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'Pet Loss Support Hotline' at Cornell veterinary college offers grief counseling and information for animal owners

Some animal owners are preparing for the death of a beloved pet. Some are grief-stricken by a sudden, unexpected loss, while others are still trying to cope months later.

For all who need sympathy and understanding on the other end of the phone line -- or on the Internet -- students in the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine have started the Pet Loss Support Hotline at (607) 253-3932 and a World Wide Web site at http://www.vet.cornell.edu/public/petloss/.

"It's perfectly natural to experience deep emotions and sadness at the loss of a pet. They are not 'just animals'; they are beings who have occupied a special place in our hearts. And it can be terribly hard to face the fact that they're gone," said Pam Corey, the third-year veterinary student who organized the Cornell hotline and helped train the volunteer counselors.

The Cornell hotline is the newest of seven grief counseling services for pet owners at veterinary colleges around the country. Like most others, the Cornell program is supported in part by the pet food maker, the Iams Co., which runs a central hotline to refer callers to the nearest regional service: 1-888-332-7738. Additional support comes from alumni of the Cornell veterinary college.

For now, the Cornell hotline is staffed three evenings a week, Tuesday through Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m. EST. Callers at other times may leave a message and receive a return call from a volunteer counselor. Or pet owners can find an array of useful and comforting information on the Pet Loss Web page.

"What we don't do is give medical advice or play veterinarian on the phone. That's not our role," said Teddy Smith, another volunteer who also is completing her third year in the D.V.M. (doctor of veterinary medicine) degree program. "But we can help people decide what they need to know and point them in the right direction -- which sometimes is back to their regular veterinarian. We also try to find out the context of the loss. Perhaps someone has lost another animal recently or even a human member of the family."

Hotline founder Corey said she realized the need for such a service while working as a veterinary technician with a Manhattan veterinarian who makes house calls.

"It seemed that at least once a day we were called on to euthanize a pet. I came to understand the importance of talking with a pet owner at a time like that. And then I lost a wonderful cat myself," she said.

Many veterinarians, including recent graduates of the Cornell college, are trained to offer grief counseling at the office. But for some pet owners, the enormity of their loss doesn't sink in until they get home, Corey said, noting that profound sorrow can linger for months after the death of a pet. "Sometimes the most important thing we can do is to validate for people that it is okay to be upset."

The 15 volunteers now working at the Cornell hotline received extensive training, including a session with a social worker who specializes in grief counseling, and their training will continue to be updated. Among the frequently asked questions from people anticipating the death of a pet and those who are trying to cope are these:

  • How do I know when the time has come?
  • How do I talk to the children?
  • When should I get another pet?
  • Is it abnormal not to want another pet right now?

Sometimes elderly people, who would benefit from animal companionship, are reluctant to get other pets that might outlive them, Corey observed. One recommended solution is a pre-arranged adoption, so that the pet and the elderly owner can enjoy all their worry-free years together.

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