Owning a pet is one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences for any owner. We watch intently as they grow and develop, nurturing and guiding them at every step as they become our loyalist companions. For many of us we have celebrated our happiest days and greatest achievements with our pets, as well as some of our darkest and toughest struggles.
One of our greatest fears as a pet owner is knowing that the time will come when we have to say goodbye to our treasured companions.
The loss of a pet is devastating; however, society does not always recognise or understand the associated grief and consequence that is experienced by owners. Whilst grief itself is widely recognised and discussed upon the loss of a human counterpart (relative, friend or colleague etc), the grief of a pet is rarely spoken about or encouraged. In recent years however, there has been an effort by veterinary professionals and owners alike to raise awareness surrounding pet loss and the accompanying trauma and induced emotional responses seen in us as owners.
Grief itself is well studied and documented and somewhat expected within society upon the loss of a human. Grief can be described as a natural reaction to a loss; death is defined as a physical loss. Dealing with the pain of grief can often feel overwhelming and will often bring about many emotional and even physical responses in the bereaved over a significant period of time.
It is important to remember that grieving is a very individual process and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It can be beneficial to understand the most common stages that are experienced; These are often simplified down into five stages and explanations;
- Shock, disbelief, panic and difficulty accepting that your pet is no longer with you
- Intense pain and outburst of anger blame and hostility.
- Feelings of intense sadness, tiredness, helplessness and isolation. This stage can be accompanied by physical manifestations including sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and interest.
- Feelings of guilt and questioning; Did I do the right thing? What if I…? Could I have done more?
- This is usually defined as the final stages of grief as you begin to acknowledge and understand your loss and begin to come to terms with the new circumstances and preparing to move forward.
Not everyone will experience all of the above stages and they may not even manifest in a similar order to above. Some may only be able to relate to one, others may shift between stages and some people may not experience any of these feelings. It must be remembered that everyone will deal with grief differently and over a different length of time, but this is OK and completely natural.
Whilst you may experience the emotional and physical side effects of grief it is also crucial to recognise that your daily routine will be dramatically altered upon the loss of a pet, which can often leave you feeling lost and lonely in the weeks and months after loss. The bond and relationships formed during your pets life is extremely powerful and pet caring responsibilities often shape our days, with our pets repaying us with endless companionship, fun and emotional support as discussed in our April blog (https://www.petinsure.ie/why-pets-are-great-for-our-wellbeing-and-mental-health/) . Early acknowledgement of these changes can support us through the grieving process by encouraging us to adapt our routine to a new normal, finding new outlets or activities to facilitate recovery.
Another way to facilitate grieving is to reach out for support, studies have shown that support is a crucial part of grief recovery. Connecting with friends and relatives can have a considerable positive effect on your emotional well-being and socialising can help to ease loneliness. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to reach out. If you feel that family and friends would not comprehend or support your grief, there are several dedicated pet bereavement support lines available such as;
- The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support
- Solace Pet Loss Ireland
- Cats Protection
- Specialist Pet Bereavement Councillors
- The Ralph Site
Alongside these there are also many websites and books that provide support for those grieving for a lost pet.
As explained grieving can be difficult to everyone and this is especially true of children. When explaining pet loss to a child, it is often difficult as it is their first experience of death, it can be hard for them to comprehend what has happened and why the adults in their life are sad. It is best to be honest and use easily understandable phrases to avoid confusion about where their beloved pet has gone. Age plays a huge part in understanding death, as younger children will likely miss their pet being around, whereas older children will have more understanding and may ask difficult questions that should be answered openly. Allow your children time to grieve and express their emotions.
We must also remember that pet loss also has a significant impact on the non-human members of your family. Fellow pets in the household will often grieve for lost pets as well as yourself. Cats and dogs in particular are extremely sensitive to change and can have a difficult time adjusting to the new “pack”. To minimise the effect of loss on a fellow pet it can be beneficial to maintain their usual routines as much as you can, this gives them a sense of structure and normality. Alongside this doing more of what your pets’ loves can help them to adjust and cope. Changes to watch out for in other pets include; changes in appetite, withdrawal, changes in personality, pacing or searching, hiding and changes in toileting habits and grooming. If you notice any of the above signs that do not improve it is worth talking to your veterinarian as your pet may be struggling with grief.
More often than not as owners, we will have to make the complex and difficult decision to let our pets go peacefully by veterinary euthanasia (put an animal to sleep). For many this will be one of the most confronting and painful decisions we will ever have to make. The decision is never taken lightly and must always be made in conjunction with your Veterinary Surgeon. You and your family know your pet best and are in the position to assess their Quality of life and come to a decision at the right time with the guidance of your Veterinarian. It must be remembered that euthanasia offers a painless end to our pets lives when illness, injury or old age significantly affects quality of life. Whilst it is likely the one of the hardest decisions you must make as an owner it is the kindest and most unselfish things that we can do to peacefully end the suffering after many years of companionship, happiness and love.
Many veterinary practices are able to provide a pre-euthanasia consultation in practice or over the phone to discuss everything prior to the decision to discuss the procedure, whether you would like to be present and also the differing options such as whether you would like burial or cremation for your pet. Do not feel embarrassed to ask questions at any stage. Veterinary professionals understand the process as well as the anguish, upset and upheaval that it can bring to a family and are more than happy to discuss everything with you. In fact, some individuals find it beneficial to discuss and have everything in place prior to euthanasia.
After your pet has passed away you may want to remember or commemorate your pet in a special way, this can also help with the grieving process. Once Again, everyone will have a different idea as to what memorialises their pet best; Some owners will hold a small funeral or memorial, others will scatter their pets’ ashes in a favourite place (e.g. a favourite walk or holiday destination), were as some will prefer to keep their pets ashes in a casket in the pets favourite room of the house, alongside their favourite toy and collar, however, simply just recollecting their favourite memories of their pets works for others. Over recent years as we have begun to understand pet loss and grief in more depth, companies have advanced forever tokens and memorials; from paw print and ashes jewellery, to personalised canvases and urns all of these tokens can give us something to cherish forever and remember happy memories of our lost pets as the years continue.