Dogs give us so much as companions – they can be a source of unconditional love, comfort and stability. They provide us with a sense of being needed and valued as well as non-judgemental acceptance of our failings. However, an unfortunate disadvantage of dogs is their comparatively short lifespans. Naturally, owners avoid thinking about their pets dying, so whatever the cause of death, they are seldom prepared for the loss when it comes. We hope that this factsheet will help you with the practical and emotional realities of losing a much-loved pet.
The bond between humans and their dogs
Psychologists recognise that the feelings experienced by owners after the death of their dog are comparable to those felt after losing close human friends or relatives. Unfortunately not everyone understands the intense grief that can follow the passing of a pet and there is nothing worse than hearing a friend or relative (no matter how well meaning) telling you to pull yourself together because it was “just a dog”. When they have gone, there is a big empty space in your life.
Time to let go?
It has been estimated that less than a quarter of all dogs die peacefully in their sleep of ‘old age’ or natural causes, which means that most dog owners will have to go through the trauma of having a dog put to sleep. Although this decision can be one of the hardest that you’ll have to make, depending on the circumstances it may also be the kindest thing that you’ll ever do for your pet.
How can you tell when the time is right? Your vet will be a good guide to help you make this decision; however, ultimately it must rest with you and your family. Don’t make any rash decisions that you may regret at a later stage. Here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you decide if your dog has a good enough quality of life to justify keeping him going.
With the necessary veterinary attention, can your dog:
• Eat and drink enough to maintain normal body function?
• Breathe without difficulty?
• Urinate and defaecate normally, without discomfort or distress?
• Walk and move well enough to get around without falling or risk of injury?
Is your dog:
• Still interested in life, playful and affectionate?
• Free from pain, serious discomfort or distress?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” then you may have to consider euthanasia for your pet.
It is common for owners of elderly dogs to put off taking their pets to the vet if they think there is something wrong with them, as they fear that euthanasia will be the only option available. However, if problems are spotted early enough then this need not be the only course of action and treatment can be given to prolong a good quality of life. Twice yearly veterinary check-ups and immediate attention for possible problems are essential for an ageing dog, to pick up any life-threatening conditions before they become untreatable.
What is euthanasia?
Euthanasia means ‘gentle’ or ‘easy death’ – but what actually happens? A dog is euthanased by an intravenous injection of a barbiturate, usually in the foreleg, which is basically an overdose of anaesthetic. The dog should feel no more pain than the usual prick felt when being given an injection. In a few seconds the dog is completely unconscious and so doesn’t feel a thing as his breathing slows down, cardiac arrest follows and then finally comes death. Sometimes a dog may be given a sedative beforehand – especially if he is usually upset by the presence of a vet or by being in a veterinary surgery. After death, the body of the dog may experience muscle spasms leading to trembling legs or sudden gasps, and there may be some loss of bowel and bladder control. This can be distressing to see but it is perfectly normal and it is a good idea to be prepared.
It is up to you whether you choose to stay with your dog at this time or not. Whilst some owners like to stay to comfort their pet, others may feel that their own sadness or distress would only make it worse for their dog. If you choose not to remain during the procedure, it may be a good idea to ask to see the body afterwards for a final farewell.
Most pets are euthanased at a veterinary surgery because the procedure can be carried out easily with veterinary nurses available to assist, however it may be possible to arrange for a home visit if you think this will be less traumatic for your dog. You will probably be charged an extra call-out fee on top of the basic charge, but if your dog is usually terrified of going to the vet it may be worth paying the extra for peace of mind. Be prepared for the vet to take your dog’s body away in a black plastic bag if you have arranged for a cremation to take place. This may seem undignified but is essential for health and safety reasons.
If you are lucky enough to have warning that your dog is going to be euthanased then it will help you to take some time to say goodbye to him. Spend some special time with your dog, spoil him rotten and indulge him in food and treats that are forbidden under usual circumstances.
