Dealing with the Death of a Cherished Pet
by Christine Fugate | Nov 01, 2008
For many people, the death of their pet comes with many difficult decisions. Because each pet is different, as are his or her owners, options, feelings and coping mechanisms vary. Experts predict that over half the human population has a pet at home. The average life expectancy for pets is 15-16 years. Given these statistics, it’s safe to say that a great number of people will experience the death of a pet at least once in their lifetimes.
The relationship between humans and their pets is often described by psychologists as a simple one—free of the complications that people experience in dealing with each other and full of unconditional love. This can often make the grieving process more intense when a pet dies. A pet is a constant companion, and facing its loss can be devastating. Angela, who is facing the impending death of her own cat, says, “Stones is my baby. I got her as a kitten and raised her, right after I moved out of my parents’ house. She has lived my adult life with me and this is, by far the most ‘adult’ decision I’ve ever made. It’s terrible and nowadays I can’t look at her without apologizing or crying.”
Dr. Amir Shanan, DVM, who runs the Compassionate Veterinary Care facility and is one of the country’s leading veterinarians on hospice practices, euthanasia and endof-life conversations, urges grieving “pet parents,” as he calls them, to consider all the options. “We don’t have a lot of control over the fact that we’re losing our pet,” Dr. Shanan explains. “We still have control over a lot of things and having that control can make a really big difference in how we experience the grief.”
Dr. Shanan feels that working with a vet to explore options is the best course of action, such as providing pets with hospice care at home, acupuncture, and exploring holistic medicines to provide comfort to a pet with an illness. Dr. Shanan’s Lincoln Park practice offers human-friendly hospital rooms for ailing pets that require constant vet care. The individual rooms have sofas for pet parents to sleep on overnight to be near their pets.
Only in extreme cases does Dr. Shanan allow for euthanasia. Dr. Shanan provides an at-home euthanasia service for geriatric pets, and people who feel that their pet might feel more comfort remaining at home. His at-home euthanasia clients are largely not a part of his practice and are mostly referrals from other veterinarians who are hoping to give their clients the option to euthanize at home. This service, Dr. Shanan feels is “ ideal” but cautions pet parents to think ahead, as at-home euthanasia can be costly. “Once you have a full list of options, the choices you make should be made with the idea that you have to live with that choice after the fact.”
Michelle, who currently has two cats adopted from PAWS, says, “On the two occasions I’ve had to have a pet euthanized, one of the worst parts of the experience was knowing they were frightened by being plucked out of the only home they’ve ever known into an antiseptic room where nothing good ever happens to them.” Given the choice, I would definitely opt to have a pet euthanized at home.”
The grieving process during the end of a pet’s life is different for everyone, but may include some of the complex emotions of the grief cycle, which are guilt, denial, anger and depression. Experts recommend speaking to others who understand pet loss and can provide support to pet parents.
In addition, many online sites have chat rooms and message boards for grieving pet owners to utilize. Dr. Shanan says that his practice receives many phone calls from grieving pet parents and his well-trained staff will stay on the phone as long as needed, even if there are clients in the waiting room. “When you’re at a point as a pet parent and you have a decision that many people say is the most difficult in their life, being heard, being validated, the message they get from us is, of course, you’re sad,” Dr. Shanan says. “That alone gives the caller some strength that they didn’t have five minutes earlier.”
Memorializing a pet can be a healthy part of the grieving process. Dr. Shanan recommends reminiscing about the pet’s life with friends and family. Writing a letter to a pet may help clarify a pet parent’s grief. A framed photo or a photo album can help remind a pet parent of their pet. Some people keep the ashes of their pets and bury them in a spot favored by their pet.
Many pet owners wonder if they should get another pet, but can feel guilty about “replacing” their pet. Most animal lovers enjoy the pet relationship so much that they do adopt another pet when they feel the time is right. Michelle says, “I knew I could adopt again because every pet has a distinct personality. My son and I waited about a year until we could handle young cats and then we looked for months for the right cats for us.”
Losing a pet can be one of the most devastating things to happen to a pet owner. Sometimes the loss is sudden, but more often it is the result of an illness or condition that has worsened over time, facing the pet owner with the difficult decision of whether to euthanize or let the animal die naturally. The fact that it is difficult to gauge how much a pet may be suffering, makes the decision all the more difficult. Support and understanding are especially important to seek out. For Angela, whose cat Stones has been a steadfast friend for nine years, life without her seems empty. “I can’t imagine walking through this door and not hav(ing) her here.”
I have been a volunteer with PAWS Chicago for over six years and I am now a Professional Board member.
