Grief is the price we pay for love
Our pets are members of our family and it is absolutely normal for us to grieve when we lose them. When we lose a pet, we go through the same stages of grief that we go through when we lose any member of the family. We may cope very well, and come to terms with our loss quickly and without problems, or we may experience an acute sense of loss and guilt, and sometimes anger, that will remain with us for a long time. Occasionally we may need help from others to come to terms with these feelings and to cope with life without our friend.
We have our pets to love and to care for, and the fact that our animals are dependent on us makes us feel their loss deeply, especially if we have had to make decisions about their medical care towards the end. Euthanasia is available to us to end suffering in our pets, but inevitably may cause feelings of guilt after the decision has been taken.
How can we ease this burden on ourselves and feel happier that our decisions are the right ones for our pets?
The first thing is to think about the issues in advance, so that we are prepared for the loss of our pets. Here at the surgery, we try to discuss these issues openly and without embarrassment (hence this handout). We rarely see animals presented to us for trivial reasons, but much more commonly see owners who have delayed seeking help because they ‘fear the worst’. Very often, these fears are unfounded and could have been laid to rest with a consultation with one of our veterinary surgeons. Obviously, the sooner we see a patient with a serious problem, the better chance we have of putting things right. Although euthanasia is available to us, it is never used without a full discussion and your consent.
The final decision will always be left to you, the owner, although we will give our advice as to the best course of action for the patient. Please do not be afraid to seek our help and advice. We are able to do much these days to help relieve pain and suffering; and if a pet does have an incurable illness, euthanasia may not be our only option. A pet’s quality of life is the most important factor, whatever their long-term outlook, and your observations and knowledge of your own pet generally mean that you are a good judge of this. Decisions usually do not have to be made on the spot – if euthanasia is an option, it is often desirable to discuss the decision with the whole family, including the children.
What happens when a pet has to be put to sleep?
Once the decision has been made that euthanasia is the kindest thing to do, there are still several things to think about. Do you want to stay with your pet? This is entirely personal and up to you. Do not, however, feel guilty if you prefer to remember your pet the way they were – you must make the decision that feels right for you. If children want to stay, let them – they appreciate not being shut out at this time.
Euthanasia may be carried out at the surgery or at home – whichever you prefer. Remember that some dogs may be more relaxed in the consulting room than at home where they may be unhappy about strangers coming in and handling them.
Please don’t worry about breaking down and being upset, and don’t let this stop you being with your friend at the end. We are all pet owners and have experienced the loss of a pet. We understand how you feel and will give you the time to cope with this.
Do have a friend or relative with you if you feel this would help. If you are making an appointment or arriving for euthanasia – please tell the receptionist. We always try to see you away from our busy times, and you do not have to wait in reception with your pet – we will offer you another room if we can.
How is euthanasia carried out?
We inject a concentrated anaesthetic drug into a vein which produces unconsciousness and death follows in just a few seconds. The patient goes to sleep peacefully and quickly. If a patient is anxious or dislikes being handled, we may give a relaxing sedative first.
What happens afterwards?
We try to give all our owners some quiet time with their pet before and after euthanasia. If you are distressed, please do not drive straight away – we have a room where you can sit quietly with a cup of tea.
Please think about what you would like to happen to your pet after death, before the time comes. It is much better to have discussed this with the family rather than have to make decisions when you are already upset.
There are several options: You may bury your pet in your garden or have your pet cremated. Buried pets must be placed more than 3 feet deep and not near a water course. If your pet is cremated, ashes are not returned unless individual cremation with return of ashes is specifically requested. In the latter case, ashes can be returned in a choice of caskets or scatter box, and an extra fee is payable. You will be asked which option you prefer at the time. All pets are kept in the surgery until they are taken to CPC in Cambridge for cremation. You may wish to have a small memorial at home, visit www.cpccares.com for details. Think also, whether you would like to keep the collar and lead, or bury or send it with your pet.
We offer all bereaved owners information about the crematorium, and can also lend a useful book about pet bereavement. This has a wealth of information and help about how you may feel at this time, and how to cope. If you would like to borrow this information ahead of time, just ask. We have a book of remembrance at the surgery in which you may wish to place a tribute to your pet. Please come along to the surgery and we will be happy for you to browse through the book and place your own entry. The book is always available in reception for your use. The Blue Cross provide information on coping with the loss of a pet including a tribute wall where you are able to post your own personal message and pictures. Visit www.bluecross.org.uk and follow the ‘Coping with Pet Loss’ link to create a memorial.
What can I say to a friend whose pet is terminally ill or has died?
Treat the friend just as you would if the pet was any other member of the family. Usually an owner in this situation will need support, a sympathetic listener and reassurance that he/she has done the right thing. Never suggest getting another pet at this time, as this demeans the person’s relationship with the first pet, by suggesting that the pet is completely replaceable. Of course, if the owner is thinking about acquiring another pet, this may well be a good decision, but this will not be a replacement for the first animal.
We often see owners who have been advised by relatives or friends that they are being cruel by keeping their pet alive, or that they should call it a day and replace a sick or frequently ill pet with a new one. Often this is done with the best intentions as the owner will be worrying about the pet and may be able to think of nothing else. Again, however, this kind of advice serves to belittle the relationship the owner has with the pet, and may lead to more unhappiness and greater guilt feelings when the pet dies. It is much better to listen, help with and accompany the owner on visits to the vet where possible, and be sympathetic. Always let the owners make their mind up in their own time.
What do we tell the children?
Remember that our children are often closer to our pets than we are. Tell them the truth and involve them in any decisions about treatment. If the pet dies, it is also important to tell them straight away, and let them join you in the grieving process, however young they are. It is often helpful for them (and you) to see and touch the pet after death. Let them make their own personal tributes to the pet. Avoid the temptation to tell ‘white lies’ to explain the loss of a friend – children often cope with death better than we expect, and they need to say goodbye. Try to use the word euthanasia or died rather than the common phrase ‘put to sleep’ to avoid confusion. Some children worry about going to sleep and not waking up after these discussions.
Further information and advice
All our Vets and Veterinary Health Advisors are very happy to discuss any of these issues with you and help you make decisions. They are available for a chat at the surgery during normal hours.
We also keep some small books which we are happy for you to borrow should you need more detailed advice and information about pet bereavement.
We recommend visiting the Ralph site for support to pet owners around the loss of a beloved companion at www.theralphsite.com.
The Blue Cross also run a bereavement support service and offer information at www.bluecross.org.uk.