Death of the Family Pet… Losing a Family Friend

We grieve over the death of a pet.

This reaction is only natural.  Our feelings toward pets are so special that experts have a term for the relationship:  the human-companion animal bond.  When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming.

Society does not offer a grieving per owner a great deal of sympathy.  Even a close friend may comment: “It’s only a dog (cat).  You can always get another”  Such a reaction would be heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member.  It is generally recognized that a person who has experienced the loss of a pet needs the support of friends and relatives.  Psychologists now acknowledge that we need as much support–but get far less–with the loss of a companion animal.

Veterinarians realize that their final obligation to their pet patients also involves dealing with the pet owners’ grief.  This does not mean that veterinarians are trained a psychologists or psychiatrists. It does mean that the veterinary doctor, who knows you and your pet, also understands your natural feelings of loss–and is able to offer support.  (If your veterinarian seems distant, bear in mind that the death of a pet is also stressful even to professionals.)  Detachment is a way of coping.

Euthanasia:  The Painful Choice

For a pet-lover, no decision is more difficult than authorizing euthanasia.  Yet, too often, this painful choice is the correct choice for your pet.  Certainly, humane procedures offered at modern veterinary clinics have a clear advantage over an illness that prolongs the suffering of both pet and pet owner.

Discuss euthanasia frankly with your veterinarian. Many pet owners choose to spend the final moments with their pets.  If so, the veterinarian might prefer to prepare the pet briefly in an other room.  The intravenous drug does not cause any pain.  You might wish to stroke the animal’s head and speak gently as the drug is administered.  The pet simply goes quietly to sleep and body functions stop.

Other pet owners chose not to witness the procedure.  You might consider a last good-bye after the procedure, however, to complete your physical separation.

How We Feel

When a person dies, family friends and relatives pay their respects at the family home or the funeral parlor.  There is a funeral where sorrow and tears are accepted, even expected.  Afterward, during the mourning period, friends and relatives assist and comfort the grieving family until their grief subsides and new routines develop.

When a pet dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief.  To many, a funeral for a pet would seem eccentric and a formal period of mourning bizarre.  Even the immediate family and intimate friends may not fully understand the loss.

Still the loss of a pet affects our emotions, all the more so if the pet was in integral part of the family.  These feeling usually progress through several stages.  Recognizing these stages can help us cope with the grief we feel.

First Stage: Denial

Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when confronted with a pet’s terminal condition or sudden death.  This rejection seems to be the mind’s buffer against the sharp emotional blow.

The Second Stage: Bargaining

This stage is well documented in the human grieving process.  Many times, faced with impending death, an individual may “bargain”–offering some sacrifice if the loved one is spared.  People losing a pet are less likely to bargain.  Still, the hope that the pet might recover can foster reactions like, “If Rover recovers, I’ll never skip his regular walk … never put him in a kennel when I go on vacation, … ever …”

The Third Stage: Anger

Recognizing anger in the grief process is seldom a problem; dealing with the anger often is. Anger can be obvious, as in hostility or aggression.  On the other hand, anger often turns inward, emerging as guilt.

Many veterinarians have heard the classic anger response, “What happened, I thought you had everything under control and now you’ve killed my dog!”  Another standard: “You never really cared about Rover.  He was just another fee to you, and I’m the one who has lost my pet!”

Such outbursts help relieve immediate frustrations, though often at the expense of someone else. More commonly, pet owners dwell on the past. The number of “If only…” regrets is endless.

“If only I hadn’t left the dog at my sister’s house…”

“If only I had taken Kitty to the veterinarian a week ago…”

Whether true or false, such recriminations and fears do little to relieve the anger and are not constructive.  Here, your veterinarian’s support is particularly helpful.

The Fourth Stage:  Grief

This is the stage of true sadness.  The pet is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only an emptiness remains.  Is is not that the support of family and friends is most important–and, sadly, most difficult to find. The lack of support prolongs the grief stage. Therefore, the pet owner may want to seek help from the pet’s veterinarian or from a professional counselor.  It is normal, and should be acceptable, to display grief when a companion animal dies.  It is helpful to recognize that other per owners have experienced similar strong feelings, and that you are not alone in this feeling of grief.

The Proper Good-Bye

At some point, you are going to have to make final arrangements for your pet.  Most veterinarians can either handle matter themselves or explain the choices available. There are several options:

Cemetery Burial. People have been burying pets in a ritual fashion at least since Egyptian times.  Today, there are pet cemeteries in virtually every populated area of the United States and Europe.  Many are spacious, with safeguards against the land being used for other purposes and with funding to provide future grounds keeping.  Standards established by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries might help guide your choice.  A list of the standards is available free on request by writing to Box 1346, South Bend IN 46624, by calling the association director at 219-277-1115, or by visiting their website: International Association Of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories.

Communal Burial. This less costly option is offered by many per cemeteries and private humane organizations.  Your pet’s dignity is in no way affected by burial with other animals.  Communal burial is a common choice.

Communal Cremation. I areas where land is expensive, communal cremation is a sensible alternative.  Some veterinary clinics even have their own crematoriums, as do many pet cemeteries and humane organizations. The fee is relatively modest, often less than $100.

Individual Cremation. Your veterinarian probable can arrange for individual cremation and advise you on environments concerns over disposal of ashes. This option is more costly than communal cremation. [Cheboygan County Humane Society offers Individual Cremation Services]

Home Burial. It is not uncommon for pet owners to bury their pets on their own property, but you should check with your municipal government before making such arrangements.  Typically, home burial is permitted in rural and suburban settings.  A tight-fitting wooden box will help safeguard you pet’s remains.

In Memoriam
One way to soften the impact of your pet’s death is to make a donation in the animal’s memory to a worthy animal-related cause.  Humane organizations need financial support to care for homeless pets.  Many veterinary schools accept scholarship funds in the name of the donor.

The Final Stage: Resolution

All this come to an end–even grieving.  As time passes, the distress dissolves as the pet owner remembers the good times, not the pet’s passing.  And, more often than not, the answer lies in a new pet, a new companion animal to fulfill the need for a pet in the household.

If the Burden Is Too Heavy

Veterinary colleges, in studying the human-companion animal bond, are increasing their efforts to help pet owners cope with lingering grief.  Some of the colleges have social workers who are specially trained to counsel pet owners.  Among the most well-known programs are those at:

  • The Animal Medical Center
    New York City. Contact Susan Cohen: 212-838-8100
  • The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
    Philadelphia. Contact: Victoria Voith 215-898-4525
  • University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine
    Minneapolis.  Contact: Ralph Holcomb 612-624-4747

This perspective was reproduced with the permission of ALPO Pet Center.
Their copyright 1987 by ALPO Petfoods, Inc.

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