Hershey was the sweetest, best friend a girl could have. He was a beautiful Springer Spaniel that I shared my life with for 16 years. One day we were far from home and he was having a hard time breathing and making odd noises. I took him to the nearest vet I could find. After an X-ray it was found he had a large mass attached to his liver that was altering his breathing. A little over three weeks later I found myself sitting on the floor dribbling water in his mouth. I told him it was okay to go, I would miss him but he needed to rest. He refused. My vet opened on Sunday morning and I took him in. His eyes told me that he understood and it was okay that I helped him. He went away quietly.
The hole he left in my life was huge. Reilley, my other Springer who I had rescued a few years earlier, and I sat and cried for a long time. Though it was the most difficult thing I had ever done, I was glad that I made the decision. I found consolation in relieving him from pain. Unfortunately, three months later Reilley passed in his sleep. I was devastated. I couldn’t go home. I hated to walk in the house alone. I went into a local shelter while waiting for my car to be repaired and found a quiet beautiful female Tri-Color Springer that had been relinquished only a day before. She came up and licked my hand. I felt warmed by the experience and I recognized that doors close in order to allow others to open. She came to share my home.
Each person is different. Many ask, “how could you volunteer at PAWS Chicago or English Springer Rescue so soon?” I couldn’t stop helping. I wasn’t sure when/ if I wanted another pet. It just happened. You have to know in your heart what you are ready for. Sometimes it helps the pain to assist those that are here. Assist them to find others like the loved one you lost fulfilled yours. You never know what you’ll find along the way.
I’d never known the kind of love I shared with my boxer Bentley, the first dog of my own. She had so much fire and such a huge personality. We did everything together. Took naps, played, visited friends, even watched movies. Within a year of getting Bentley, I got married and my husband took a job in Chicago.
Neither Bentley nor I took to Chicago well, but we would go to the dog park and enjoy our time together. In August, Bentley began to have seizures. Her vet placed her on medication, but she got sicker and sicker. I stayed home with her everyday, cleaning her after her many accidents and feeding her baby food. After about a month of very few good days and many bad ones, we took her to get an MRI. She had a tumor in her brain and we had to put her down that very night. She wasn’t even two years old.
I was devastated. She was my whole world here and my best friend. There were days I didn’t think I’d go on. My heart was so broken. My husband was worried sick about me but couldn’t miss work. Unfortunately, to many, the death of a pet is not considered as big of a deal as it truly is. I had friends and family call me, but I didn’t want to talk. I couldn’t talk about her, think about her, look at any of her favorite spots in the house without breaking down. But if I tried to stop thinking about her, I felt even worse. I felt guilty. With no family here, I felt that no one would even notice that someone so special was gone.
To keep her memory alive, I wanted to make something to send to the people who loved her. Similar to the memorial cards at funerals, with loved ones’ pictures, prayers and stories, I set out to create a pet memorial card for Bentley. I was surprised how much it helped me to pick a picture, a prayer and think of the positive things she gave me.
After receiving positive feedback from family and friends, I have decided to try to make these memorials for others who have lost a pet. I have found this work is a great way to remember Bentley and to share her love and memory as I help others share the memory of their beloved pets. It helps to know other people are thinking of those we love when we are going through the difficult time of saying goodbye.
Balou, our beloved Chocolate Lab passed on July 2, 2008. He was 13 1/2 years old and this has been the hardest loss we have ever had to deal with.
Balou was diagnosed with lung cancer in June and the vet told us we would have about a month to spend with him. During that month, of course, we spoiled him even more than usual and spent all of our time with him. My husband, who travels extensively for work, even held back on his travel schedule so he could be home for Balou. It seemed like Balou regressed back to a pup again. He was chasing squirrels and hunting for tennis balls in our local park. He was eating everything and we just could not wrap our minds around the fact that he was sick and we were going to soon lose him.
In honor of Balou, for the PAWS 8K race, I named my team Balou’s Babes and recruited a few girlfriends to join in the race with me. Together we came in 3rd overall in donations and I believe raised over $4,000 for PAWS Chicago, all in honor of our best friend Balou.
I have to say that Balou had an incredible life. He has lived in Singapore, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. He has driven to and from Chicago to Los Angeles a couple of times and had his photos in all the states along the way. He was our only “child” and now our home seems empty and boring without him. He was such a character and made us laugh on a daily basis.
I know we have a lot of love to give another dog and in due time we will search out a special dog to share our home with. Right now, I just can’t go there. I still cry over him often and have yet to put his favorite toys away. This has been a real struggle to get through. The only thing that helps is that I know he had one amazing life and that we did everything for him throughout his life. We miss him so much and not a day goes by that we don’t think about him. I only hope the tears will turn to laughter soon.
