Course teaches vet students to talk to pet owners about euthanasia

Veterinary students at Cornell University are learning strategies to talk to pet owners about euthanasia, a difficult skill to learn.

Ariana Boltax, a 2018 graduate from the school’s veterinary college, recently won the grand prize in the COVID Educational Creations Contest. The contest awarded instructors who devised particularly creative online learning experiences for students during the pandemic.

“Winning is an honor—it was important to me to find a way of sharing this course with other veterinary educators,” Boltax said. “Our students have the science down when it comes to euthanasia. But one gap in their instruction overall is ensuring that they’re able to effectively communicate about it with clients.”

Students usually learn euthanasia communication skills through observation at Cornell’s hospital while on clinical rotations, Boltax said. This course allows them to act out scenarios with each other and with actors playing clients. They perform the euthanasia process with a robotic canine model.

During the pandemic, Boltax transitioned the class online, with Zoom simulations. “The pandemic has increased the popularity of telemedicine, and I’m confident that this mode is here to stay,” Boltax said. “So this was a unique opportunity for students to see the virtual interactions in their future as well.”

She noted that one important variable “is the fact that competencies like communication are case-specific.” For example, a veterinarian might be able to communicate well with clients who are crying but struggle with those who are angry.