Coping with the death of a pet is very similar in many ways to when a human dies. However, given that all living beings are ‘born to die’, sadly death continues to be a taboo subject for many.
It is a fact, that few pets pass peacefully away in their sleep and often owners find themselves at their local veterinary practice with some very hard decisions to make in a very short space of time but more on that later. Many people are surprised by the intense grief they experience on the death of a pet, this is because it can act as a type of emotional trigger, which may release years of pent-up emotions. Generally there are a few main stages to grieving that have to be worked through. The way we grieve is a very individual thing and whilst some may work through the process in a relatively short space of time, others will take longer and possibly get stuck on one of the stages when a little help may be required to help them through.
Then of course, apart from the animals owner and family, we have to remember any other animals that shared their lives with the departed one. Animals do grieve and there is actually ongoing research being done into this subject at present.
There is so much involved with the death of a pet that I have decided just to cover the main points in the hope that it will give the reader some ’food for thought’. I will not go into too much detail but if you find yourself getting upset at any stage when reading the following, stop and return to it at a later time.
As already mentioned, few animals these days pass away naturally and peacefully in their sleep. Some sadly die as the result of being hit by a vehicle and like humans, they can suffer heart attacks and kidney failure. If however you have a very ill or elderly animal that has to be taken to the vet, do you know what happens or what to expect. In general most small animals are ‘put to sleep’ by means of an injection. It is usually a very quick process, the speed of which sometimes surprises owners. The owner must then decide whether to stay with their pet or withdraw whilst the injection is administered. Personally, I like to stay with my ‘little ones’ when the time comes to say that final farewell, to wish for a peaceful transition and to send loving wishes for the next stage of their journey. My husband however is unable to do this and I know many people who are unable to remain at this time. It is a very personal thing and you must do what feels right for you. No-one will think the worst of you, if you decide not to stay for the final moments. If you are very distressed, your pet will also be aware of this. However, do not be embarrassed to shed a few tears, you will not be the first person to do so and I always do afterwards. If you want to say ‘good bye’ and spend a minute or two with your pet after your vet has completed the procedure, say so, this should not be a problem.
It is also possible in some cases, to have an animal ‘put to sleep’ in its home environment. From personal experience I would urge anyone considering this, to think about it carefully. I have had 3 pets die at home, one suddenly with heart problems, and 2 that were vet assisted. The main problem I have found with this is that the spot/area where they die tends to act as a reminder of their death for a long, long, time.
Also if the procedure is done at your veterinary practice, your vet has everything he needs including the help of trained nurses, close at hand in the event of any unexpected complications which I will say from experience are rare but do happen on occasions.
Do not be afraid to ask at your local veterinary practice about animal euthanasia, there will be someone there, probably a practice nurse, who will be happy to talk you through it. A Pet Bereavement Counsellor will also be able to explain everything to you and help afterwards ir required. Talking to someone qualified in this area can help greatly. Do not wait until the actual time of death, being prepared and having a chance to decide what you want well in advance can help enormously. It means you are able to make well informed decisions, knowing what you want for your pet rather than making hasty decisions that you may regret at a later time.
Following the death, decisions then have to be made about the remains. If you have a garden, you may decide to bury your pet there if there are no local restrictions preventing this. If you do not have a garden but would like your pet buried, there are pet cemeteries, you would probably find your local one in Yellow Pages. The other option is cremation which either your vet will arrange for you, or, you can arrange yourself with the appropriate people. If your vet arranges cremation, think carefully about whether you would like your pets ashes back or not - you can not ask for them to be returned at a later date. Cremation with the ashes being returned is more expensive than not having them back but it depends upon your wishes. Some owners like to scatter the ashes and perform a little ceremony, as with a burial. I like to plant something that will be a pleasant reminder for the future and place the ashes in the soil at time of planting. Again it has to be what feels right for you.
There are companies that will perform the burial for you just like a human one, it is possible these days to have whatever you wish, at a price of course.
On this website you will also find appropriate words that can be said or used as a guide but you may have ideas of your own. Whatever the words, providing they come from the heart they will be fine.
Firstly, never, ever tell anyone who has recently experienced the death or loss of a pet to pull themselves together and get on with life as after all it was only a animal!!