- Jerri Hatch and Larry Traxler
I adopted a tabby cat from my coworker who had picked her up from the street in River West. My vet told me she was about one-year-old and I had her spayed. Although she was a female, I named my cat after the street “Irving Park”. Irving gained an adoring dad when I got married in 1988.
We had many good times and even held a birthday party in Irving’s honor when she turned 21. Despite some illnesses, Irving was generally in good health. People marveled at her advanced age. In May 2007 Irving suddenly collapsed at home during dinner. We rushed her to the emergency vet and were told she had an erratic heart rhythm. They offered to put her down but we refused and requested her release. The next morning we consulted our vet who went along with our wish to give her more time. However, day by day, Irving grew weaker and I realized it was time to let her go. We spent precious time with her and prolonged our goodbyes.
At first I was squeamish about witnessing euthanasia, but I realized it would be cowardly to abandon Irving during her last moments. We were with her until she found peace. During my grieving process, I read a tip that made an impact on me. It said one of the best ways to honor your pet is to find a way to help its four-legged friends.
Soon after, I found a brochure promoting the Seventh Annual PAWS 8k Run/4k Walk. I had two weeks to raise money. With many generous donations from family and friends, I brought in four times the amount I had originally anticipated. In January, we went to a local shelter and “were adopted” by a playful male cat who took a liking to us. He gives us great joy. This year, I again participated in the PAWS 8k Run/4k Walk. And because of Irving, I will be taking a course in fundraising for non-profit organizations. This is the legacy of my dear cat Irving.
- Mary Moy
I adopted Redji from a shelter in Rockford in 2003. She was about a year and a half. She was wonderful. Everyone fell in love with her. She loved to talk. She even reset the outgoing message on my answering machine to be her talking. Twice! You’d call, and get a cat talking so long no one could leave a message. She was definitely a “momma’s girl” and I was smitten.
In 2004 she was diagnosed with cancer. After two surgeries, trips to the University of Illinois vet school, and specialists, the answer was the same. Chemo and radiation would give her maybe another year. Without treatment she had eight to ten months. The radiation and chemo would require her to be in the hospital for at least a month, sedated daily, and there were no guarantees. It was a very hard decision but I decided it was best to keep her home. I had professional pictures taken of her, so I would have something beautiful to remember her by. Then, she beat everyone’s expectations. I finally had to make the decision to put her to sleep in October of 2006, a full year and a half longer than the best estimate!
I read an article that talked about the seven stages of grief when you get a terminal diagnosis for a pet. It mentioned the bargaining stage, where if you bargain and are lucky to get extra time, you should use it. I kept that in mind. If Redji wanted extra pets in the morning I didn’t rush to work. If she wanted to cuddle but I was trying to work, I’d stop and give her some “luvin”.
When the end came, it was a hard decision. She had started to go downhill, and I knew that she wasn’t going to get better. I made the appointment for a Friday, and took Thursday off from work. I laid on the couch with Redji all day cuddling and watching TV. I was lucky that my vet came to my house and she passed away in my arms, in her favorite blanket with me on the couch. The decision was hard, but the actual “act” was as good as it could be and I knew that I was lucky enough to get the extra time with her and I didn’t waste it. I knew that she got as much love and cuddles as I could give her (and she gave me the same.)
She was a very special little girl. (And she was tiny!) but she had a huge impact. I laugh that it took three kitties to replace her. I actually just got a pin custom designed of her to wear on my apron when I’m volunteering at PAWS. I can’t wait to tell people about the amazing kitties you can find in a shelter.
- Mindy Baker
Pablo spent the last days of his short life outside, where he enjoyed listening to the sounds of the night, with the people who loved him petting and brushing his decimated body with a soft brush. His family and friends gathered the night before he was to be euthanized at the veterinarian’s office. To many people who have never experienced a pet relationship, this get together might not be understood, but for the people who loved Pablo, it made perfect sense. It was a way to say goodbye and share our grief with each other. It was our way of coping with the loss of such a vibrant cat.
- Christine Fugate
Guardian Angel Program Offers Animal Lovers Peace of Mind
No one likes to think about death, or what life will be like when he or she is gone. The PAWS Chicago Guardian Angel program offers peace of mind to pet owners who want to ensure not only that their own pet is guaranteed life and love when they’re gone, but that homeless animals are saved for years to come.
A planned gift or bequest to PAWS Chicago will help provide shelter, food, veterinary care, medicines and loving homes for thousands of animals for years to come, leaving a legacy of love in the donor’s honor. In addition, PAWS Chicago will care for the donor’s own beloved pet when he or she is no longer able, providing for all medical needs and working to find the pet a new, loving and forever home. For more information on making a bequest or planned gift, please contact PAWS Chicago’s Planned Giving Specialist (773) 843-2508 or email GuardianAngel@pawschicago.org.