A final resting-place
Try to plan ahead as much as possible, as it can be too traumatic to make informed decisions when you are in the initial shock stages after the death. If you have warning that your dog’s death may be imminent, then discuss the options available with your vet beforehand. How to dispose of the deceased pet is a very personal decision. Some people feel that the dog’s remains are merely an empty shell since the ‘essence’ or life of the dog has departed and can therefore simply be disposed of by the vet, whilst others may want to keep the dog close to them by burying the body in their own garden, or by arranging an individual cremation and keeping the ashes. Whatever you choose as your dog’s final resting-place, remember that this decision is totally valid, and friends or relatives have no right to criticise, even if they consider it a waste of time and money. It is important for you to make the right decision at this time, as it can affect the grieving process. As with humans, there are two options for disposal of your dog’s body - cremation or burial.
Your dog’s remains can be buried in your own garden or in a pet cemetery.
• If you choose to bury your pet’s body in your garden, then you should check with your local authority that they have no objections, since deceased pets are classed as clinical waste. The body will have to be buried at least 1.25m deep and should be well away from ponds, streams, wells, underground pipes and cables. Remember not to bury your pet in a plastic sheet or bag, as this will prevent the natural decaying process. Instead, bury your pet in a towel or his favourite blanket. Home burial is one of the cheapest and most personal ways of disposing of your dog’s body, as you have to perform the task yourself. Seeing your dog’s grave every day can help you to accept your pet’s death more quickly but may be quite upsetting at first. However, with time, it can be a real comfort to feel that he is close by.
• If you would like to have your pet buried at home, but are unable to do so, then an alternative is a pet cemetery. Although the most expensive option, they can offer a complete service, from collecting your pet’s body to preparing the grave and performing the burial. They may also sell coffins, memorial stones and some can arrange a simple funeral or memorial service at the time of burial. This is a much more formal way of disposing of your dog’s remains than burying in your garden, with the benefit of still being able to visit the grave, even if you move house. The costs of using a pet cemetery vary (£180-£350) and there may be an annual maintenance charge to pay.
The cremation of pets is becoming increasingly popular as a method of disposal as it is a practical, hygienic and dignified process.
• If you have left your dog’s body to be ‘routinely’ disposed of by your vet then communal cremation is commonly used. The combined ashes are usually buried within the crematorium grounds. This is a simple and inexpensive method of disposal and is particularly suited to those who do not attach any significance or importance to the body after death.
• If you would like to keep your dog’s ashes, then you will need to arrange an individual cremation, either through your vet or directly with a crematorium. This will be more expensive than the communal method (£60-£120) but, as with cemeteries, a full range of services may be offered. The body should be collected and the ashes returned to you as arranged, along with a certificate guaranteeing that the ashes contained are those solely of your pet. Different receptacles for the ashes can be purchased – or there may be a memorial garden at the crematorium where they can be scattered. You may choose to keep the ashes, although many owners like to scatter them over the dog’s favourite spot in the garden or over part of his favourite walk.
If you are unable to arrange a cremation or burial through your vet, then contact the Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria for details of your nearest establishment – Telephone Helpline 01252 844478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A grieving pet owner will experience a variety of emotions including confusion and frustration. A feeling of isolation may result from not feeling able to openly grieve, due to a fear of being considered silly or overly sentimental about the death of an animal by other people. It is important to recognise that it is okay to take as much time to grieve and heal as you find necessary.
So what kind of feelings should you expect after a loss? The following are universally recognised stages of grief, although each person will experience them in their own particular way:
• Shock and denial
The first reaction you may feel when given the news that your pet has died is of shocked disbelief. A feeling of numbness may be experienced which serves to protect against the full impact of the loss. This feeling may last hours or days and you may only fully accept that your pet is really gone as his absence in the home becomes more obvious over time.
• Anger and guilt
As the numbing effects of denial and shock disappear, the reality of the situation emerges, bringing intense emotions and pain. As a self-defence mechanism these painful feelings may be directed outwards as anger. This anger may be directed at friends and family, your vet, complete strangers, other pets or even inanimate objects. You may even be angry with your deceased or dying dog, resenting him for the pain that he is causing you to feel. The guilt resulting from feeling this can make this anger even worse, even though rationally you know that your dog is not to blame.
Guilt is a common feeling at this time. The phrase “If only I’d done … differently”, is frequently used, although rarely is this guilt actually justified. These feelings do fade and eventually you will inevitable sad outcome.
