When a person you love dies, it's natural to feel sorrow, express grief, and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort.
Unfortunately, many consider grieving the loss of "just a pet" inappropriate which couldn't be further from the truth.
People love their pets and consider them members of their family; they celebrate their pets' birthdays, confide in their animals, and carry pictures of them in their wallets.
So, when a beloved pet dies, it's not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of sorrow.
What Is the Grief Process?
The grief process is as individual as the person, lasting days for one person or years for another. The process typically begins with denial, which offers protection until individuals can recognize their loss.
While grief is a personal experience, you need not face loss alone. Many forms of support are available including pet bereavement counseling services, pet-loss support hotlines, local or online bereavement groups, books, videos, and magazine articles.
What Can I Do for My Child?
The loss of a pet may be a child's first experience with death. The child may blame himself, his parents, or the veterinarian for not saving the pet.
He may also feel guilty, depressed, and frightened that others he loves may be taken away from him.
Trying to protect your child by saying the pet ran away could cause the child to expect the pet's return and feel betrayed after discovering the truth. Expressing your own grief may reassure your child that sadness is okay and help him work through his feelings.
Five Ways to Remember Your Pet
1. Hold a memorial service
2. Find a special place for your pet's ashes
3. Create a living memorial
4. Make a scrapbook
5. Write down your feelings
Moira Allen has developed a great brochure that may help you or someone you love. Please click here to download the brochure.
Whether to Euthanize Your Pet and When
For pet owners who do not want their terminally ill pet to suffer, euthanasia remains a viable option. Making that decision though is extremely difficult.
It is often helpful to discuss the process of euthanasia with your veterinarian well in advance of its occurrence.
How will I know when it is time?
Knowing when euthanasia should be considered depends on your pet's health as well as your own. It is often helpful to look at your pet's quality of life. Does your pet still enjoy eating and other simple pleasures? Is your pet able to respond to you in a normal way? Is your pet experiencing more pain than pleasure?
You will be able to make a better decision and feel more comfortable about it if you receive as much information as possible regarding your pet's condition. If your pet is sick, ask about the treatment options, possible outcomes, and chances of recovery. In most instances, you will not need to make an immediate decision so take time to think about what you should do. Discuss the options with all other family members, including any children. Although it is a natural tendency to question our decisions afterward, if you know you made an informed choice, it will reduce the 'what ifs' you may tend to ask.
You need to consider what is best for your pet but also what is best for you and your family. Are you physically able to manage your pet's care? Do you feel ready to say good-bye or do you need more time? What will make it possible for you to feel comfortable regarding the decision?
What happens during euthanasia?
Euthanasia is a peaceful and virtually pain-free process but it is important to understand what will occur and how your pet's body may react. Knowing these things may make the process less traumatic for everyone involved.
To perform the euthanasia, the veterinarian will insert a catheter or needle into a vein of your pet's front or back leg. If your pet has been very sick or has had many intravenous injections, it may take a little time to find the best location.
Some veterinarians may then inject a drug into the vein to place your pet in a state of relaxation. The actual drug used to perform the euthanasia is a concentrated solution of pentobarbital which causes the pet's heart to stop beating. In most cases, it works very rapidly (5 seconds) but in some instances, the time between the injection and the death of the pet may be slightly longer. This is especially true if the pet has poor circulation.
In some instances, the pet's muscles may relax or contract after the pet has died. This can be very disconcerting if you are not aware of this possibility ahead of time. The muscles of the urinary bladder and the anus may relax and your pet may void urine and stool. Involuntary contractions of muscles may result in the pet appearing to gasp or move a leg. Again, remember your pet is not aware of these things happening since they happen after death. In almost all cases, the pet's eyes will not close upon death.
Knowing what happens during euthanasia may help you and other family members decide if they want to be present.
Who should be present during euthanasia?
Many people wish to be present during their pet's euthanasia to say good-bye, to prevent feeling guilty for 'abandoning' their pet, and to know what the death was like so they will not wonder about it in the future. Each individual, however, will need to decide for him or herself whether they want to be there during the procedure. Sometimes family or friends may encourage you one way or another but ultimately it is your decision and you need to do what is best for you.
You are NOT abandoning your pet if you decide not to be present during the euthanasia. Your pet has experienced your love throughout his life and if he could talk, he would no doubt say he understands. Your pet will not be alone; the veterinarian and staff will be there talking to and petting him during the procedure.
People say good-bye to their pet in many ways and at different times during euthanasia. You may:
Say good-bye before your pet enters the exam room.
Accompany your pet into the room, say good-bye prior to the euthanasia, and then leave before it is performed.
Say good-bye in the exam room prior to the euthanasia, leave, and then return to the exam room afterward to say your final good-bye.
Be present at the euthanasia and say good-bye during the procedure.
Again, in many cases, the individual family members may wish to have some time alone with the pet before and/or after the euthanasia to say their personal good-byes.
Final Care of Your Pet's Body
Facing the death of your pet is sad and stressful; having to decide what to do with the body often adds to the anxiety. For this reason, it's best to explore options available for the final care of your pet's body before his death. If your pet dies before you can make arrangements, most veterinary hospitals can keep your pet's body for a few days while you consider the options. As emotionally draining as the decision can be, it helps to know that there are several alternatives depending on practical, legal, financial, emotional, and spiritual considerations.
Like many caregivers, you may prefer to leave the decision to your veterinarian or animal shelter. Or, you may select home burial, burial at a pet cemetery, or cremation. The following information will help you better understand what's available so that you can make the decision that's best for you.
Can I Bury My Pet in a Cemetery?
You can bury your pet in a cemetery created specifically for beloved pets. Pet cemeteries offer a wide range of burial and cremation choices to fit your needs; they perform the duties and services of both a funeral home and cemetery. To locate one, look in the Yellow Pages under "Pet Cemeteries & Crematories." Veterinary clinics and humane societies may also operate pet cemeteries and crematories.
How Do Cemeteries Bury Pets?
Pets can be buried either in a private plot or in a communal plot. In a private burial, a pet's remains are separately prepared and placed in an individual grave site, crypt, or mausoleum. In a common or communal burial, a pet is buried in the same plot with other deceased pets. Cemeteries that do not provide individual gravestones for pets buried in a communal plot often provide a memorial wall affixed with plaques honoring those pets.
What Does Cremation Entail?
Cremation has become a popular and practical option for handling the bodies of deceased pets. Cremated remains, called "cremains," resemble sand-like particles or small pebbles with larger chips of bone. These may be placed in a small urn which you can keep close by and take with you if you move. Cremains can also be buried or scattered in a special section of land set aside by a cemetery. Depending on local government regulations, you can also scatter or bury cremains in a meaningful place, perhaps under a tree planted to memorialize your pet.
Before selecting an animal crematory, find out the cremation procedures. Many animal crematories do mass cremations and then divide the ashes. What this means is that if you don't request an individual cremation, you may receive the cremains of other pets in addition to those of your own.
Is Home Burial an Option?
Check with your city or county government to see whether burying pets in yards is legal in your area. If you choose to bury your pet at home, put the body in a heavy-duty plastic bag, encase it in a secure receptacle such as a wood or metal box, and bury it at least three feet deep. This helps prevent other animals from being attracted by the scent and digging at the grave site. Home burials allow caregivers to be near their pet's remains but this option may not be suitable if you move frequently.
Regardless of which method you ultimately select, your pet will always be close to your heart.