I was recently speaking with a colleague about her beloved dog that she had had to have put to sleep after he suddenly took ill with a heart-related condition. As a vet, euthanising animals is (unsurprisingly) one of the toughest parts of our job. In most cases the pet is obviously suffering and will not get better, so you know you are doing the kindest thing, but what used to break my heart was the devastation caused to the owner. Everybody reacts differently to the loss of a pet, but there are some emotions that seem to affect many people. Hopefully this post will let you know that if you have lost a pet, or are in the process of making the decision, it is not unusual to feel a huge sense of grief. Your pet is not “just an animal” – they are a beloved part of the family, and you should know that it is natural and normal to feel strong emotions. The following are some of the emotions that I would commonly see in practice when owners faced this heart-wrenching situation:
1. Guilt. As pet owners, it is our responsibility to make sure our pets have the best quality of life we can give them. This means feeding them a good quality diet, using regular preventative care such as flea and worming treatments and vaccinations, and keeping them active and mentally stimulated. Importantly, this also means not letting them suffer. However, the most common comment I hear from people who have made the decision to have their pet euthanased is: “But what if I could have done more for him?” The owner feels a sense of guilt, because they have made the ultimate choice for the animal. Even though they made that choice after thinking on it, agonising over it, getting all of the facts and then coming to the understanding that it was the kindest choice for their animal, because the animal cannot speak, the owner has to shoulder the responsibility. Sometimes there can be a lack of full understanding of the condition that the animal is suffering from so it is important to seek advice from your vet, and if you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Sometimes vets forget that the person they are speaking too hasn’t studied anatomy and physiology! The fact is, we can never know what will happen in the future, but if we have good enough reason to think that the pet will continue to get worse, that no more can be done for the animal (and whether that is down to financial constraints or no medical option, it boils down to the same thing), then we cannot let the animal suffer.
2. Anger/sense of blame When my cat was hit by a car and I had to have her euthanased, I was furious at the unknown driver who had hit her. She was wearing a reflective collar so I decided that the culprit must have seen her. Of course I never knew who it was or whether they had seen her or not but it didn’t stop me being angry. Unfortunately as vets we often get the anger and blame after an unexpected accident or sudden illness directed at us. Although we understand that owners are upset, it doesn’t make it any easier when all we want to do is help the pet and relieve their suffering. Although it is natural to feel anger and want to blame someone for the loss of your pet, ultimately it will not make you feel any better and will certainly not make the people that you direct your anger at feel any better. In this case it is worthwhile going for a long walk or talking to someone that is not involved in order to have a sympathetic ear.
3. Loneliness/sense of loss With the death of a pet, a hole is left. For many people, their pets are their family, and in some cases they are their only companion in day to day life. In this case, it is more than leaving a pet-shaped hole in the owner’s life – the loss of the pet means that the owner is left alone. Pet bereavement support lines such as The Blue Cross or an online group such as The Ralph Site can be invaluable at helping people talk through the loss of a pet, but people feeling alone could also try and connect with people in other ways such as joining a club, becoming involved in community actions, or taking an adult education class.
4. Shock An unexpected accident or illness in your pet when it comes out of the blue can leave a real feeling of shock, or more accurately an “acute stress reaction”. This can manifest as a very physical response, including physiological stress responses such as increased heart rate and respiration, and feelings of numbness, disassociation and anxiety. These should be relatively short term responses and if they are still being experienced after a couple of days you should see your GP.
5. Uncertainty By this I mean an uncertainty over the feelings that you are experiencing. For many people the loss of a pet can hit as hard as the loss of a close relative, and this can be surprising. Sometimes the grief is even more intense over the loss of a pet than the loss of a close relative, for example the loss of a grandparent who had been sick for a time can be far less intense than the loss of a close pet. This can be confusing and upsetting if you would expect to grieve more over a human than an animal. It is important to allow these feelings run their course though, and accept that the loss of a pet is substantial and distressing.
No matter how painful the decision is to have your pet euthanased, remember that over time the feelings will become blunter and hurt less. It is important to let the memories of all those little moments in your pets’ lives that gave you joy comfort you, and to remember that you gave them a loving home with the best life possible. Speak about your pet to friends and family, look at photos of him or her, write about your pet, and their memory will be kept alive. Have you lost a beloved pet? What did you do to cope?
Tell us about him or her in the comments below.
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