Loss of a pet

Loss of a Pet
The death of a companion animal can be hard on everyone

People grieve over the death of a companion animal. This reaction is normal. Our feelings toward companion animals 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 animal guardian a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment: "It's only a dog (cat). You can always get another one." Such a reaction would be heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member, and it is generally recognized that a person who has experienced such a loss needs the support of friends and relatives.

Veterinarians realize that their final obligation to their animal patients also involves dealing with the animal guardians' grief. This does not mean that veterinarians are trained as psychologists and psychiatrists. It does mean that the veterinary doctor, who knows you and your companion animal, also understands your natural feeling of loss---and is able to offer support. (If he or she seems distant, bear in mind that the death of a companion animal is stressful even to professionals. Detachment is one way of coping.)

How we feel - When a person dies, family friends and relatives pay their respects at the family home or funeral parlor. There is a funeral at which sorrow and tears are accepted, even expected. Afterwards, during a mourning period, friends and relatives assist and comfort grieving family members until their grief subsides and new routines develop. When an animal dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief. To many, a funeral for the family dog, cat or other animal 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 affects our emotions, and all the more so if the animal was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief we feel.

The first stage: Denial - Denial is the initial response of many guardians when confronted with a companion animal's terminal condition or sudden death. This rejection seems to be the mind's buffer against a 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 companion animal are less likely to bargain. Still, the hope that he or she 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 ... never ...."

The third stage: Anger - Recognizing anger in the grief process is seldom a problem; dealing with 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, animal guardians 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 ...," or "If only I had taken Kitty to the veterinarian a week ago ...." Whether true or false, such recriminations and fears do little to relieve 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 animal is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only an emptiness remains. It is now that the support of family and friends is most important--and, sadly, most difficult to find. A lack of support prolongs the grief stage. Therefore, the guardian may want to seek some help from the animal's veterinarian or from a professional grief counselor. It is normal, and should be acceptable, to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful, too, to recognize that other animal guardians have experienced similar strong feelings and that you are not alone in this feeling of grief.

The final stage: Resolution - All things come to an end--even grieving. As time passes, the distress dissolves as the animal guardian remembers the good times, not the animal's passing. And, more often than not, the answer lies in a new companion animal to fulfill the need for such companionship in the household.

The proper good-bye - At some point, you are going to have to make final arrangements for your companion animal. Most veterinarians can either handle matters themselves or explain the choices available. There are several options:

  • Cemetery burial. It is known that people have been burying their companion animals 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 groundskeeping.

Standards established by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries might help guide your choice. A list of the standards is available for a fee by writing to I. A. P. C., P. O. Box 1346, South Bend, Indiana 46624 or by calling the association director at (219) 277-1115.

The costs for cemetery burial vary, from around $200 for a simple burial to thousands of dollars for elaborate services. Many pet cemeteries will cooperate with veterinary clinics, sending a representative to handle details.

  • Communal burial. This less costly option is offered by many pet cemeteries and private humane organizations. Your companion animal's dignity is in no way affected by burial with other animals. Communal burial is a common choice.
  • Communal cremation. In areas where land is expensive, communal cremation is a sensible alternative. Some veterinary clinics even have their own crematories, as do many pet cemeteries and humane organizations. The fee is relatively modest, often less than $100.
  • Individual cremation. Your veterinarian probably can arrange for individual cremation and advise you on environmental concerns over disposal of ashes. This option is more costly than communal cremation, with fees commonly ranging from $75 to $250.
  • Home burial. It is not uncommon for guardians to bury their companion animals somewhere 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 only. A tight-fitting wooden box will help safeguard the animal's remains.

Memorial - One way to soften the impact of your companion animal'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 animals. Many veterinary schools accept scholarship funds in the name of the animal or donor.

Euthanasia - No decision is more difficult than authorizing the euthanasia of a beloved companion animal. Yet, too often, this is the right choice for your animal. Certainly, the humane procedures offered at modern veterinary clinics have a clear advantage over an illness that prolongs the suffering of both animal and animal guardian. You can discuss euthanasia frankly with your veterinarian.

Many guardians choose to spend the final moments with their companion animals. If so, the veterinarian might prefer to prepare the animal briefly in another 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. He will go quietly to sleep as body functions stop.

Other animal guardians choose not to witness the procedure. You might consider a last "good-bye" after the procedure, however, to complete your physical separation and provide closure.

(Some of the above information was reprinted with permission from ALPO Petfoods, Inc. from their brochure "Death of the Family Pet - Losing a Family Friend" - 1992.)

"Like all vets I hated doing this, painless though it was, but to me there has always been a comfort in the knowledge that the last thing these helpless animals knew was the sound of a friendly voice and the touch of a gentle hand."

James Herriot, "All Things Wise and Wonderful,"
Copyright 1977, St. Martin's Press, New York

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