,” Ruby said. “With animals we often choose a good death at a particular time.”

 In 1999 Ruby founded a free hotline that gives people a place to call when they are grieving for their animals. The hotline can be reached toll free at (866) 266–8635. About 25 vet students each semester staff the hotline, taking calls from across the country and sometimes even around the world. Each student works the telephone bank for four sessions.

 “The first time they are on the hotline, the students are scared,” Ruby said. “But they work past that once they have some experience talking with callers.”

 The hotline, which is funded by a grant from Purina, is available Monday-Thursday from 7-9 p.m. Pacific Time and on Saturdays from 1-3 p.m. Pacific Time. Messages can be left at other times.

“We also receive emails at plhl@vetmed.wsu.edu,” Ruby said. “We sometimes get them sent to us at 1 a.m. from people wondering if their grief is normal or if they are going crazy.”

The technical side of veterinary medicine is enormously complex. But the human side also matters, and it’s impressive the way some veterinary colleges are preparing their students.  

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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