Ask Richard: Atheist Veterinary Worker Feels Awkward With Religious Pet Owners’ Questions March 19, 2012

Ask Richard: Atheist Veterinary Worker Feels Awkward With Religious Pet Owners’ Questions

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I work in the animal health field in a large, progressive city so I don’t often get faced with situations like these, but when I do I’m never sure how to respond. Once upon a time I was a theist, but that way of thinking is so far behind me that I can hardly understand it anymore.

No small part of my job is discussing the quality of life of people’s beloved pets and helping guide them to what is right for them and the animal. Often this means discussing euthanasia, when it is appropriate to decline further diagnostics and/or treatments, and what to expect as death, natural or not, approaches. Most of the time religion doesn’t come into the discussions, which is fine by me. However occasionally people have asked me to pray or light a candle for their pet, and out of compassion for the person I will tell them I will keep them in my thoughts (which is true) but I cannot bring myself to lie to them and say yes.

On two memorable occasions I was confronted by clients who chose to keep their pets alive under palliative care (hospice) because they believed in miracles and thought that god would help them. Both times I was so floored I could make no response for a moment and then simply chose to ignore the comment in favor of repeating the veterinarian’s medical advice.

In other cases people have actually asked me if they will see their pets in heaven, or told me that the pet will be reincarnated and return to them. I never know how to respond to this and it is usually followed by awkward silence.

Other times I’ve come across clients who believe in woo woo “alternative” medicines, and these I actually find easier to deal with since I can say that I prefer to go with evidence based medicine. I usually elect to leave the doctor to discuss it, and make sure the client knows there are evidence based medical treatments available.

So much of what I do is based on not only the technical skills I employ, empathy for the animal and understanding animal behavior, but also in communicating the animal’s needs both psychological and physical, to the client. If the client feels that there is this awkwardness between us, I become a much less effective communicator since they now think they have a reason to not trust me. It is my duty to advocate for the animal and be its voice, but when people know or suspect you have such a radically different world view from them how do you do this? I simply can not connect with their worldview and do not know how to respond. The only thing I have I come up with is that for those who I now know are of the very religious mindset I do try to suggest to the shift leader perhaps one of my religious coworkers takes the case, but sometimes I still get thrown a curve ball.

Do you have any suggestions for how to handle these situations?

I thank you for your time and consideration.

Dear Cassie,

You’re already doing much of what I would suggest. You’re showing exemplary caring and sensitivity for the people whose pets are in your care. The fact that you feel awkward in these situations shows your desire to respond in honest yet helpful and compassionate ways, rather than sparing yourself that discomfort by being cold or indifferent.

People can worry and grieve over their pets just as intensely as they do over their family members. Very often their pets are family members as far as they are concerned, and in many cases pets are the only family that people have. The presence of pets to love and care for has long been observed to benefit the health of their owners, so in a very real sense, your patients are both the animals and the people who bring them to you.

Grave worry and grief sometimes bring out child-like emotions in adults. They feel helpless and vulnerable like children, and they want reassurance that they would otherwise not even consider to be important. The best way that other adults can respond is to suspend making any value judgments about that, and to simply attend to the temporary neediness with patience and kindness as best they can.

You are very skilled at recognizing animals’ needs and feelings. With language, people can be more directly expressive of their needs and feelings, but at the same time they can have conflicting motives that cause them to be reserved about expressing themselves clearly and frankly. Sometimes we have to guess more about our own species than we do about other species. So the challenge for you, which you’re already handling better than many people, is to look for the needs and feelings that are implied by their words, and not just the words themselves.

When people ask you to pray or light a candle for their ailing pets, they’re expressing their need to know that someone caring will be close to their pets when they cannot be. They hate having to leave their sick or dying pet in a veterinarian’s clinic overnight, because they’re accurately empathizing what their pet is feeling, just as you do as part of your job. Telling people that their pet will be in your thoughts is a good balance of honesty and diplomacy. To respond to the need that is implied by their words, you could add that you’ll make sure that their pet will be comfortable and will have caring attention from you and other staff while they’re there.

When people ask you if they’ll see their deceased pets again in heaven, they’re expressing their grief and longing. Your response can be both honest and compassionate. Say something like, “I don’t know, but it’s very clear that (your pet) was well and deeply loved while in your care, and I’m sure (your pet) loved you very much in return.” The “I don’t know” is your honest answer to their question, and the rest is your giving them what they really need, what is implied behind the question. They need to express to someone how much they loved their pet, and how much they already miss them. In the process of grief, simply being heard and understood by a receptive person is an important part of healing. By the way, this is one reason that we love our pets. They never tire of listening to us pour out our feelings.

I think you handle the people who talk about alternative treatments very skillfully, and I have nothing to add except to look for any implied needs similar to those that I’ve described above, which you could briefly acknowledge. Remember, you don’t have to fulfill these needs by actually solving the problem. Very often you can’t. You only have to acknowledge their needs and validate their feelings.

