Euthanasia attendants in modern practice

Provide more compassionate support by having 1 person guide grieving clients through the appointment from start to finish

In times of sadness, we need someone we can count on to support us. During a euthanasia appointment, various staff members routinely interact with the client and patient, but there is rarely a consistent person who will be there for the entire duration. Yet a trusted and dependable friend can help navigate the
appointment and make the experience safer. In modern veterinary practices, that “friend” can be a dedicated euthanasia attendant, who clients can count on to help them through one of the most difficult days of their lives.

In servitude to protect the human-animal bond, a euthanasia attendant is an appointed member of the team who will chaperone the meeting from start to finish. This person can be a nurse, an assistant, a social worker or even the veterinarian. They are the client’s point person, there to answer questions and provide emotional support as the appointment progresses. The attendant is also the liaison between all the other team members, making sure everything runs smoothly. Ideally, this person understands the magnitude of the loss of a pet and naturally conveys love and compassion.

Without a companion, the appointment will be managed by many members of the team. In this author’s experience, it is common for front desk staff to escort the guest and patient to the room. While the client completes the paperwork, a nurse enters and takes the patient to the treatment area for placement of the intravenous (IV) catheter. The patient returns to the room with the nurse or with the veterinarian who will perform the euthanasia procedure. After the patient dies, either of them – the reception staff, the nurse or the veterinarian – can come back to check on the family and help them out of the building.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, many conversations are taking place among staff about client and patient needs, which can lead to miscommunication and missed opportunities to meet expectations. Having 1 person, an attendant, hearing all the details increases efficiency while reducing errors.

This procedure offers no change, so getting it right the first time is a game-changer.

Modern euthanasia involves providing patients with sedation or anesthetic drugs prior to euthanasia and keeping the client and animal together without separation. Medical personnel can administer sedatives, place intravenous catheters and, in some states, facilitate euthanasia. Nurses are often responsible for acquiring necessary medications and preparing bodies for aftercare services, such as cremation or aquamation. For these reasons, nurses may be best suited for the attendant position. In hospitals employing veterinary social workers, they are also ideal for this role.

Euthanasia attendants do not need to be euthanasia experts, although understanding the complexities is beneficial. However, they must be good communicators, empathetic and organized. Of course, if the veterinarian is the euthanasia attendant, as is often the case in small practices with only a few team members, then he must be highly skilled in the procedure itself.

The direct duties of an attendant may include the following:

  • prepare the room and supplies;
  • review client and patient notes, such as emotional record and planned requests;
  • greet the client and patient at the entrance and direct them to the room;
  • providing water and similar amenities;
  • listen to needs and requests and relay them to the necessary personnel;
  • remain present during the procedure;
  • provide privacy before and after;
  • ensure that all requests are fulfilled; and
  • prepare the animal’s body for follow-up.

An attendant’s indirect duties may include the following:

  • create a condolence card and memorial items, if appropriate;
  • update medical records;
  • notify veterinarians and paraprofessionals of the death;
  • respond to end-of-life phone calls;
  • include topics on euthanasia in meetings/tours; and
  • plead for self-care.

Attendants are not expected to be with the client/patient every step of the way. Privacy and time alone are always strongly encouraged to provide space for clients to reflect on the loss of a dear friend. This means that between appointments and during client privacy time, the attendant has time to handle more indirect tasks. If end-of-life phone calls can be triaged back to the attendant, the burden of switching between life and death calls at reception is greatly reduced.

Regardless of their professional position in a hospital or practice, not everyone is well suited to the role of euthanasia attendant. Those to whom this work appeals are already gravitating toward euthanasia. They are often the first to sign condolence cards or make commemorative items. They may talk about end-of-life cases more than others and want to take care of follow-up arrangements. On the other hand, those who avoid euthanasia or prefer not to be part of more than necessary appointments should not be coerced, although proper euthanasia training can improve morale around the procedure.

It is advisable to have a staff meeting to discuss the attendant position and ask who is interested in helping. From there, management will need to monitor euthanasia stress workers, as they should for all personnel involved in death care. Veterinarians have been shown to benefit from having co-workers discuss cases and support each other during and after euthanasia.1

The goal is to leverage the team as it is without adding more personnel to an already stretched workforce. Some hospitals have a high euthanasia volume and may need more than one designated attendant per day.

Euthanasia attendants can also facilitate personal care for themselves and the team on the designated day, ordering comfort food and snacks for the team, playing soothing music in the afternoon, making sure everyone gets their breaks, providing soothing scents, and more.

Euthanasia attendants, first advocated by the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy, can fulfill an essential team role in supporting grieving clients, managing appointment logistics and ensuring the workday charged always emphasizes kindness and compassion, where they belong. Equally important, they are masterful listeners.

A euthanasia attendant can enhance client, patient, and team support. Discussing euthanasia services can also stimulate dialogue within the team about boundaries and preferences towards death – who wants to do more, who wants to do less – and find balance for the team. This includes identifying strengths and gaps in emotional intelligence and resilience, both of which are so important in end-of-life work.

Kathleen Cooney, DVM, CHPV, CCFP is the founder and director of education of the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy and the chief medical officer of Caring Pathways USA. She is a strong advocate for best practices in all aspects of animal end-of-life. Cooney can be reached at [email protected]


Knesl O, Hart BL, Fine AH, et al. Veterinarians and human purposes: when is the right time to euthanize a pet?. Before Vet Sci. 2017;4:45. doi:10.3389/fvets.2017.00045

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