Once anger and guilt have passed, emptiness remains that will lead to depression and a period of ‘true sadness’. Feelings of hopelessness may be experienced and in some cases an owner may feel that life isn’t worth living without their pet. Extreme anxiety may also be present, often leading to sudden bouts of uncontrollable crying.
Depression and anxiety should subside over time. However, if these feelings persist then professional counselling may be necessary to progress to acceptance and recovery.
• Acceptance and recovery
Acceptance is a further stage of grief and although it is emotionally ‘easier’ than depression, it can still be a very sad time. Acceptance comes as you adjust to the changes in your life made by the passing of your pet and accept the reality of the fact that your dog really has gone forever.
Recovery is the final part of the grieving process, where you come to terms with your loss. It is now that you can look at photos of your pet or recall fond memories of your time together with feelings of affection and love, instead of anger and/or tears.
Some people find that actual physical symptoms may also be present such as weakness, lack of energy, shortness of breath and tightness in the throat or chest. Sleep or appetite disturbances and absent-mindedness may also be experienced by the bereaved.
The length and depth of the grief process depends on many factors; the age of the owner and/or dog, the relationship between dog and owner and the circumstances surrounding the death are all contributory factors. Movement from one stage to another will depend on the affected individual; some may progress quickly through all of the stages, some may skip a stage or experience them in a different order. Others may become ‘stuck’ in a particular place and when this happens, the grieving process can break down. Professional or ‘outside’ help may then be needed to guide the grieving owner towards acceptance and recovery.
What can you do to speed up the healing process?
Time is usually the biggest healer for the grieving owner. Grief comes in waves; large at first, but getting smaller and less frequent over time. However, there are some ways to help to speed the healing process and these include:
• Give yourself permission to grieve and be patient with yourself.
It is okay to be upset about the death of your dog – other people won’t know how much he/she meant to you and so shouldn’t tell you how long you are allowed to mourn. Take as long as you need and cry as much as you like.
• Hold a memorial for your dog.
This helps to make the loss real and gives you an opportunity to reflect and express your feelings. A brief funeral or memorial gathering with close friends or family who knew your dog will give everyone an opportunity to say goodbye and to recognise their feelings and share their grief.
• Learn about the grief process.
This will help you to realise that that you are not alone in experiencing these emotions and feelings and that they are in fact, perfectly normal.
• Surround yourself with people who understand your loss and who you can talk to about your dog.
Talking with others will help you to express your feelings and come to terms with your loss. Consider attending a local support group for bereaved pet owners if there is one available.
• Look after yourself physically and indulge yourself in small pleasures.
Make an effort to get enough exercise, sleep and eat properly. Treat and pamper yourself.
• Don’t be ashamed or too proud to get help.
Contact a pet bereavement counsellor or attend a support group if you cannot cope alone or with help from your friends or family.
Who can help with the pain?
Making the decision to seek help from a professional source is not always easy. Apart from the fact that many people are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help, some people are so wrapped up in their grief that they don’t actually realise that they need some kind of assistance. Some find that talking about their loss with someone who really understands can be very beneficial, whilst others find their grief too personal and need to get help in other ways.
If you feel that you would like to talk about your loss with a trained pet bereavement counsellor then you can ask your vet if they can refer you to one locally; they may also have details of local support groups. Alternatively you can ring the Pet Bereavement Support Service (run jointly by The Blue Cross and SCAS – the Society for Companion Animal Studies) and get in contact with your nearest Telephone Befriender – a volunteer trained to deal with bereavement problems. The service is a member of the British Association for Counselling and can be a lifeline, especially if you feel that you haven’t finished mourning and your friends and family no longer appear to be as sympathetic. You can ring the support service helpline on 0800 096 6606 (8.30am-5pm) to get the contact details of your nearest Befriender.
If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings then you can write to ‘Faithfully Yours’ - a free correspondence service run by a trained bereavement counsellor. Some people find it much easier to express their emotions in this way and the service will continue to write back to you as long as you wish. Contact Olwen Parker at 15 St Oswald’s Crescent, Billingham, Cleveland TS23 2RW.
