My thoughts on pet loss
way around the fact that if you love your pets and value their presence
in your life, their death is emotionally difficult. The end-of-life
process comes with difficult decisions, responsibilities, and a range of
emotions. It is becoming more accepted that pets are an integral and
important part of people's lives, and more information is becoming
available for owners regarding end-of-life issues and the grief
associated with a pet's death. Using these resources to prepare for a
pet's death may help ease the way.
information here will help you prepare for your pet's death, give you
some ideas to think about, help you start a conversation with your vet,
or help you know that what you're feeling is normal.
know your options
common for people to plan for their own funeral. I think it's important
for pet owners to learn about what options are available to them and do
some thinking about what they might want to do when their pet nears the
end of its life. Having a discussion with your vet about euthanasia or
end-of-life care is important. Your vet can prepare you for how long a
terminally ill pet may have to live, can be objective about your pet's
condition, can provide medications or ideas on making your pet
comfortable until the end, and can provide euthanasia if that's what you
decide to do. If finances are an issue and you cannot afford euthanasia,
your local government animal shelter probably provides low-cost
your vet, calling pet cemeteries, and reading online resources can help
you prepare and decide what you will do when your pet dies. Do you want
your vet to take care of the body without having it returned to you, do
you want your pet's body or ashes buried, do you want your pet cremated
(alone or with other pets), do you want the ashes returned, do you want
a special urn or container for the remains, do you want a paw print or a
lock of fur? It's easy to see there are a lot of questions to think
questions are difficult to think about when your pet is healthy and you
are not emotionally distraught. But the advance planning will help you
deal with your pet's death without having to make uninformed spur of the
moment decisions, then wishing you had done something differently.
Having some ideas about burial or cremation may be particularly helpful
if you find yourself dealing with the unexpected death of your pet.
Knowing how to help your pet whatever it may be
It's easy to get veterinary care for common pets and livestock. But
having hamsters and fish taught me something very important. If you're
going to own animals you need to know how to prevent or alleviate their
suffering. One of our hamsters needed to be euthanized because his back
legs stopped working. We could not let him starve to death and knew we
needed to intervene. I was dismayed at how difficult it was to find a
vet who would euthanize a hamster. We live in a large urban area with
several veterinary hospitals but had to drive 15 miles to another town
to find a vet who would help our little hammy.
If you're a
hobbyist with something like fish, you're probably on your own and you
need to know how to end a dying fish's life as compassionately as
possible. It might be "just
a fish" but it's a living creature you purchased, provided a
habitat for, fed, looked after, and now you may have to know how to end
its life as painlessly as possible. We've used two techniques: ice water
and clove oil.
It is an
extraordinary responsibility to decide to assist a pet through its
death. 'Euthanasia' comes from the Greek meaning 'eu' = good, normal,
happy, pleasing; and 'thanatos' = death. For me, it has been a privilege
to make that decision for my pets and to be with them through their
final moments. I consider it an honor to be the last thing they feel or
sense in their life. Some owners believe they do not have the right end
a pet's life; and others are so distraught that they cannot be present
when their pet is euthanized. Whatever you decide is best for you and
your pet, it's probably going to be a little less traumatic if you've
given it at least a little thought before your pet is seriously ill.
religions and cultures have rituals surrounding death. By following a
prescribed set of time-honored actions we have a sense of doing what's
necessary and proper. But there is no ritual for a pet's death and this
leaves many people feeling lost. However, this lack of ritual allows you
to create your own. You may want to groom your pet's fur after its
death; wrap it in a special blanket; send it for cremation or burial
with a special toy, treat or photo of you. You may want to privately
light a candle, read the Rainbow Bridge poem, or participate in an
on-line ceremony. Your religion may have prayers for animals or death
that will comfort you. Maybe you want your close friends to gather and
share stories about your pet. Whatever ritual you decide on is the right
one for you.
fortunate to never have been told "It was just a pet" after
the death of my cats, hamsters, or dog. Everyone who knows me knows I
love and value my pets as sentient, feeling, unique beings who are
worthy of life, love, and happiness. Granted, I don't share my feelings
with casual friends or coworkers, but confide only in a few people or
maybe in on on-line forum where the people don't know my identity. I
think most pet lovers are in a similar situation and keep their grief
hidden because they know not everyone shares their compassion for
animals. This can make it difficult to progress through the grieving
process. If a human family member dies, no one is surprised if you
become upset, even at work or in casual conversation. But when it's a
pet, the same emotions are often seen as "silly" or misplaced.
