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Reference Desk October 2011

Pet Loss Hotline: Vet Students Learn the Difficult Skills of Comforting Bereaved Clients

    PULLMAN, Washington, October 28, 2011—Two years ago, veterinary students Laura Baltodano and Kristen Britton sat down to work their first-ever shift at Washington State University’s Pet Loss Hotline. Next, the phone rang and adrenaline shot through their spines.

    Baltodano and Britton, then 37 and 23, worked as hotline volunteers as a requirement for the class, "Pet Loss and Human Bereavement.” For weeks leading up to their first shift, they had received training in grief counseling from a licensed therapist. They also did role-playing sessions with people pretending to be grieving over a pet’s death. But this time the caller was grieving in real life. Britton picked up the phone.
     
    "WSU Pet Loss Hotline, this is Kristen,” she answered.
     
    WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine launched the hotline 12 years ago. Since then, roughly 650 students have staffed the phone inside a small office that once served as the old veterinary hospital’s switchboard room, said WSU licensed counselor Kathy Ruby, who trains hotline students and teaches the bereavement class.
     
    Trained students have answered thousands of calls and emails from around the country and even from other continents, she said. "We’ve been contacted by people whose companion pets have died in Japan, New Zealand, Spain. . .” said Ruby, pointing to a world map cluttered with push pins that identify distant places where calls and emails originated.
     
    "When the hotline started in 1999, we knew it would be popular, that it would fill a void for grieving pet owners while helping our students become better veterinarians,” she said. "But we hadn’t expected people to be contacting us from such faraway places.”

    The hotline—funded by Purina at about $5,000 per year—gives mourning animal owners a chance to feel validated in a society that sometimes dismisses the pain associated with pet loss, she said. "What some people don’t realize is that the pain can be so raw, so real.”

    New York Times best-selling author Jon Katz felt that raw, real pain after losing his elderly dog, Orson, he writes in his latest book, "Going Home,” (Random House, 2011) which tackles the subject of pet loss. "I was embarrassed by grief,” he said. "What right did I have to fall to pieces over a border collie?” Several years ago, after giving a talk at the North American Veterinary Conference, Katz said he was "swamped” by veterinarians wanting to provide better support to clients whose pets had died.
     
    Thanks to their hotline experience, students like Baltodano and Britton are already equipped to offer that support, said Ruby. "There are science skills but there are also human skills. They’ll finish veterinary school with both,” she said.
     
    During Baltodano and Britton’s initial hotline shift, the human skills were put to the test with that first phone call. On the other end was a woman who’d had her elderly cat euthanized the day before. "She was upset, felt guilty and very alone,” recalled Britton. "It was clear that she needed someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t shrug off what she was feeling. Like all of our callers, she needed to talk.” And talk the woman did. A half-hour passed. Then another, and Britton mostly listened. "When I did speak, it was to assure her that her emotions were natural. I also acknowledged her depth of grief.”

    Meanwhile, Baltodano, who sat nearby, gave several thumbs-up as encouragement. Their bereavement class and training had prepared them - but so had the fact that neither is a stranger to the pain of losing a devoted pet, they said in an interview.

    Baltodano’s eyes still tear up when she talks about the death of her 9-month-old Rottweiler named Tebow, who died unexpectedly of a heart condition at home. For two weeks, "I barely spoke. I would cry at random times out of the blue, even when I thought I was starting to feel better. I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day and it was hard to focus on anything else,” she said. "So when people call the hotline, I understand what they’re going through. Yes, I get it.”
     
    Most people who contact the hotline have lost a dog or cat, said Ruby, while many others are grieving over the death of a horse. Occasionally, it’s over a bird, rodent or reptile. An 8-year-old boy sent an email that said: "‘Does anyone out there care about hamsters? My hamster, who I loved very much, just died and no one seems to care,’” said Ruby.
     
    The hotline volunteers cared enough to write the boy a personal response, as they do with each email.  They also return all phone messages left when the hotline isn’t manned. When it is manned, the volunteers’ pets sometimes accompany them during their two-hour shifts.

    Baltodano and Britton, who plan to run their own veterinary clinics one day, said their hotline experience will help them not feel nervous or awkward when faced with clients agonizing over the impending death of a pet or one that’s already deceased.

    It’s not unusual for students in Ruby’s bereavement class to feel apprehensive about working the hotline, she said. "They’ll say, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” said Ruby.
     
    Her response: "‘One day you’ll be out there on your own and you’ll be expected to deal with your clients’ pain. You can’t afford not to do it.’”

    WSU Pet Loss Hotline: 866-266-8635 (toll-free) or 509-335-5704 (local calls)
    Hours: 7-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 1-3 p.m. Saturday
    Email: plhl@vetmed.wsu.edu
    Web Site: www.vetmed.wsu.edu   (Click on "Animal Owners” and then "Pet Loss”)

    Source: Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine

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