How to cope with the death of a pet

It was Christmas Eve when Jake, our amiable 16-year-old American red short hair cat, died. The loss of our long-time animal companion cast gloom over the entire holiday season – and well beyond.

Suffering the loss of a pet is a fairly common experience when you consider about 40 per cent of Canadian households have one – a cat and dog population of about four million. Since the lifespan of the animal is almost inevitably shorter than that of a human, the owner will be left to mourn.

In the past, we tended to belittle and even ridicule people who responded to the death of their pet with excessive grief. “What’s there to feel so bad about? It’s only a dog!” However, over the past decade, that detached view has undergone a change. It’s now recognized that after several years of cohabitation, humans and their animal friends become inextricably bound to one another. In the words of one perceptive observer, a pet will steadily provide its owner “with entertainment, security, affection and distraction from anxiety and loneliness.” And if the owner happens to be elderly and living alone, the animal may have been his or her closest – and perhaps only – friend.

Little woer the sudden disappearance of a pet leaves a gaping void in the life of the owner. The results of a survey presented at the International Conference on Human Animal Interaction in Montreal in the early ’90s showed nearly 70 per cent of pet owners grieved intensely for departed pets, sometimes for weeks and even months, and about 10 per cent experienced physical illness.

As a result of the study, and several similar ones, the plight of the bereaved pet owner is now receiving serious attention. At veterinary colleges and at meetings of practising vets, instruction is given on how to help those whose pets have died. Pet Loss Support Groups are now functioning in a number of communities, where grieving pet owners can find solace and practical advice.

Here’s a summary of the advice given to bereaved owners:

Prepare yourself for the loss of your pet
This sad event can usually be anticipated as the lives of many pets are ended by euthanasia. Our experience with Jake, our 16-year-old cat, was fairly typical. We awoke one morning to find Jake’s two back legs paralyzed and he suffered agonizing pain when touched on his back. The vet gave a grim prognosis. She explained Jake’s condition was irreversible, he would never walk again and never be free of pain. The only humane solution – end his suffering by putting him to sleep. Putting down a beloved pet is not an easy decision. However, after further discussion with the vet, we could find no other alternative. But satisfy yourself, beyond all doubt, that your pet’s death is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you may suffer feelings of regret and guilt.

Express your guilt, share it with others
Many pet owners refrain from openly expressing their grief through fear of ridicule. Yet the situation demands they openly and honestly mourn. A bereavement counsellor explains, “Your physical and mental health can be adversely affected if you deny your feelings and remain silent.”

However, seek out someone sympathetic, not someone who thinks you’re “crazy” for making such a fuss about the death of an animal. Such a person could be a pet owner who has gone through the loss of a pet or members of your local Pet Support Loss Group.

Pay special attention to the feelings of your children The death of a family pet can be especially traumatic for children because youngsters form a particularly close bond to animals. Also, bear in mind the passing of a pet is probably a child’s first direct experience with death.

Take advantage of the situation to educate the child about the nature of death. Be honest and direct in discussing the subject. Don’t hide the fact that death is final and ir-reversible. At the same time, you can lessen the child’s loss by pointing out that death put an end to his pet’s pain and suffering. You can also mention it has not entirely vanished, but survives in the form of many happy memories.

Beware of using euphemisms when discussing death because they can have a damaging effect. For instance, if you say that Rover has been “put to sleep,” the child may expect the dog to return after he’s awakened. Or, more ominously, the child may develop a fear of going to bed, because like Rover, he may never wake up.

Don’t rush out to acquire a new pet
Delay getting a new pet until you’ve fully come to terms with the loss of your old one. For some people, this may be a matter of weeks or months; for others – years; for still others, the time may never come. Participants at the previously-mentioned Montreal human-animal bond conference were told that 17 per cent of bereaved pet owners never again acquired an animal companion because “it would betray their dead pet’s memory.”

And when you finally do select a new pet, don’t compare it with the previous one. Like people, every animal has a unique personality, one of the reasons we find these faithful best friends so interesting and fascinating.

Sidney Katz is a Toronto-based freelance writer.