Grief and Loss
Death of the Family Pet
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 their relationship: the human-companion animal bond.
Please feel free to print this document for future reference.
When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Society does not offer a grieving pet 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, and it is generally recognized that a person who has experienced such a loss 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 as psychologists and psychiatrists. It does mean that the veterinary doctor, who knows you and your pet, also understands your natural feeling of loss-and is able to offer support. (If your veterinarian seems distant, bear in mind that the death of a pet is stressful even to professionals. Detachment is one way of coping.)
Euthanasia: The Difficult Choice
For a pet-lover, no decision is more difficult than authorizing euthanasia. Yet, too often, this is the right choice for your pet. Certainly, the 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 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. The pet simply goes quietly to sleep as body functions stop. Other pet owners choose not to witness the procedure.
You might consider a last 'good-bye' after the procedure, however, to complete your physical separation. Many pet cemeteries provide for after care of the pet's remains for your viewing prior to cremation or burial.
"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.
The 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 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 pet are less likely to bargain. Still, the hope that a pet might recover can foster reactions like, "If Sam 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, 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 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. 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 pet owner may want to seek some help from their veterinarian, pet cemeterian, or from a professional counselor.
It is normal, and should be acceptable, to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful, too, to recognize that other pet 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 IAPC member pet cemeteries are listed in the yellow pages, or your veterinarian can handle disposition matters or explain the choices available through that facility. There are several options:
People have been burying their 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 groundskeeping.
Standards established by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries might help guide your choice. A list of standards and other information is available from this organization at 1 518 594 3000 8 AM to 5 PM EST. The costs for cemetery burial vary, depending on services requested. Many pet cemeteries will cooperate with veterinary clinics, sending a representative to handle the details.
This less costly option is offered by many pet cemeteries. Your pet's dignity is in no way affected by burial with other animals. Communal burial is a common choice.
In areas where land is expensive, communal cremation is a sensible alternative. Many pet cemeteries have their own crematoriums. Many pets are cremated during the same cycle, your pet's dignity is in no way affected by cremation with other animals. This is the least expensive method of disposition.
Individual or Private Cremation
Individual/Private cremation of your pet will allow you to take time to select a F I N A L disposition for you pet's cremains. Cremains may be buried, stored in a columbarium at a pet cemetery, scattered in a favorite spot, or kept at home in a decorative urn. These options are more costly than communal cremation.
It is not uncommon for pet owners to bury their pets 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. A non bio-degradgable or self vaulting container will help safeguard your pet's remains.
One way to soften the impact of your pet's loss is to make a donation to a pet cemetery in your pet's memory. If the final disposition of your pet's loss was out of your control there are ways to still memorialize it's memory. A memorial plaque combined with a landscape feature such as: flowering trees, statuary or benches will help finalize the grieving process and provide a place for you and your family to visit from time to time.
The Final Stage: Resolution
All things 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 fill the need for a pet in the household.
How We Feel
When a pet dies, there is no set ritual to formalize the grief. When services are arranged through a pet cemetery, requests such as a short viewing period for the family and friends, photos and a brief eulogy are not uncommon. Still, the loss of a pet affects our emotions, and all the more so if the pet 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.
When a pet dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief. To many, a funeral for the family 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, and all the more so if the pet 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.
If the Burden's Too Heavy
Veterinary teaching institutions, in studying the human-companion animal bond, are increasing their efforts to help pet owners cope with lingering grief. Some of the teaching institutions 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,
The University of Pennsylvania,School of Veterinary Medicine,
University of Minnesota,
c/o Jeannine Moga
College of Veterinary Medicine,
St. Paul, Minnesota,
Colorado State University,
College of Veterinary Medicine,
Fort Collins, Colorado,
Washington State University,
College of Veterinary Medicine,
509-335-5704 or 866-266-8635
University of Florida,
College of Veterinary Medicine,
Pet Loss Support Hotline,
352-294-4430, extension 5268
Tues.-Friday: Leave message/they will return calls
Between 11:00am to 4:00pm
. . . Losing a Family Friend has been adapted by the ALPO Veterinary Advisory Panel from the monograph Companion Animal Loss ~ Pet Owner Grief by Marc A. Rosenberg, VMD, published in 1986 by the ALPO Pet Center (Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 85-73830).
Permission is granted to reproduce sections of this perspective, Death of the Family Pet Losing a Family. Please credit ALPO Petfoods upon publication.