Reflections from a Hospice Vet: How do I do what I do?

Let me first start by sharing why I wanted to be a vet. Yes, I love animals, I always have and I always will. I mean, how can you not? One of the things I love about animals is how I feel being around them – I am happy.

Their unconditional love is infectious, their pure soul and joy in everything that life has to offer is remarkable.

Dog jumping up on owner
Woman petting orange cat

Then there’s the bond and connection that comes with having a companion animal. It can be life changing. It’s that bond that inspired & motivated me to become a vet. Throughout my career as a veterinarian, I have been driven by the need to foster that human-animal bond; to help people help their pets; and as an End-of-Life vet, that has not changed. Although I always worked in client or bond-centered* practices, in a busy general practice, I found it difficult to maintain that level of connection & communication with pet caregivers.

This often left me feeling frustrated as I struggled to provide the best possible care for my patients while dealing with back-to-back appointments, phone calls, emergencies, diagnostics, follow-ups, etc.

After being in the difficult position of both a vet and pet parent to my sweet boy Smokey throughout his End-of-Life journey, I realized this is the time where pet parents/caregivers need the most support and communication. This time in a pet’s life is precious, delicate, and constantly changing.

End-of-Life decision-making is complex, as every pet is different and each pet caregiver has their own unique circumstances to consider. Losing Smokey, and moving through the grief that followed, I realized my true calling – this is the time in a pet’s earthly journey where I can make the biggest impact on the human-animal bond.

woman holding black and white cat
certified hospice and palliative care veterinarian logo

From there I learned of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, became a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Veterinarian, and the rest is history.  

Although I deal with death on a regular basis, I love my job.

As a mobile hospice vet, I am able to spend more time with my pet families. I get to really listen to their stories and gain a better understanding of their circumstances, which enables me to provide the best possible End-of-Life care to their pets.

People need to be heard.

This level of communication takes time.  End-of-Life decision-making should not be rushed.  My clients and I both value our time together as I help guide them through the path of least regrets.

When pain can no longer be controlled, an animal is suffering, or has a diminished or poor quality of life, euthanasia is a valid treatment option.  Making this decision is not easy, and likely the most difficult time in each person’s life journey with their pet. 

This is a time for comfort, compassion, and empathetic support.  This is what I am good at.

German Shepard on dog bed.

When euthanasia is elected, shouldn’t it be done in the best way possible?  Through my love and dedication to animals, and advanced training in End-of-Life care, I do not think of euthanasia as a procedure, but rather an experience.  I want this experience to be the best it possibly can, a celebration of life, if you will.  I often say, it is the

Last loving act of kindness one can gift to their pet.

I did not know why I was able to handle all of these difficult appointments with grace until I started my meditation practice. It was here I learned of the term equanimity – a mental calmness and composure, especially in difficult situations.

Stack stones and sunset

This term, equanimity, resonated with me as I see myself and my role during an End-of-Life appointment as a calm, supportive presence.  Shifting my perspective to that of a witness – I observe with acceptance and without judgment, gaining more space between myself and the difficult feelings.

Fostering the human-animal bond continues through the loss of a pet.  I am passionate about validating and normalizing pet loss grief.  I take time to counsel my clients related to the feelings that may arise during and after losing a pet.  I help by sharing that they are not alone and connecting them with pet loss support and resources – this too helps feed my soul.  This work is difficult, and emotional, AND it is rewarding and meaningful.

Two hands making the shape of a heart

These last shared moments together will live on in the memory of the living forever and I am honoured to help create the most meaningful experience possible. Sometimes after the medication promoting deep sleep and relaxation is given, it is the first time in a while an animal has been able to be comfortable and relaxed, or even be touched.

When I hear comments like that from my clients, I use it as an opportunity to reassure that they are making the best decision for their pet.  That reassurance goes a long way in the healing that follows losing a pet.  It is also in this time that people tend to share the most marvelous stories about their pets and these stories also help feed my soul.

I could not do this job well if I didn’t take care of myself and have the support of my husband, friends, and family. They fill me back up so I can continue doing the important and meaningful work that I do.

“ After all these years, I have finally found my true calling and I could not be more honoured to do what I do.”

— Dr. Erica Dickie, DVM, CHPV

Dr. Erica Dickie