The death of my dog
When a pet dog dies, it is a very difficult time for all the family. This is because of the strong bond that develops between people and animals as they interact with each other. In one survey, 99% of companion animal owners regard their pet as “part of the family”; while 20% assign their pet equal status with other family members.
The cause of death is an important factor. In the UK, it is estimated that 35% of dogs die from old age, 26% from chronic disease, 23% from acute disease and 4% as a result of road traffic accidents. So many of these are under veterinary care at the time, and your veterinarian is well placed to help you make difficult decisions and cope with the situation. This is much easier when the client-vet relationship has developed over many years because of the feeling of trust that has evolved.
Louis de Bernières once said:
“There is only one thing worse than losing the one you love the most,
and that is losing them without knowing why”.
Do not be afraid to ask your veterinarian such questions as it will help you come to terms with events.
People experience a range of feelings after the loss of their pet, and these may vary tremendously between individuals, even within the same family. In the case of chronic incurable illness, the process may start before death as you will have to consider quality of life issues.
There are a number of stages that have been described after the loss of a loved one. These are:
1. Denial, shock and numbness
3. Yearning, grief and sorrow
6. Grief and Mourning
Grief is defined as a personal response to loss, whereas mourning is the process by which a bereaved person deals with their grief. J.W. Worden (1983) described the stages of mourning as:
- Acceptance of the reality of the loss
- Working through the pain of grief
- Adjusting to life without the deceased
- Emotional relocating the deceased (“letting go”)
There are many factors that can affect this process, such as the strength of the bond that existed before the loss. This in turn may be influenced by the length of time you may have owned the dog, any shared experiences you may have had with him, links to other people (such as a dead partner or family member) or the age or past history of the dog. The circumstances of the loss are also important, as well as your particular life situation and any support you have received.
During the period of initial shock, you may experience feelings of disbelief and altered perception. You may be unable to hear or think properly, and may feel faint. These feelings may last minutes or even hours.
You may cry or sob.
Owners are often surprised and embarrassed by their own reactions to the death of their pet, saying things like “it was just a dog!”However these reactions are quite normal and there is a need to “let it out”. Incidentally, in a survey 33% of people took time off work following death of a pet.
For a period following the loss, it is common for people to relive the events and constantly question “if only I had done this….”. This is an attempt put the clock back until they finally accept reality, and has a significant impact on the target of any anger felt.
A feeling of anger is normal, and during this time you may over-react to trivial things. The target of the anger or blame may vary. It has been reported this may be to oneself (55%), the pet itself (6%), the veterinarian (19%), the person causing the death (18%) and God (24%). The relatively high incidence of self-blame explains why some people may sadly develop clinical depression. Eventually most people recover and are able to move on and stop grieving. This process may take days only, or several months.
This is a very delicate situation, and because it does not happen (in most countries) in the human field, we have no point of reference to help. You will certainly experience mixed emotions – positive ones in that you have helped to stop prolonged and unnecessary suffering; negative ones of anxiety and fear, and maybe feeling the decision has been forced on you making you the “executioner”.
Following the euthanasia, you may experience feelings of guilt (often self-directed if you made the decision) or anger directed at the veterinarian or other family member. With regard to the last point, it is important the decision involves the whole family.
The final resting place
Closure is essential for grief resolution, and so the choice of a final resting place for your pet is very important. The “ritualisation of death” is part of the mourning process and may take the form of burial at home, burial in pet cemetery, cremation, cremation with scattering of ashes in cemetery or individual cremation with return of ashes. Tributes and memorials (such as head-stones, caskets, tree-planting, donations, mementoes etc) may help to say “goodbye” and so actualise the loss.
Pet Loss Support
The brief summary given above illustrates this is a complex emotional event which may lead to devastating clinical problems in some people. Do not underestimate the psychological effects this might have on you or a family member, and be prepared to seek help and support is necessary.
Your veterinarian and the staff of the clinic will be sympathetic to all the mixed emotions you might be experiencing and will have developed a way of approaching this delicate issue in a way that reduces your stress to a minimum, and helps you through all the stages discussed above. Stress often is a result of a fear of the unknown, so do not be afraid to ask to have the process explained.
In some cases, additional support can be obtained from medical practitioners and social workers, or special groups such as the Samaritans.
A specific Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) offers emotional support and information for pet owners who may have experienced the loss of a pet. For more information contact: