How to Deal With the Death of a Pet
How to grieve for a pet
A bond with a pet is a special thing, full of love and affection. We give our pets a home and strive to keep them happy and healthy. In return, they give us unconditional love, companionship, and hours of entertainment. The death of a pet is the sad and inevitable conclusion of this special relationship. When you are faced with the loss of your furry friend, remember you are not alone. Here is one dog's story, along with some suggestions to help you cope with the death of your own animal companion.
Turley was my doggie soul mate, I always said.
I had no immediate plans to get a dog when Turley first came into my life. My brother called me one day to tell me that he came home to find his male hunting dog had scaled two six-foot chain link fences to get to his young female Labrador retriever the first time she went into heat (a testament to the importance of spaying and neutering your pets, which my brother subsequently did). The Lab was now pregnant. My brother wanted me to take one of the puppies, and I agreed.
Several weeks later, my husband and I visited eight newborn puppies at my brother's house. I set all of them, each no bigger than my fist, on my lap. While most of them squirmed around, one seemed to cuddle in as close to me as she could get. She had a distinctive mark – one white toe on a back paw – so I knew I'd be able to tell her apart from the rest of her dark brown siblings the next time I visited. And just like that, I had picked out my new dog.
We visited Turley and her siblings every week until she was old enough to go home with us. She quickly grew into a 90-pound bundle of joy and energy. We took her everywhere with us – camping, hiking, on canoe trips. She especially loved to swim and play fetch with her football.
She was smart, too. We suspected Turley's IQ was higher than the average kindergartener. She understood English so well that we took to spelling certain words around her, like e-a-t and w-a-l-k, until she figured out what the spellings meant. She knew all of her toys by name and would bring them to us one by one when we asked for them. She unwrapped her own Christmas presents. I taught her how to sing the Iowa Fight Song, to the delight of all my Hawkeye friends.
Turley had lots of friends – both of the human and furry varieties. People loved her. We never worried about leaving her when we travelled because we had so many friends and family members who wanted to watch her while we were gone. Animals loved her, too, and she had regular play dates with her many doggie friends.
We brought home a tiny kitten when Turley was a year old and she and Moe (the cat) became the best of friends and playmates. We added a second dog, Lucy, when Turley was 8, and Turley went through her second puppyhood playing with her new little sister.
But all dog stories have a sad ending, and this one is no exception.
Turley had a cancerous tumor removed from her front leg in October 2009. Knowing a local recurrence was likely, we watched the spot carefully, but saw no more signs of cancer. Our vet was hopeful she was cured. Then, on February 15, 2011, we returned from vacation to find Turley with labored breathing. Medical tests showed the cancer had returned and spread to her lungs. A procedure to drain the fluid around the lungs allowed Turley to breathe easier, but as the vet gently explained, she had only a few days left to live.
The medical procedure cost around $300, but we thought it was worth it to have an opportunity to say goodbye, especially since we had just returned from vacation and hadn't seen our dogs for a week. Turley had a couple of good days following the procedure, giving us hope that perhaps the vet's prognosis was wrong. But by Saturday, February 19, she again was having great difficulty breathing. We knew the time had come.
Turley was excited to have one last trip in the car and to see her friends at the pet hospital. But she was tired and ready to go. My husband and I were with her to the end.
Coping with the loss of a pet
Pets bring so much joy to our lives. That joy is bittersweet, however. Because the lifespan of a dog or cat is so much shorter than a human's, we inevitably will be faced with the day when we have to say goodbye to a pet before we are ready. It's hard to say goodbye, but these tips may help bring comfort in your time of loss.
1. Let it be a good day
When you know the end is near for your pet, you are able to plan ahead. Spare your pet needless suffering when it no longer has any quality of life. When your cat or dog is no longer eating and shows no enjoyment in being petted, it's letting you know that it's time to go.
"Let it be a good day," the vet said when talking to us about Turley's end-of-life care. Take some time off work and spend it with your pet. If your dog enjoys a car ride, go for one last outing. One family of five took their terminally-ill dog for a trip to the McDonald's drive-through (the dog loved hamburgers) and a visit to the park before a final stop at the vet's office.
Ask if your vet will come to your house so your pet can spend its final moments in familiar surroundings with its loved ones nearby. Many vets will agree to perform this service for long-time clients. One couple I know arranged to have the vet come to their home when their college-age children were home for break. The whole family was together with the dog in her favorite spot while the vet performed euthanasia.
Plan to be with your pet at the end. It is difficult to observe the process, for sure, but one final gift you can give your friend is your comfort and support as it takes its final breaths.
2. Decide how to handle the remains
You may decide to leave your pet's remains for the vet to dispose of in a humane manner. Most likely, they will be cremated with other pet remains.
