Losing a Pet – How Do You Cope?


euthanasia, pet death, pet grieving


Hi everyone. Welcome back to Tales & Tails with Dr. Ferrell. We at Perimeter are grieving today. Recently one of our dear friends lost a special dog, Holly. Our hearts are with them today, as we know they’re mourning her loss. All of us here know the devastation of losing a beloved pet. We’ve lost our own dogs and cats and when the time came, we’ve sat with many of you as you said good-bye to your own four-legged babies. Even after 12 years of veterinary practice, I’m still frequently swept away by the impact our pets have on our lives and what holes they leave behind when they go. So how do we begin to adjust to their absence and process our grief?
Grieving is different for everybody and there isn’t a wrong or a right way to go about it. What’s important is finding what brings you comfort and what helps you to process how you’re feeling. Many people who have had to euthanize a pet experience feelings of guilt after making that decision. But rest assured, as difficult as the decision is, there is often nothing kinder we can do for a pet we love than to end their suffering. When I had to decide the right time to say good-bye to my dogs, Raven and Indigo, who both had cancer, I asked myself, “If they could speak to me, what would they say?” I often pose that same question to clients struggling with end-of-life decisions. How would your pet describe their quality of life? Would they tell you they enjoy their days? Would they say their body is terribly tired of fighting? If they could make the choice, what would it be? When I looked at Raven and Indigo during their final days, I felt like I could read their eyes. Like they were saying they loved me and they knew how much I loved them, but it was time to let go. Considering the decision from their perspective helped me to say good-bye knowing it was time for them to have some peace.

What about those of you who have lost a pet unexpectedly? If you’ve lost a pet to trauma, an unknown illness, accident or other unexpected events, you know the lack of emotional preparation greatly exacerbates your sense of grief. Not having the chance to say good-bye or to gather your thoughts and feelings and to do so in a comforting environment can leave you feeling not only a great sense of loss, but also feelings of disorientation. People who lose pets with no warning are often unprepared to process feelings of shock and grief and in these cases too, guilt may set in. We often ask ourselves all those “what if” questions? What if I had done something different? What if I had stayed home that day? What if I had fed a different diet or used a different preventative? What if, what if, what if. We can drive ourselves crazy during an already extraordinarily difficult time. Have a conversation about the circumstances of your pet’s death with your veterinarian. They may be able to provide some understanding of the situation which can help with closure and grief processing.

As I said before, different people process grief differently than others and there isn’t a wrong or right way to do it. I lost a cat unexpectedly one morning several years ago and that was definitely hard. I didn’t see it coming at all and it was devastating. For me, reaching out to my mom helped immensely. She was able to come over and help me make decisions for moving forward, which is difficult to do when you’re processing a shock. Reaching out to the people who care about you, especially if they knew your pet, can help you see things more calmly. Having someone to aid you in decisions, reminisce about your pet, and just be supportive of your grief can be incredibly soothing.

When I had to say good-bye to my dogs Raven and Indigo almost five years ago, I was blessed to have my amazing friend and business partner, Dr. Tabatha Regehr, by my side. My parents and brother had also come to support me and all of us hugged the dogs and told them how much we loved them as they slipped away. I chose to have them cremated and their ashes returned to me. I have them each in a whimsical metal dog urn, Raven’s with angel wings and Indigo’s with his funny long tail. That’s what felt best to me. But for some people, it feels more right to say a final good-bye and leave their pets with us for the rest of their care. And that’s ok too. Every pet owner has to consider what will best allow them to find closure. What will best let you process the pain of saying good-bye? Have a discussion with your veterinarian about all your options and what might be right for you, your pet, and your family.

Another question I often get asked is, when is the right time to get another pet? Again, that answer is different for everyone. I have many clients who adopted new pets as their first ones aged, so they had a comforting fuzzy presence when they had to say good-bye. I have clients and friends who always adopt the same breed because they have such wonderful memories of their previous pets. I have clients and family members who waited months and even years to adopt a new pet. For me, it was several months before I considered another dog after I lost Raven and Indigo at nearly the same time. And when the quiet house eventually demanded four more paws, I knew I wanted a completely different dog so I didn’t expect my new addition to fill Raven and Indigo’s paw prints. So I went from two medium-large dogs to a 12 pound munchkin. And it’s been a perfect fit. But for other people I know, the above scenarios worked better and you have to think about what feels best for you.

There are tons of resources out there for people grieving the loss of a pet. Always start by talking to your veterinarian, whether you’re preparing to say good-bye or have suffered an unexpected pet death. They can provide you information to aid you through the grieving process. We understand what you’re going through and will always do everything in our power to help.

ASPCA’s Pet Loss Information
Our cremation services: Wayside Waifs
Where our donations in your pet’s name go: K-State Pet Tribute


(modified reprint from 07/0913)

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