You can preserve the trust and rapport with your clients by focusing on the “worldview” that you do share; the emotions you recognize in them, your need to love and be loved, your familiarity with grief, and your instinct to comfort others who are in pain. Your and their differing opinions about deities, souls, and an afterlife are mere effete abstractions when compared to these primal and far more beautiful attributes that you and they have in common. Look for, listen for, and feel for those deep human commonalities, and I think your responses will be less awkward and more effective.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Veterinary student  and atheist here; the way I see it, if it comes down to a pet owner grieving, I will tell them that I’ll pray for their pet or light a candle because it will make them feel better. I’d do the same if someone asked me to pray for their grandmother, etc. If the notion that I am thinking of their pet makes them feel better and helps them cope with the loss, then I will do it, even if I may not literally pray.

    People who refuse to euthanize their pet, on the other hand, are a different issue. As a vet or veterinary technician, we should advocate for the animal first. One technique I learned from a professor is to ask clients reluctant to euthanize to take their animals home for the night and see if they feel like their quality of life justifies keeping them alive. Often what happens is that the people will see that their animal is suffering and change their mind. That said, not everyone does. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t do a euthanasia without an owner’s consent, so palliative care is often necessary. If the client is adament about not euthanizing for religious reasons, then you do what you can to keep that animal comfortable. Often pet owners ask what you would do in that situation, and you should tell them honestly. Religion (or lack  therof) need not enter into the equation unless the client brings it up.

    If, one day, a pet owner asks me if they will see their pet in heaven, and it’s obvious they want me to say yes, then I will. It’s not about me.

    All things considered, I think the person asking the question is handling these situations wonderfully. If keeping quiet instead of placating the owners is what they are comfortable doing, then there’s no issue with it. Many practices send out sympathy cards and offer paw print casts, tailfeathers from birds, etc, as options to memorialize pets as well.

  • I’ve worked with rescuing both wild and domestic animals, and I frequently encounter the problem of people anthropomorphising animals- attributing human emotions and motives to animals.   It’s very hard to have patience with people who insist on interpreting an animal baring its teeth as “smiling” or claiming that an animal is urinating in a certain place “to spite them.”   Religion really damages a person’s ability to understand what they’re looking at.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    In other cases people have actually asked me if they will see their
    pets in heaven, or told me that the pet will be reincarnated and return
    to them.

    You should tell them that this is unlikely, unless both they and their pet belong to the correct religion.

  •  “One technique I learned from a professor is to ask clients reluctant to euthanize to take their animals home for the night and see if they feel like their quality of life justifies keeping them alive. Often what happens is that the people will see that their animal is suffering and change their mind.”

    I wonder if this works with human patients.

  • When I had to have my long time pet cat euthanized recently, I was so grief stricken that I couldn’t help being consumed with tears at the vet before and after.  I wasn’t asking for input, just taking my moment, but I think the vet was uncomfortable, maybe because I’m a big dude, or maybe because I was crying more then others?  What ever the case, after a bit of time he told me that my pet is in heaven now – in a better place.  I was shocked! I had not asked to be consoled, or asked about pet spirituality, because foremost I’m an atheist.  Well, he was obviously trying to help, I rolled my eyes as best as I could, and left the vet and finished crying in the car.  But, I wondered about his comment for awhile, why would a vet volunteer a heaven as a solution for my grief when I clearly was not soliciting any input.  

  • Hey, for once I agree with Richard!

    Seriously, though, I think you’re doing everything just about right.  The “I will keep them in my thoughts” is a very appropriate response, which is basically acceding to the person’s request for all (non-magical) intents and purposes, I would argue.

    The only thing I would add:  It’s totally up to you, but if it were me, I might give an unqualified “yes” to requests to light a candle.  There need not be anything superstitious or woo-y about that; it can simply be a tangible expression of our concern/grief.  If you feel uncomfortable about it, that’s cool… And I’m certainly not suggesting you, like, go into a Catholic church and light one of their pay-for-pray candles, egads no.  But there’s nothing wrong with lighting a candle in your own home in memory or thoughtfulness to another… I’ve certainly done it, and you don’t really get much more atheistic than me!  

    Fat lot of good it will do, of course, but…  I dunno, it’s meaningful to me.  And I could see it being meaningful for some patients to know their vet was doing it for their pet.  If it makes you feel uncomfortable or is too much of a hassle, obviously don’t do it… but just a thought…  I don’t personally see lighting a candle as being an inherently theistic/superstitious act.

  • Heather

    Cassie, you are just a vetinary  worker.  Your thoughts on this are not important…in fact, who gives a crap what you think about it.

    Just shut up and do what your boss says.

  • Matto the Hun

    Oh… Like that movie all Dogs go to Ragnarok.

  • Kristen

    As a pet owner who had to euthanize her cat just last week, I’m happy to hear how conscientious you are of the pet owners.  I have a wonderful vet who did not try to sell me religion nor minimize my pain. I don’t know if she is religious or atheist. I do know she was very compassionate and gave my ex and I exactly the support we needed. Thank you and all animal health workers. I can’t imagine how tough it must be to euthanize a pet, even a seriously ill one, without having someone’s religion put on top of you as well.

