I have lost my pet. Now what?
Pets are a big part of our life and our family. When that companion passes away the pain we feel can be intense. We not only face the loss of the pet, we also have to make difficult decisions for the aftercare.
When is the right time to euthanize a pet?
Your veterinarian is the best judge of your pet’s physical condition; however, you are the best judge of the quality of your pet’s daily life. If your pet has a good appetite, responds to attention, seeks its owner’s your company, and participates in play or family life, many owners feel that this is not the time. However, if your pet is in constant pain, undergoing difficult and stressful treatments that aren’t helping greatly, unresponsive to affection, unaware of its surroundings, and uninterested in life, a caring pet owner will probably choose to end the beloved companion’s suffering. Evaluate your pet’s health honestly and unselfishly with your veterinarian. Prolonging your pet’s suffering in order to prevent your own ultimately helps neither of you. Nothing can make this decision an easy or painless one, but it is truly the final act of love that you can make for your pet.
Should I stay during euthanasia?
Many feel this is the ultimate gesture of love and comfort you can offer your pet. Some feel relief and comfort themselves by staying: They were able to see that their pet passed peacefully and without pain, and that it was truly gone. For many, not witnessing the death (and not seeing the body) makes it more difficult to accept that the pet is really gone. However, this can be traumatic, and you must ask yourself honestly whether you will be able to handle it. Uncontrolled emotions and tears-though natural-are likely to upset your pet.
Some clinics are more open than others to allowing the owner to stay during euthanasia. Some veterinarians are also willing to euthanize a pet at home. Others have come to an owner’s car to administer the injection. Again, consider what will be least traumatic for you and your pet, and discuss your desires and concerns with your veterinarian. If your clinic is not able to accommodate your wishes, request a referral.
What do I do next?
When a pet dies, you must choose how to handle its remains. Sometimes, in the midst of grief, it may seem easiest to leave the pet at the clinic for disposal.
Check with your veterinarian, pet shop, or phone directory for options available in your area. Consider your living situation, personal and religious values, finances, and future plans when making your decision. It’s also wise to make such plans in advance, rather than hurriedly in the midst of grief.
If you prefer a more formal option, several are available. Home burial is a popular choice, if you have sufficient property for it. It is economical and enables you to design your own funeral ceremony at little cost. However, city regulations prohibit pet burials, and this is not a good choice for renters or people who move frequently.
To many, a pet cemetery provides a sense of dignity, security, and permanence. Owners appreciate the serene surroundings and care of the gravesite. Cemetery costs vary depending on the services you select, as well as upon the type of pet you have. Cremation is a less expensive option that allows you to handle your pet’s remains in a variety of ways: bury them (even in the city), scatter them in a favorite location, place them in a columbarium, or even keep them with you in a decorative urn (of which a wide variety are available).
Why does it hurt so much?
Feeling intense grief over the loss of your pet is normal and natural. It is not silly, stupid or crazy to grieve. Your pet was always there for you, gave you comfort, loved you unconditionally. It is normal to grieve the loss of that relationship. Not all people understand the bond between a pet and their owner. However the only thing that matters is how you feel. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should feel. Your feelings are valid and may be very painful. Just remember: you are not alone. Thousands of pet owners have experienced the same feelings.
What can I expect?
Grief can be complicated by the role the animal played in your life. For example, if your pet was a working dog or a helper animal such as a guide dog, then you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a co-worker or the loss of your independence. If you cared for your pet through a protracted illness, you likely grew to love him even more. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with his loss can be even harder. If you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong the life of your pet, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
Everyone grieves differently
Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. Some people find grief comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
• The grieving process happens only gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
• Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
• Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk with others about them.
What can I do about my feelings?
Be honest about how you feel. Don’t deny how painful it is or how angry and guilty you feel. Only by working through these feelings will you be able to come to terms with the loss of your pet. You have every right to feel pain and grief! Someone you loved and cared for and who loved you unconditionally has died and you feel alone and lost. Acknowledge those feelings and express them in any way you want: scream, cry and/ or talk it out with someone who understands. Locking these feelings away doesn’t make them go away. Do what helps you the most. Don’t try to avoid grief by not thinking about your loss and your pet. Think about all the great times you and your pet had together. This will help you understand what the loss actually means to you.
Some find it helpful to put their feelings in writing (poems, stories, letters to their pet). Other strategies include rearranging your schedule to fill the time you would have spend with your pet, preparing a memorial such as a photo collage and talking to others about your loss.
Who can I talk to?
If your family and friends love pets they will understand how you feel. Don’t hide how you feel by trying to be strong and calm. One of the most effective ways of dealing with your loss is working through your feelings with a person who understands and who you feel comfortable crying and grieving with. This will also help to put everything in perspective and find a way to deal with your feelings.
If you don’t have family or friends who understand, or if you need more help, ask your veterinarian or humane association to recommend a pet loss counselor or support group. Check with your church or hospital for grief counseling. Remember, your grief is genuine and deserving of support.
What should I tell my children?
You are the best judge of how much information your children can handle about death and the loss of their pet. Don’t underestimate them, however. You may find that, by being honest with them about your pet’s loss, you may be able to address some fears and misperceptions they have about death.
Honesty is important. If you say the pet was “put to sleep,” make sure your children understand the difference between death and ordinary sleep. Never say the pet “went away,” or your child may wonder what he or she did to make it leave, and wait in anguish for its return. That also makes it harder for a child to accept a new pet. Make it clear that the pet will not come back, but that it is happy and free of pain.
Never assume a child is too young or too old to grieve. Never criticize a child for tears, or tell them to “be strong” or not to feel sad. Be honest about your own sorrow; don’t try to hide it, or children may feel required to hide their grief as well. Discuss the issue with the entire family, and give everyone a chance to work through their grief at their own pace.
Will my other pets grieve?
Pets observe every change in a household, and are bound to notice the absence of a companion. Pets often form strong attachments to one another, and the survivor of such a pair may seem to grieve for its companion. Cats grieve for dogs, and dogs for cats.
You may need to give your surviving pets a lot of extra attention and love to help them through this period. Remember that, if you are going to introduce a new pet, your surviving pets may not accept the newcomer right away, but new bonds will grow in time. Meanwhile, the love of your surviving pets can be wonderfully healing for your own grief.
Should I get a new pet right away?
Generally, the answer is no. You need time to work through grief and loss before attempting to build a relationship with a new pet. If your emotions are still in turmoil, you may resent a new pet for trying to “take the place” of the old-for what you really want is your old pet back. Children in particular may feel that loving a new pet is “disloyal” to the previous pet.
When you do get a new pet, avoid getting a “lookalike” pet, which makes comparisons all the more likely. Don’t expect your new pet to be “just like” the one you lost, but allow it to develop its own personality. Never give a new pet the same name or nickname as the old. Avoid the temptation to compare the new pet to the old one: It can be hard to remember that your beloved companion also caused a few problems when it was young!
A new pet should be acquired because you are ready to move forward and build a new relationship-rather than looking backward and mourning your loss. When you are ready, select an animal with whom you can build another long, loving relationship-because this is what having a pet is all about!
1] This article is based on the publication Ten Tips on Coping with Pet Loss by Moira Anderson Allen as posted on the Pet Loss Support Page and Coping with Pet Loss Help Guide; Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. Last