Alternatively, there are a number of good books on pet bereavement that will help you understand the whole process and come to terms with your loss. These should be available from good bookshops or on loan from your local library and include:
Absent Friend – Coping with the loss of your pet – by Laura and Martyn Lee
Published by Ring Press – ISBN 1 85054 089 6
Goodbye, Dear Friend – Coming to terms with the death of a pet – by Virginia Ironside
Published by Robson Books Ltd – ISBN 1 86105 031 3
Death of an Animal Friend – Produced by SCAS
Price £2.50 and available from SCAS, The Blue Cross, Shilton Road, Burford, Oxon OX18 4PF
Do dogs grieve?
No one can tell what really goes on inside an animal’s head and so it is impossible to tell if dogs suffer after a loss in the same way as humans. However, there are often obvious changes in behaviour that show that even if they cannot understand the actual concept of death, they can certainly react to the fact that their companions are missing.
If you have a remaining dog and are worried that he may be pining for his deceased companion, do not rush and get a new dog as a replacement for him unless you are emotionally ready. Apart from not having the energy to deal with a new dog, you may resent him for not being/acting like your dog that has recently died. Your remaining dog may notice the absence of his canine companion and may show many of the symptoms experienced by a grieving pet owner but immediately providing a replacement may not be the best thing to do for him. So what should you do with a dog that is affected by the death of another pet?
• Stick to his normal routine as much as possible. Dogs are creatures of habit and will notice that something is wrong if you make any changes.
• If your dog is showing behaviour changes such as becoming a picky eater or suffering from anxiety when left alone, then try not to reinforce these changes by unintentionally rewarding them. So don’t change his food to suit him or give extra attention than usual, as this will only exacerbate the problem
So, when should you get a new dog? Again, this will be different in every case; some people feel the need to ‘replace’ a pet immediately in an attempt to fill the void, whilst others may feel that they will never be ready to bring another dog into the house. Generally though, it is a good idea to wait a while to get another pet as it can be difficult to make sensible decisions whilst your emotions are in turmoil. A new dog should really only be acquired because you (and your whole family) are ready to look forward and build a new relationship with a pet. It should not be because you are stuck in the past - mourning your loss and trying to regain what you had with your much-loved deceased companion. Inevitably this only leads to disappointment and heartache for you and your new dog.
Once you have decided that the time is right, how should you go about choosing a new dog? It may be a good idea to get a very different type or different looking dog from your previous pet as this may help you to avoid making unfair comparisons with him or her. You may want to consider adopting an unwanted dog from a rehoming organisation as a living tribute to your pet’s memory.
Try to treat your new pet as an individual character and avoid making any comparisons or assumptions about his behaviour. If you have acquired a new puppy after losing a much older pet, then try to remember that your previous dog also caused a few problems and disruption at that age. Remember that you will have to do everything from scratch again – you can’t expect a new dog immediately to know your routine or be trained to the same standard. If a little ‘accident’ on the carpet automatically reduces you to tears, then it is possible that you aren’t really ready for a new dog and will have to make adjustments to compensate. Remember that you won’t necessarily bond with the new dog straight away – so don’t expect too much too soon. It may take weeks, months or even years before you can feel even half as much love for this dog as you did for your previous one.
Too painful to do it all again?
If you feel that you cannot bear to go through the pain of losing another dog one day, then try to consider that this time of pain is very short compared to the years of wonderful companionship that a dog can provide you with. However, if you are adamant about this but would still like to have dogs in your life, then there are alternatives. Perhaps you could offer to walk a neighbour’s dog or volunteer at a local rehoming centre. Some rehoming organisations, like Dogs Trust, have sponsor schemes, where you pay a little a week towards the upkeep of dogs that will have difficulty being rehomed. You will be sent updates on your chosen dog’s progress and often you are able to visit your sponsor dog and even take him for walks. This way you are able to be a dog ‘owner’, without the possibility of becoming too attached and suffering such a massive loss again in the future. Perhaps this way, in time you will feel ready again to welcome another dog into your life.
For more information about Dogs Trust, to become a member, sponsor a long-term resident or help us in our campaigns please call 020 7837 0006 or write to:
Dogs Trust, 17 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7RQ.
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