Pet grief can be as painful and complex as the grief we may feel for a human being. How to deal with that and the dilemma many of us may dread – whether to have our pets put to sleep, or not? These are some of the questions I asked vet Dr Scott Miller of the (UK) TV show Vet on The Hill.
1. Relationships with our pets can be close.
And when they are, pets can become the family or companion we never had or no longer have. When pets get ill or die, it is therefore understandable and normal that we may feel bereft and need to grief. Yet often we may feel embarrassed and defensive when we go through pet grief. Because even if others don’t say it, they may think “it’s only a pet”.
But pet owners will know the real and potentially long-lasting pain of pet grief.
2. Whatever kind of pet you have.
Whether your pet is a dog, cat, bird, hamster, fish, frog, ferret, rat or whatever kind – it does not matter! What matters is how you feel about each other. During their time with us, pets can give us their unconditional love. Dr Miller argues that
”Well timed euthanasia should be a moment to celebrate the life of a beloved pet, but also to give them the final peace and comfort they deserve”.
3. Let’s take the example of Lilly and I.
Lilly, an 8 year old small, white staffie girl, has been with me since July 2012. I re-homed her from London’s Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. She had been picked up roaming the streets of East London just before the Olympics, and just before my first diagnosis of breast cancer.
Lilly changed my life, by giving me a sense of responsibility, identity and need to spend time outdoors while going through cancer treatment. Without her, things could have easily gone the other way.
On one of our daily walk, I bumped into 2 regulars, both without their dogs. The usual comment of “I almost did not recognise you without your dog” was responded to with sad news. Both dogs had died, suddenly, of cancer.
That prompted me to think (yet again) about what it may be like for me, if Lilly became ill and might die?. What would both of us need to be able to part in peace? Most importantly, how could I help Lilly and reduce any physical or emotional distress she may feel?
If you are not a pet person, then you may think this all ludicrous and unnecessary. While I don’t know what life has in store for either of us, being a psychotherapist I know –
Thinking ahead about dying does go a long way in helping us being prepared for when things happen.
4. But how do you know, when an animal that is ill, starts to struggle with keeping alive?
Many owners will say they can ‘feel’ when their animal is suffering and in pain. Many agonise over whether to have their pet put to sleep or let nature take its course.
Dr Miller explains: “My recommendation for euthanasia is, when a pet is unable to perform the basic actions of eating, drinking, defecating or urinating or enjoying the company of their owners with dignity and in comfort. When one of these basic tenants is unable to be achieved, then I believe owners and vets should consider putting the animal to sleep.”
He also knows how agonising such a decision can be:
“It is never an easy decision. But my 20 years experience has taught me, that clients have a sense of guilt about euthanising their pet only when they feel they left it too long.
Well timed euthanasia should be a moment to celebrate the life of a beloved pet, but also to give them the final peace and comfort they deserve after giving us unconditional love for their entire lives.”
5. When life happens unexpectedly
A few weeks after exploring this topic with Dr Miller, our lives changed drastically. Shortly after being diagnosed with a local recurrence of my breast cancer in 2018, Lilly was sitting on her bottom on the floor in front of me, revealing a little red spot next to one of her nipples. I felt a tiny lump.
If my world was starting to collapse, then I tried really hard to look the other way.
And I have to confess that it had occurred to me to ignore, what I had seen, or at least to postpone doing something about it.
- Lilly was fit and happy.
- Perhaps I’ll just monitor it.
- See whether it goes away, or grows or whatever.
For that moment I did not want to face the possible reality of a serious illness, because it felt too much for me to carry.
But I also realised pretty quickly, that not doing anything would be a lot harder to carry, especially because of the consequences this might lead to. No. I could not deprive my dog of the medical attention and care I expected for myself.
I also discussed this with my local vet, at one of Dr Miller’s clinics, and we decided on a needle aspiration (FNA). Some days later the results of the cell sample confirmed that Lilly had mast cell cancer. This was on a Thursday. Lilly was operated on the following Monday, 2 weeks before my unilateral mastectomy was due.
Her cancer turned out to be grade 2, just as mine. There is a lot of synchronicity between Lilly and I, down to feeling unwell and ill. For now she is fine, as we caught things early.
