PULLMAN – Pets, not farm animals, are the main focus of today’s veterinary medicine. That means veterinarians must prepare to help clients with pet loss and grief.

“Pets have shorter lifespans, so veterinarians face death five to 10 times more often than human doctors,” said Kathy Ruby, director of health, wellness and leadership studies at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “In addition, veterinarians must deal with the grief and guilt associated with euthanasia.

“This means that our curriculum should be rebalanced to include the human skills as well as the science skills,” she said. “Our students learn how to be gracious and comforting when clients bring their pets to the teaching hospital.The new Solar Plaza is both a symbol of the human-animal bond and a very useful part of our own pet-loss training program.”

Place of comfort

Solar Plaza is a small park, adjacent to the hospital, featuring a natural basalt stone fountain, several stone and wood benches, assorted trees and bushes, and a bronze plaque dedicating the area in the memory of a standard poodle named Solar.

Solar, the companion of Michael Chamberlin of Seattle, came to the hospital for cancer treatment but died in 2005. Chamberlin provided the funding to create the plaza as a place for people, pets, staff and students to find comfort in beautiful natural surroundings when facing medical treatments or bereavement. The plaza was dedicated in April.
Chamberlin funded the plaza to support the “pet friendly” environment at the college.

Pet friendly changes

“Pet friendly is exactly the perspective we want to nurture in our students,” Ruby said. “And pet friendly could also describe recent changes to the college curriculum.”

• First, veterinary students staff the college’s Pet Loss Hotline, which Ruby established in 1998 (www.vetmed.wsu.edu/plhl). One of the first established, the hotline receives contacts from all over the world.

• Second, Ruby teaches a class — Animals, Society and the Veterinarian — that focuses on bereavement and other human issues faced by veterinarians.

• Third, all first-year veterinary students begin their studies with a three-day orientation program called Cougar Orientation and Leadership Experience that Ruby and a team of committed administrators and faculty first organized in 2003. 

“Solar Plaza is a tangible reflection of this perspective,” Ruby summarized. “That is why this gift is so important and welcomed here.”