Adrienne is certified dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several courses on hospice, end-of-life care for dogs.
When You Know Your Dog Is Going to Die
When a dog is diagnosed with a terminal illness such as cancer, the news is awfully devastating. Not many situations in life equal the pain and suffering associated with thoughts of losing a canine companion that was always there and provided unconditional love for several years.
It's as if the whole balance of life is gone. With more and more people perceiving dogs as family members, dogs and their families form strong units that are in a perfect state of homeostasis. Then, along comes a diagnosis and that blissful state of homeostasis is gone for good—the family unit is now out of balance.
Soon, feelings of uncertainty and doom crowd the daily lives of those who were touched. There may be that initial hope or initial shock at first, but then the fear of losing the dog becomes more and more tangible as the days go by and the dog starts manifesting signs of physical decline.
With dogs playing such important roles in the lives of many people, it should be easy to understand why a diagnosis of a terminal illness would feel so devastating. Yet, the way society perceives the loss of a pet still appears to lag a step behind.
There is still a deep gap between the way society perceives the loss of a person and the loss of a dog, explains Laurel Lagoni, Suzanne Hetts and Stephen Withrow in the book "Clinical Veterinary Oncology." Still, as of today, there are no formal or socially sanctioned rituals such as wakes, funerals and memorial services for the loss of dogs. There are also very little support systems to help dog owners cope with the reality of impending death and to help draw closure to the loss later on.
"It's only a dog" or "you can always get another dog someday" are some common sentences "regular, non-dog people" may toss out in an attempt to cheer up the dog lover suffering from the sensations of doom associated with the almost surreal thought of losing a furry family member who has been an integral part of the family for many years.
Recognizing the phenomenon of anticipatory grief experienced by dog owners is almost as important or perhaps as equally important as recognizing the grieving process. It is totally normal to go through a vast array of emotions during this time. It's equally important for the dog owner to recognize these emotions rather than trying to suppress them and deny their existance.
Society does not generally support grief over the death of a pet and thus there are few available support systems for the bereaved pet owner.
— M. Bernbaum
The 5 Stages of Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief, also known as "pre-grieving," is the acknowledgement of impending death. For pet owners, this anticipation leads to a mixed bag of emotions including shock, hope, fear, frustration, and anxiety.
Shock is the immediate sensation felt upon hearing the diagnosis. It's as if that moment the vet pronounces the word "cancer" or other life-threatening diagnosis remains frozen in time. There is likely some element of denial or disbelief going on, almost as a defensive mechanism to avoid a direct hit. The vet's diagnosis almost sounds as if those words were directed to someone else.
Hope often soon follows and this often leads to proactive measures. Dog owners will try to help Maggy beat the cancer with a ketogenic diet, hemp oil and other powerful immune-boosting supplements. Other owners may take the traditional route with surgery and perhaps costly chemotherapy. Anything to just buy time and help add some more quality of life.
Fear is often an emotion that will pop up at random times throughout the journey. It will often transpire after the blissful times of hope are over and the cancer raises its ugly head, once again, reminding of the inevitable.
Dog owners may wonder what will happen when their dog starts deteriorating. Getting teary-eyed at random times of the day is not unusual, and breaking down emotionally can sometimes hit even in the most inconspicuous places such as while shopping or at work.
Some dog owners, on the other hand, may be hit with a sense of temporary alienation, which causes them to feel distant from their dogs. This alienation is a defense mechanism meant to detach and avoid feeling the raw pain.
Frustration is often an emotion that arises when despite all the measures taken (diet, prayers, Reiki, holistic approach) the dog deteriorates. Dog owners start realizing that they are losing the battle in an attempt to keep the disease from claiming their dogs.
Dog owners may feel slight envy or anger when they hear about dogs with the same condition living longer and responding better to a certain treatment. Many "what if" questions may arise causing wasteful mental torturing.
The truth is, with end-of-life disorders such as cancer, there are really no right or wrong decisions. Every dog responds differently and there are often no black-and-white rules to adhere to.
Anxiety is often felt as the disease starts taking over. It is difficult to sleep, the tears keep flowing and dog owners may obsessively observe their dogs for "signs" of the big decline that will take the dog's life.