6. Pet grief can happen, even when your pet is alive.
What I found during this intense episode was that the fear of Lilly dying was no longer as acute and horrific as it had been before. And I’d like to think, this was down to me having given grief a lot of thought before-hand. I do the same regards my own mortality and that of others’ in my life. Why would I not do the same for my pet?
I noticed I had started grieving and it did not feel alien or wrong. This was a sad time of uncertainty.
7. Preparing for pet grief is not morbid doom mongering.
If done appropriate and realistically, preparing for pet loss and pet grief can help identify choices and coping strategies that work for us. And then we can leave it at that, and get on with our lives.
Dr Miller agrees that offering support before, during and after the loss of a pet is important.
“There are a number of pet bereavement counselling services available to help owners come to terms with their grief at losing a pet. We also have an open door policy for owners and ask them to come and speak to us, if they are struggling with the loss of a beloved pet. And often the vet practice offers great support to both owner and patient during the final period of an animals’ life.”
8. Having a plan.
If and when it comes to it, then I have a preferred plan. If Lilly should have to be put to sleep (or euthanised), then I would like this to happen here at home, in our favourite place. And then, I would like both of us to be left alone.
I would like to be as close to her as possible. Because I know my dog. And I know what she needs to feel calm and reassured. A peaceful atmosphere would be essential for both of us – before, during and after her death. The same goes for us human beings.
But as Dr Miller points out, this is not always possible.
“You must physically put the patient to sleep, often in front of heartbroken owners, in sometimes challenging home environments. So it can be difficult to perform this harrowing duty peacefully, while the owners say goodbye.”
9. And what then?
Letting go of Lilly’s body will probably be the second biggest step for me. As I do not have a garden, I would like Lilly to be cremated, on her own and not with other pets. I would then like to have her ashes back. I have not thought beyond that. It will come to me, when I am ready.
According to Dr Miller: “It’s a real mix between home burial, routine cremation or private (where the owner receives the ashes of their beloved pet back for either scattering in their garden or favourite place or to be kept). I’d say about 50% of owners request the ashes back. I think the scattering or burial of ashes helps with closure.”
10. Grieving rituals to support you.
Whether pet grief or human grief, we need some grieving rituals or practices to help us through this time. Whether you are religious, or spiritual, or not. You too can think of ways to celebrate and mourn your pet in a way that is comforting.
I would probably leave Lilly’s things around our home for a while. I would continue with our daily routines for some time, and speak with her, while walking past her favourite riverside haunts and finding discarded tennis balls, she loves to play with in the park. I know for a time, my heart will be broken – badly.
11. When pets outlive us.
Since I have been re-diagnosed with cancer, I am also aware that Lilly might outlive me. While I have made adoption plans for her, I am worried of might happen, when I am not around. But then I have to stop myself from going down that path. What good comes of that? Nothing.
We all can drive ourselves around the bend.
And that’s a waste of good and important energy. For now, we both are well, alive and kicking. And long may it last! At some point we have to let go.
12. Good veterinary support matters.
Whatever happens to our pets, having a veterinary team we can trust, that is competent and compassionate to our animals and us, that is essential. But it is all very well to expect emotional support. What about the impact of pet euthanasia on those who perform it? Dr Miller explains:
“(In the UK) Veterinary Surgeons still have one of the highest rates of professional suicide rates across the world. And I believe that can, in part, be attributed to the fact, we do need to sometimes euthanise our patients…something that is not shared with our human counterparts. (In my pratices) we all support each other. I have a great team, who ensure that all members of staff are cared for after such procedures. Each case is different and affects us in different ways. My advice to staff is to always remember that we tried our best to help our patients and that we need to uphold the welfare of animals and sometimes that means allowing them to die peacefully and be out of pain.”
13. In summary:
- Pet grief is normal and necessary.
- Thinking about who we may deal with difficult situations can help us being prepared. And it can help reduce the shock, when illness or loss happen.
- Dealing with pet grief in a way that works for you and your pet is important.
- Reach out for support. don’t suffer in silence.
Doing our best for our animal companions and ourselves, is all that we can and should do – every single day, during the good times as well as the difficult times.
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Read more: Bereavement: What to expect. What to do.
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