For an extra fee, you can have your pet cremated privately and the ashes returned to you to be maintained in an urn, buried or scattered as you see fit. Turley's ashes came back to us in a nice wooden box that sat on the mantle of our fireplace until the ground thawed in the spring. We then buried the box and ashes in a beautiful garden spot in the backyard.
If you don't want to pay for cremation, you may decide to retain and bury the body yourself. This is a good option for small animals, but becomes less feasible the larger your pet. Make sure to check for underground power lines and other utilities before digging and to bury the body deep enough so other animals will not dig it up. Also check to make sure you are complying with any local ordinances and zoning regulations that may impact a pet burial in your chosen spot.
A more expensive option is to bury your pet in a designated pet cemetery. A pet's burial can be as elaborate as you like (and are willing to pay for), with options for caskets, grave markers and other memorials.
3. Let yourself grieve
When a pet dies, the grief you feel is real. Accept that you are grieving and allow yourself time to mourn. You may feel silly feeling bad when others your know are mourning their spouses, parents or children, or are facing their own serious illness. Stop right there. You have faced a real loss, too, and anyone who has been through a pet's death – and that's a lot of us – know how you feel. If people are dismissive of your grief, those are not the people to be talking to at this time. Instead, seek out other pet owners who understand what you're going through and who will validate your feelings.
You may feel worse about losing your pet than you did when your grandmother or favorite uncle passed. That's normal, too. Your pet was a part of your daily life, and you will feel your furry companion's absence more keenly than that of a beloved relative you saw less frequently. Don't let guilty feelings creep in to make you feel even worse.
There will be good days and bad ones. One of the worst moments for me was the day I had to pick up Turley's ashes from the animal hospital. I sat in the parking lot for a long time telling myself I would not cry, and then burst into tears as soon as the receptionist greeted me with a pleasant, "What can I do for you?" Soon she and another woman working at the front desk were crying right along with me, telling me that's why they keep a box of tissues on the front counter. On those bad days, take comfort in the empathy of others.
Remember the grieving process takes time. "Firsts" are especially hard, the first time you come home from work and your pet is not there to greet you at the door, the first Christmas or birthday, the first anniversary of your pet's death. If you find yourself unexpectedly welling up with tears at odd times, even months later, don't worry. This is all a normal part of the process.
4. Plan a fitting tribute
Memorializing or paying tribute to your pet in some way gives you an outlet for your grief. Families with small children especially may find that having a memorial service for a pet, however informal, helps to provide closure for the youngsters.
A pet's funeral can be as simple as having each family member take a turn to share some thoughts or memories of the departed pet. You may also choose to play music or read a poem. The Rainbow Bridge is a poem that has brought much comfort to many a pet owner mourning the loss of a beloved friend.
Here are some other ideas for paying tribute to your pet:
- Create a scrap book or photo book. I spent the weekend following Turley's death creating a photo book with some of my favorite pictures. Another family I know created a special scrapbook in honor of their dog.
- Create a garden stone. Before Turley died, a friend brought me a garden stone kit that I decorated with Turley's paw print and dog tag. Although she was a bit indignant that I made her step into wet cement during her final days, it made a great keepsake that we now use to mark the spot where her ashes are buried.
- Keep your memories alive by creating a list of things you want remember about your pet. As a family, take turns compiling and capturing all those special memories, whether it was a cute trick, a quirky trait, or funny story. You'll find yourself smiling through your tears as the list grows longer and longer.
- Write a story or poem in honor of your pet. It's no coincidence that I wrote Turley's story, above, on the first anniversary of her death.
- Make a donation to an animal shelter or pet rescue league in your pet's memory. Perhaps there is no better way to honor the memory of your pet than by helping another pet find health and happiness
5. When a friend loses a pet
If you know someone who has lost a pet, don't hesitate to show your compassion and concern. Your validation of their grief will bring great comfort. Send a sympathy card. Give them a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. Let them share their stories and memories about their pet. Share your memories. Let them know it's okay to be sad.
Here are things NOT to say to someone grieving the loss of a pet:
- "It was just a dog" (or a cat, or goldfish or whatever). Don't minimize your friend's grief by suggesting the pet was anything less than a member of the family.
- "You can always get another one." Would you say this to someone who has lost a child? Don't say it to someone who has lost a pet, either.
- "Things will be back to normal before you know it." Your friend's beloved pet is gone forever. There can be only a new "normal."
- "Don't be sad." It's normal to be sad. Don't make your friend feel worse by suggesting his or her feelings aren't valid.
- "At least you won't have to clean up dog poop from the yard (or scoop kitty litter) anymore." You are trying to be helpful by showing your friend the positive, but remember this change in the daily routine can provide a painful reminder of the loss.
Losing a pet is never easy for anyone. It's a sad fact of life that our time with our furry friends is too short. Cherish that time while you can and celebrate your happy memories when your pet is gone.