Father comforts a sad child

Grieving the Loss of a Pet

By Dianne Steinley (adapted with permission from information provided by Lindsey Veterinary Hospital)

Understanding the emotions associated with loss will better prepare you to manage your grief and help others, including surviving pets, who are sharing the loss.

After your animal has died or been lost, it is natural and normal to feel grief and sorrow. There are many signs of grief, but not everyone experiences them in the same order. You may experience denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution.

Your first reaction may be denial that the animal has died. Often, the more sudden the death, the more difficult the loss is to accept. Anger and guilt often follow denial. Anger can be directed toward people you normally love and respect, including your family and your veterinarian. You may feel guilt or blame others for not recognizing the illness earlier, for not doing something sooner, for not being able to afford other types of treatment, or for being careless and allowing the animal to be injured. Depression is the period when you usually feel the greatest sense of loss and when special assistance may be helpful. If you or a family member cannot resolve feelings of grief and sorrow, you may want to talk to someone who is trained to understand the grieving process. Contact the C.A.R.E. Pet Loss Helpline (1-877-394-2273), Iams Pet Loss Support Center (1-888-332-7738) or a counsellor in your area. Eventually, you will come to terms with your feelings and begin to resolve and accept your animal’s death.

Whether the loss is animal or human, grieving is a personal process. If you understand that your reactions are normal, you will be better prepared to cope with your own feelings and to help others face theirs. Well-meaning family and friends may not realize how important your animal was to you or comprehend the intensity of your grief. Comments they make may seem cruel and uncaring. Be honest with yourself and others about how you feel.

It is important for your children to see and experience your grieving process. Being truthful with your children will also aid in healing (depending on your child’s age, of course). If your pet was, or is going to be, euthanized, avoid using phrases such as “put to sleep,” “is very sick,” or “is going away.” These can be difficult concepts for children to understand. “We are helping Fluffy to die because we love her very much and do not want her to suffer” is a more truthful and less ambiguous statement.

Help children to understand that death is part of the life cycle for all creatures. Share memories with them of good times you all spent with your pet. Ask your children how they would like to memorialize their animal friend.

For a list of helpful books for adults and children, visit http://lindseyvet.com/pet-information/pet-loss/grief.html.

THE GRIEVING PET

Pets exhibit behaviour that indicates they also grieve the loss of a loved one, be it human or another animal. Noticeable symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, anxiety or a change in temperament. A very active, playful pet may suddenly become quiet and withdrawn. He may sit by the door or in the window, expecting the loved one to come home.

To help a pet through the grieving process, try to keep her regular routine as normal as possible. Giving attention during any behaviour will help to reinforce it, so be sure you are not reinforcing a behaviour that you don’t like. Give attention when your dog is engaging in behaviours that you do like, such as resting quietly or watching the birds.

If the loss is another pet, you may wonder about getting a replacement as soon as possible so the survivor won’t be lonely. This is a personal choice but there are a few things to consider. If introduced too soon, the grieving pet may not adapt easily to a newcomer in the household. Give your pet time for the emotional wounds to heal.

When you and your pet are ready for an addition to the family, it may be best to bring a kitten or puppy home rather than an adult pet. Although not true of every animal, some will be more accepting of a young companion.

WHEN IT’S TIME

Euthanasia literally means an “easy and painless death.” Pet owners who must make this difficult decision often feel anxiety and guilt, but when a pet has little hope of recovery, the question “When is it time?” becomes important.

Quality of life greatly influences the decision concerning euthanasia. Certainly, quality of life is a personal judgment; you know your pet better than anyone else. And while your veterinarian can guide you with objective information and even provide a personal perspective of a disease condition, the final decision rests with you. The following points may help you gauge your pet’s quality of life:

  • Pets with chronic or incurable diseases that are given proper medication and care should be able to eat, drink and sleep comfortably without shortness of breath.
  • Your pet should act interested in what’s going on around him, be able to perform mild exercise and have control of his urine and bowel movements (unless the principal disease affects one of these organ systems).
  • Even your ill pet should appear comfortable and free of moderate to severe pain. Of course, one should expect the natural ups and downs that attend most chronic disease conditions. You need to determine what balance is acceptable.
  • If your pet is taking medication for a disease condition, sometimes the medicine, not the disease, makes a pet appear more ill; adjusting the dose or changing the medicine can have a positive effect.

Of course, some diseases are very difficult, expensive or time-consuming to treat. Discuss the overall situation with your veterinarian rather than allowing your pet to suffer without proper medical care.

Pet loss by natural causes, trauma or euthanasia is always difficult. If you have specific questions about euthanasia or you would like more information about pet loss support groups, please contact your veterinarian.

 *Reprint from our Pet 2015 Issue

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