So you hide your emotions and only allow yourself to experience them in
the privacy of your home. I think this slows the grieving process
because you're not just grieving; you're trying to grieve
their own beliefs, feelings, and experiences to every situation and they
may try to influence your grieving. They may say things to suggest
you're grieving to hard, too long, not enough, or somehow incorrectly.
Everyone's grieving process is different and each pet's death brings
different emotions. I've experienced this with our elderly dog's death.
Some people expected me to be grief-stricken or barely able to face each
day without him. One friend was devastated when
her dog died so she thought that must be how I was feeling. But these
were not the feelings I had. I politely said his death was sad and
difficult, but I was adjusting.
Each death is
a different and brings a different grieving process
The death of each of our pets has been a very different experience. The
death of our pets occurred over 6 years, during which time I was in
different personal situations. Job changes, getting married, having a
new home - these and other life stages can affect your overall emotional
state, how a death effects you, and how you cope with it. I experienced
emotions ranging from deep sadness, being defeated, feeling lost, guilt,
self-doubt, and even relief.
learned my 8-year-old cat Smokey had an incurable cancer I was
devastated. Her life wasn't going to be as long as I expected and I felt
cheated of the years we wouldn't have together. After her death it took
nearly 6 months before I could look at a cat that resembled her without
crying. During the 9 months she lived with cancer the thought that she
was dying was always in my mind, but I refused to let it overshadow the
fact that Smokey still had a life to live and I was determined to
provide the best end-of-life care I could.
When my cat
Ed died at ~16 years old, I was deeply upset because this kitty loved
and needed me. After adopting him as an abandoned cat, I spent years
teaching him that nothing would hurt him again. He was laughably needy
and took every opportunity to cuddle or sleep on me. I also felt
defeated. We had been successfully managing his renal failure but he
developed an unrelated neurological issue that debilitated him. I was
upset that we wouldn't be able to try to treat this condition or even
know what it was. But my grief was tempered by the knowledge that he
lived a long life filled with love and happiness.
died of cancer at 14 years old, I was heartbroken. He was the first cat
I adopted and he was "my precious". He began our furry family
of three cats and now they were all gone. Although I was somewhat prepared
for his death because he also had cancer, I was not prepared for it to
happen as suddenly as it did - as an adverse effect of a chemotherapy
treatment. I felt guilty for possibly hastening his death by deciding to
try a different drug. I also second-guessed that decision, despite
knowing we made the decision with his best interest in mind and knowing
that whatever we did, we were at best delaying his inevitable death.
Golden Retriever Bentley died shortly after his 17th birthday, we were
sad our goofy boy would no longer be with us, but we were not grief
stricken. Bentley's death was in some ways a relief. Life had become
much less enjoyable for him over the last few months and he often needed
our help with normal daily living. It was heart wrenching to see him
struggle, and we knew his death freed him from pain and limitations. It
hasn't been but a few weeks since he's gone, and it's still bittersweet
to see a young, robust dog, especially a Golden Retriever. But our boy
had an amazingly long life and that tempers our sadness.
smaller critters' deaths brought some degree of sadness. Our hamsters
amused us and added interest and value to our lives. Even some of our
fish have been interesting and amusing to interact with and it was sad
to see them go.
display their pet's urn while others keep the urn safely tucked away
somewhere. Some people set up a little shrine with their pet's ashes,
collar, toys, or a candle. Some have photo albums, videos, or web pages.
