Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine students address end-of-life decisions for pet owners

vtech-logoEuthanasia is one of the most sensitive areas of veterinary medicine, but a group of students at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech decided to tackle it head on with a series of educational events.

Earlier this fall, the college’s Companion Animal Club hosted a guest speaker and wet lab dealing with end-of-life decisions for pet owners.

“Every life comes to an end and it is how we approach this end that can make all the difference to both our patients and our clients,” said Sara Waltz, a third-year veterinary student and president of the college’s Companion Animal Club. “Euthanasia and end-of-life counseling is an inevitable part of our career. That being said, all too often I think many of us are unprepared for some of the situations we encounter.”

Waltz became familiar with some of the situations surrounding euthanasia when she worked in emergency medicine. One day at the clinic, a client whose dog was dead on arrival after being hit by a car embraced and thanked Waltz.

“I couldn’t understand what it was that I had done for him aside from tell him his loyal companion had passed away and present him with a cardboard box and a clay paw print instead of his family member,” Waltz said. “Somehow, this act and my empathy had meant enough to this stranger to feel comfortable hugging me and thanking me.”

These experiences drove Waltz to find a way to help her fellow students be more comfortable with euthanasia.

In partnership with Zoetis and the college’s Veterinary Business Management Association and the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Companion Animal Club held a school-wide euthanasia seminar earlier this fall featuring Dr. Dani McVety, CEO and co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, the largest network of veterinarians dedicated solely to end-of-life veterinary care.

McVety’s lecture focused on what euthanasia means to her and why she based her in-home euthanasia and hospice business around it. As one of the first services of its kind, Lap of Love has quickly grown from one veterinarian in Texas to over 50 vets around the United States in just three short years.

Following her remarks, McVety and Dr. Mark Freeman, assistant professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, led a wet lab that allowed students to practice techniques using cadavers and learn about which techniques are most appropriate for various situations.

Students ended the evening with a paw print-making class.

The following day, first-, second-, and third-year students participated in a communication clinic. Undergraduate students acted as clients, some angry and emotional, while veterinary students served in the role of “doctor” on some difficult cases based on real-life experiences with euthanasia.

Dr. Jennie Hodgson, associate dean for professional programs; Dr. Jacque Pelzer, director of admissions and student services; Dr. Meghan Byrnes, multi-disciplinary lab instructor; and Freeman critiqued students during the scenarios.

The Companion Animal Club promotes the many facets of small animal veterinary medicine, including specialized disciplines such as exotic animal medicine, alternative medicine, nutrition, and behavior. It previously partnered with the college’s Center for Human Animal Relationships to establish Virginia Tech Helping PAWS, a new organization which brings therapy dogs to schools, nursing homes, assisted-living centers, hospitals, and counseling centers in the area.

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is a leading biomedical teaching and research center, enrolling more than 700 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, master of public health, and biomedical and veterinary sciences graduate students. The college is a partnership between the land-grant universities of Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland. Its main campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, features the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and large animal field services which together treat more than 79,000 animals annually. Other locations include the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Virginia, and the Gudelsky Veterinary Center in College Park, Maryland.

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