How to Approach a Pet's Death Proactively
Living with dogs and enjoying their company is the double-edged sword that dog owners will eventually face at some point. "Grief is the price we pay for love," said Queen Elizabeth II. However, sometimes grief gets too much in the way, so much so that it puts a big dent into enjoying those last, precious days with a beloved dog.
Yet, dogs are not aware of what the future holds. They live in the present, in a state of blissful unawareness. Adopting a dog's philosophy of life can help dog owners make the most of the final days versus filling them with thoughts associated with unresourceful and unproductive anticipatory fear.
Cherishing the dog's last days is the most productive way to make the most of them. This will help provide comfort knowing that the dog was given lots of love in his final days. A bucket list of things to do should be compiled so to stay proactive. Making a list of things the dog enjoys doing and making those wishes come true can be a true blessing for both dog and dog owner.
Examples are going on a car ride to the beach, surrounding the dog with wonderful toys, making paw-print paintings, letting the dog sleep on the bed/couch or letting him enjoy that vanilla ice cream he always cherished. Even simple things such as spending extra time petting the dog in the evenings or feeding special treats can be treasured experiences. Loads of pictures and videos should be taken so to "materialize" these memories.
Doing all these things together will help focus on the moment and help build everlasting bittersweet moments that will be deeply cherished for years to come. Pre-grieving the loss of a dog, therefore, doesn't necessarily have to be a negative experience, but can actually turn into a proactive and productive one by simply cherishing every moment and perceiving life through the eyes of a dog.
Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling an emptiness we didn't ever knew we had.
— Thom Jones
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Karen Gill on August 20, 2020:
I am doing a Pet Bereavement Counselling Course at present.It is something i have experienced on a number of occasions and hope yo help others.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 16, 2019:
Liz Spolar, anticipatory grief is a very deep type of pain, it somewhat resembles anticipatory anxiety. After that, comes the real grief which can be different in many ways than what we may have anticipated. I am so sorry for your loss. I wrote this article when I was about to lose my dog to a very aggressive cancer. and thought it may help others. Here is a read on the actual grief and its stages. https://pethelpful.com/pet-ownership/The-Stages-of...
Liz Spolar on November 13, 2019:
Had to say goodbye to my Apachee of 15 1/2 yrs on October 26,2019 still so raw i wish i would have found the information here sooner but have it for when i have to say goodbye to his mate Cherokee shes 15 she looks all over for him its so sad this pain is so deep.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 28, 2019:
The anxiety phase is a difficult time. It's important though to consider to make out the most of these days and make a bucket list of things to do. Our pets also can get upset when they see us cry and be emotional, so best to act normal in their presence as much as we can.
nrm on July 23, 2019:
We're in the "Anxiety" phase now. Lots of tears. No plans further out than tomorrow, and even that seems like a stretch. Part of me wants it to be over, but I also don't want her to be gone.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2019:
Pat, there are several support groups in social media (Facebook has a rainbow bridge group and I think there are also hotlines for pet bereavement. One that comes to mind is 1 (877) GRIEF-10 which is a direct line to ASPCA's psychologist and grief counselor, Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, PhD.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2019:
Marty, there must be a technical glitch going on. You can copy the URL and paste it on your Facebook post. It should allow you to share, and you may even see a picture open up along with my article on grieving the loss of dogs.
Marty ELLEW on February 27, 2019:
I wanted to share this to my FB page and I keep getting a message “app not set up”
Pat on January 05, 2019:
We lost our miniature schnauzer three weeks ago and my husband is grieving very hard. I know it was the right thing to let her go, he is just a hot mess. What can I do to help his depression??
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 18, 2018:
Peggy so sorry for your loss. It's so tough.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 18, 2018:
Thank you Heidi, every day is a gift and we are trying to make lots of good memories.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 18, 2018:
Adrienne, from some of your other posts, I know you're facing these issues head on. I have been there, too... too many times. It is a roller coaster and it's real. Your article sums it all up perfectly.
My thoughts are with you and your dog as you face these challenges and cherished moments!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 18, 2018:
It is always hard losing a beloved pet no matter what the circumstances happen to be. We had to euthanize our dear little Skippy just prior to Christmas last year. We still miss him!