Some owners don't want a physical reminder of their pet and remove most
things from view. Some owners make a charitable donation in memory of
their pet. There are no rules about how to honor your pet's memory, just
whatever feels right to you.
honoring your pet is about your thoughts and feelings. Whether you think
of your pet daily, not much at all, fondly, or with a bit of relief that
you no longer have that responsibility, it's all normal.
several small photos of all our pets displayed in our home. They're not
everywhere or displayed with some revered status, but they're
noticeable. I'll walk by and say "hi" to Felix or laugh at
Ed's big belly. The photos remind me of what unique beings they were and
the wonderful times we shared.
adopted two new cats shortly after Felix's death I felt maybe I wasn't
grieving long enough to honor Felix's memory. But the first three cats
had taught me so much and brought so much joy to my life that I thought
it would honor their memories to adopt new kitties into our home and
give them a fantastic life. I understand how that may not feel like the
right decision for others, but it helped me to have new lives to focus
on instead of being reminded that we no longer had any cats. It in no
way diminished my respect or fond memories of my other cats.
whether or not to get another pet
want another pet shortly after a pet's death to help them focus on
caring for another animal. Others may not feel ready to love another
animal right away or don't want the responsibility of pet ownership
anymore. It just depends on the person and situation.
died we didn't intend on getting cats anytime soon and donated the cat
perches, beds, and toys to the local animal shelter. We decided to focus
our energy on our 16-year old Golden Retriever Bentley. He was still
somewhat active and had fun despite the limitations that arthritis
imposed. But caring for a senior dog that needs help with daily living
can be burdensome, and at times the only reward is knowing you're
providing love and comfort to an aging companion. I loved Bentley and
accepted the limits on his activity as part of the aging process, but I
was missing the joyful exuberance of a young, healthy pet.
About a month
after Felix's death we adopted two cats from the local animal shelter.
It turned out to be an excellent decision because they lifted our
spirits with their kitty antics. They also seemed to rejuvenate Bentley
a bit, as he had two new friends to meet, watch, and interact with.
On the other
hand, now that Bentley is gone we have no interest in getting another
dog. I was not looking to own a dog when Bentley's and my lives crossed
paths, but I could not have dreamed for a better dog. I had known him
for two years before adopting him and knew that he was perfectly
trained, mellow, and my cats would be safe with him. But at this time we
don't have time to care for a puppy, and don't want to risk our cats'
safety by bringing an adult dog into the house. We've also decided we
want some dog-free time, with freedom to stay away from home more
than a few hours without having to return to let a dog out, freedom to
go on vacation (which we've not done for several years because I didn't
think anyone could adequately provide for Bentley's special needs), and
freedom from all the other responsibilities of dog ownership.
after death issues
One of the
things many owners struggle with, especially after caring for a
chronically ill pet, is the range of emotions they experience. They may
have spent weeks, months, or years caring for a special needs pet.
They've been making important decisions for their pet's health, probably
have the stress of veterinary expenses, and have probably given up a lot
of their free time that they otherwise would have spent with friends or
family. All this time they're also experiencing a roller-coaster of
emotions, often without support. When their pet dies, they have grief,
maybe a sense of relief, and then guilt that they're relieved to not
have the burden of care any more. With few outlets to discuss these
complex emotions, owners are left trying to cope alone, in online
forums, telephone hotlines, or even seeking counseling.
And if you've
been caring for a sick pet for a long time, what do you do with all that
time you now have on your hands? Your entire focus has been on caring or
your pet and now you need to find someplace else to direct all that
energy. It's not easy, and it takes time to readjust your thoughts and
behaviors when you no longer have your pet. It's important for owners to
know this is normal, and many of us have experienced these types of
who have experienced a pet's death know that the deep grief or sadness
associated with a pet's death just takes time to resolve. There's no
right or wrong way to go through this process and I think it's
everyone's hope and expectation that their grief is replaced by fond
memories of the wonderful time they shared with their pet.
thoughts and experiences have helped you see that a pet's end of life
and death can be a very stressful time filled with complex emotions. If
you can do some preparation ahead of time, your pet's death may be a
little easier to deal with and you'll know that your grief is normal.
Please use all the resources that are available, both at your
online, and if needed a grief counselor who is well trained to help you
navigate the complex web of emotions that accompany end-of-life issues.