Pet palliative care

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pet palliative care
Dr Jackie Campbell is Australia’s first certified palliative care veterinarian through the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.

Dr Jackie Campbell finds great joy in running Sunset Vets, a veterinary business dedicated to palliative care and end-of-life support. By Frank Leggett

One of the toughest things any pet owner has to face is preparing themselves to say goodbye to their beloved pet. The emotional turmoil and grief they feel is very real and requires compassion and understanding from their vet. Often, the pet’s passing comes after a long period of illness with palliative care for the last stages. 

“When pet owners are well supported, we find that healthy grief takes place during the grieving process,” says Dr Jackie Campbell. She owns and runs Sunset Vets, offering palliative care and end-of-life options for terminally ill animals. She’s also Australia’s first certified palliative care veterinarian through the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care

“The most challenging scenarios happen when clients are not prepared, often during a crisis appointment. Most of our clients have their planning in place and know grief support is available. While still sad, it can be a positive experience.”

Home management

Sunset Vets started in 2014 on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast as a one-vet operation. Since then, it has expanded its services to Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and the Gold Coast, utilising the skills of 22 vets and nine support staff. It’s a mobile operation delivering consultations and care into clients’ homes. Sunset Vets also works in conjunction with the patient’s primary care veterinary team.

“Pain management and symptom control are the two core areas we focus on,” says Dr Campbell. “We’re less concerned about the actual diagnosis and more concerned with how that presents and how to best manage it.”

A major part of the process is keeping clients informed about what’s going to happen—when it’s time, and how to ensure a crisis scenario doesn’t develop. The most sensitive time is during that final appointment when the client is saying goodbye. Sunset Vets also offers grief support for family members.

“While there will always be scenarios where it’s appropriate to say goodbye in a hospital, a growing number of people prefer having the option to say goodbye at home,” says Dr Campbell. “A lot of our patients are older and a little bit uncomfortable. Eliminating the travel factor is very helpful. It’s painful to get a 100-year-old person into a car. It’s the same for our pets.”

Empathy and communication

Dr Campbell is looking for specific qualities when adding professional staff to Sunset Vets. She believes that just like human medicine, there are certain personality types that are drawn to palliative care. Primarily, she looks for a vet who enjoys the challenges of medical cases. Of course, communication skills and empathy are critical qualities

“A lot of our team appreciate being able to connect with patients without time pressures,” says Dr Campbell. “The stress of a busy and fast-paced clinical shift is not part of our work. We do slower medicine and that’s very professionally rewarding for our team.”

It’s not depressing. One of the beautiful things about palliative care is that you’re having a very collaborative relationship with clients around the best outcomes. And sometimes the best outcome is to say goodbye.

Dr Jackie Campbell, owner, Sunset Vets

Perhaps the most challenging part of the job is dealing with clients who want to keep their pets alive for too long. While it’s an understandable reaction, it’s not doing the animal or the client any favours.

“It’s not uncommon for us to receive hospital referrals for clients who aren’t emotionally ready to let go,” says Dr Campbell. “We work through the quality of life concerns with that family. If they’re not emotionally ready, our role is to support them while supporting the pet medically.”

Mental health

Veterinary work is challenging at the best of times with mental health issues an area of concern due to the very nature of the job. Working in palliative care is all about preparing for end-of-life procedures.

“It’s not depressing,” says Dr Campbell. “One of the beautiful things about palliative care is that you’re having a very collaborative relationship with clients around the best outcomes. And sometimes the best outcome is to say goodbye. Palliative care work is not for everyone, but those who are drawn to it thrive in this work environment. It’s rewarding and quite the opposite of what you would expect.”

Many of the euthanasia appointments are surprisingly joyful. The vet is with the family, often reminiscing about the silly things the dog did when it was 12 months old. The stress points happen when there’s no time and space to deliver the type of palliative care offered by the team at Sunset Vets.

“We always allow enough time per client so nothing is rushed and everything happens as it should,” says Dr Campbell. “It’s a flexible style of work. We have vets who are working mums who fit their appointments around the kids pick-up. We have one team member who’s doing her PhD, and most of our team work some days in a clinic and some days supporting our clients.”

Handling grief

Dr Campbell and the team at Sunset Vets are passionate about palliative care skills becoming more widely utilised in general medicine. There’s a desire to expand the business into other regions of Australia so more pets can access this type of help.

“As part of that expansion, we are keen to connect with vets to whom palliative care speaks,” says Dr Campbell. “There are educational opportunities and conferences to help general practice vets upskill in palliative care techniques.”

Sunset Vets also runs a grief counselling program that’s supported by a number of university institutions. It offers comprehensive counselling services delivered for free.

“If any clinic, anywhere in Australia, has a client whose grief is overwhelming to a concerning degree, they can refer their client to our counselling program,” says Dr Campbell. “We will put them in contact with one of the university organisations that deliver effective psychology and counselling sessions.”

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