  • Cutencrunchy

    I hope ‘Heather’ is being tongue and cheek. Of course you and what you do matters. That you bring compassion, care and integrity to your job adds value to the work and enriches every job and employee.
    However to try and squeeze actual meaning out of the Heather’s of the world – perhaps a point could be made that you can do or not do whatever feels right. You have already done your job just by being there and  prepping the animals for the doctor appointment – beyond that it’s really about how you manage the situation to give you the best sense of self, accomplishment, integrity, professionalism etc.

  • Anonymous

    “Will my pet be in heaven?”
    “I’m a vet, not a priest”

  • jgr4

    Lucy, you’re not alone in the veterinary field – you have no idea how many of your professors and house officers are atheists (if not classmates.) We’re in the South, and there are a lot even down here.

    My wife likes to respond to religious queries with something she got from a mentor:  “Well, according to Walt Disney, all dogs go to heaven.” Which is perfectly true – according to Disney 🙂  And it’s so absurd to reference a Disney cartoon for religious truths, that she doesn’t have to take herself seriously when saying it.

  • Anonymous

    In related situations (and if appropriate) I have sometimes answered, “I feel for sure we’ll be in the same place.”

  • Anonymous

     I actually doubt religion has much of anything to do with anthropomorphising, and more to do with general ignorance of the different cues at behaviors of animals. In the case of pets it’s almost inevitable, to a certain extent. I think it’s because we think of our pets as individuals, with names, personalities, thoughts and desires, and our brains are evolved mostly to attribute those things to humans, which leads us to attribute to animals all sorts of exclusively human characteristics. I have talked to my cat, despite knowing full well that had I gone “Glu glu, blah blah uh uh” it would have made exactly the same sense to him. Every cat owner I know makes comments about their cats taking some sort of perverse pleasure in some form of misbehavior (my cats is laying his mostly white body on newly washed black clothing), but I’m sure that if you pinned them down, most would readily admit that it isn’t true.

  • HA2

    Probably because it’s a common way for Christians to console each other about loss; and, because Christians are a large enough majority that they’ve all gotten used to just assuming that everyone around is Christian too. Christian privilege…

  • Michael Appleman

    This came up from time to time  while I was a dog groomer. I remember one lady being rather upset that her pastor told her that her elderly dog would not go to heaven.

  •  What? Seriously, what?

  • Santiago

    ST: TOS  bones? 🙂

  • Freya

    Just wanted to make a correction. All Dogs Go to Heaven is  a Don Bluth film, not Disney. 🙂

  • Look for, listen for, and feel for those deep human commonalities, and I think your responses will be less awkward and more effective.”

    Absolutely right. I consider myself a humanist before an atheist (though I use both labels) and think the former is more important to how we  live our lives. Someone is in pain, human or non-human, and we need to show compassion, even if holding back our disagreement can be awkward.

  • Anonymous

     You get a cookie

  • Sorry about your loss, Truth. 🙁

  •  You may well be right, I may be confusing causation with correlation, because I encounter these attribution problems with people who have an antiquated world view on many topics, and look to authority, rather than to science, for answers.   They won’t heed the excellent advice of Jackson Galaxy, cat behaviorist, because it conflicts with something their mama said.

  • Thackerie

     I like this response!

  • I had to take a friend’s terminally-ill dog to the emergency clinic not too long ago. There was a man in the waiting room who, upon learning of the situation, started talking about how he’s sure that humans and animals  “go to the same place” when they die. It was the first time I’ve ever encountered religion at the vet’s office, although my regular vet does (unfortunately) have copies of Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven in the waiting area.  Fortunately, this guy moved on to another topic before I could utter more than a wishy-washy “Well, I guess there are various opinions about that,” but if it had been my own dog that was dying, I might have had something more forceful to say.

  • lapushka

    How rude!

  • I’m a veterinary technician, and I’ve had people say to me that as a Christian, they don’t believe in euthanasia and think it’s cruel “not to give them a chance.” I say to them (not quite as bluntly as I say here) that giving them a chance is often spending thousands of dollars to treat a disease or condition that has a very grave prognosis or letting the animal sit at home in pain and suffer until they die on their own. Now, you can take another approach, and let them die now in peace, in your loving company, painlessly, and in their sleep. Which seems like the more “Christian” thing to do now? I only say this in cases when it’s clear to me that the animal is suffering and will die in the next few days if not that very day.  Also, of course, once you bring money into the discussion, it changes the client’s view on the situation. Sadly, sometimes I’ve found that you have to mention costs of things to bring somebody’s mind into a more humane and rational way of thinking.

  • Juneau Alaska

    Honesty is what I find comfortable. And I think the moral default position should be honesty. If I found out my veterinarian lied to me because of a false preconception, I would lose a measure of respect for that person and consequently the veterinary-client-patient-relationship would take an unnecessary hit.

    Lying destroys trust. Always.

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