As previously mentioned there are several main grieving stages: there is the initial shock/numbness; followed by a yearning for the departed pet; then there are usually feelings of anger, despair and disorganisation. Many owners try to blame either themselves or their vet, for their pets death. Thinking that they should have done more for their pet, or that the vet should have done more, and so on. When these stages have been worked through, it should be possible to move on with life. The aim, as with a human death, is to be able to remember the departed one with a smile and fond/happy memories. There is no set time in which to complete the grieving process, we are all individuals. The main thing is to grieve, do not be afraid to have a good cry, this helps to release the tension within you. If you need permission to grieve, then you have mine as a bereavement counsellor. This may seem a strange thing to say but many years ago when my father died from cancer, I got stuck on the shock/numbness stage and eventually it made me ill. I had been brought up not to show my emotions, stiff upper lip and all that, and it was a homeopathic practitioner a few years later that helped me to release many years of pent up emotion and to complete my grieving process.
In addition to the emotional affects of grief, many people will also experience physical signs such as loss of appetite, feeling sick, being unable to sleep, crying, etc.
People may find they experience similar emotional and physical symptoms when an animal goes missing, it can be a very stressful time. The ‘not knowing what has happened factor’ can play heavily on the mind.
Children and death
The death of a pet can be a child’s first experience with death and here, the age of the child/children would be an important factor. It is considered best to tell a child using simple factual explanations using the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ but sayings such as ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘taken by God’ should be avoided as they may confuse a child and frighten them. It is important not to dismiss any questions asked by a child but perhaps similar to when a child starts to ask about the ‘facts of life’, it is wise to answer only what is asked. A child will ask more questions in their own time as they think things through. When dealing with death, if a child asks a question about death that you can not answer, do not make up an answer, be truthful and say that you don’t have an answer to that particular question. Open, honest communications are best at all times, involve your children in the process, do not ignore them. Explain to them that it is normal to cry and to experience a variety of feelings they have not felt before. Do not be afraid to let your children see that you are saddened by the death of your pet, this can sometimes help them to understand their own sadness.
Similar to pets that grieve for a lost companion, children may also show changes in behaviour. Watch for any changes in behaviour and act accordingly, if the child is of school age it is worth letting a teacher know what has happened so that they are able to understand and help the child at school if necessary.
The possible effects of an animal (or human) death on other pets or companion animals
Animals are more intelligent than most people think and they do having feelings just like us. Animals are rather like children in many ways but they all have their own personalities and are beings that should be treated with kindness and respect.
It is only recently that research has begun into the effects of grief in animals. A survey of 160 households in America showed that following the death of a companion cat, the surviving cats recorded in the survey, tended to eat less, sleep more, and vocalise more. It was noted that all pets that lost a companion were behaving normally again within a six month period.
Some animals may appear not to be affected by the death of a companion animal, some may even seem happier, more outgoing, especially when a dominant animal passes on. In a multi pet household/environment, it is common following the death of one of the animals for there to be a period of uncertainty/change. This is to allow for a new hierarchy to be established and may cause a few changes in behaviour of the animals whilst this process takes place.
We then come to animals who grieve for their companion and this can become apparent in many ways - watch for any changes to usual behaviour. An owner may notice that a pet has gone off its food, this in turn can lead to loss of weight. A tendency to over groom, a sign of anxiety, may also occur. An animal may also become lethargic, changes in temperament may also be noticed and indoor spraying may occur.
DO NOT punish the animal or tell it off. If owners are concerned by any changes in their pets behaviour they should consult their vet to check the reason for the changes in case any treatment is required.
It can be helpful in some cases to let the other household pets or close companions such as a related animal, see the dead animal for a short while, this can help them come to terms with the loss but is not always possible. Owners should try to spend more time with their pets following a death, to reassure and comfort them. Make time each day to groom your pet(s), play with them and if one of a close pair has died, make time just to be with the remaining pet as they may well be feeling very lonely and just being there for them can help them greatly whilst they adjust to their loss.
Animals can also grieve when a human who had been important in their lives dies, such as their owner or member of the household. I have also seen cats who have been affected when their owners have battled through serious illness such as cancer - they can become stressed, anxious, go off their food, experience behaviour changes, and so on. Similar changes in fact to those noticed following a death.
Following the death of a pet DO NOT rush out to obtain a replacement without giving the matter careful consideration, it is not always the answer and can create further problems. People tend to think that if they buy a similar pet, i.e. same breed, that it will be the same as the pet they have lost. This is not the case, the personality of the new animal will generally be different, some of the breed traits will be there but there will be a difference. Also, getting another animal for an animal that has lost its companion needs very careful consideration. Don’t expect your pet to immediately welcome a new comer to the home. Sometimes it works with careful choosing and initial introductions but it can also lead to problems if they do not accept one another.
When one of a pair of cats dies, especially for oriental cats, a teddy bear can be a great new friend and comforter. This can also work with very young and elderly animals. Please make sure though that the teddy bear is a suitable size and safe.
Bach Flower Rescue Remedy is also excellent to help both animals and humans at time of loss. It helps with the effects of shock and stress and it will not harm the animal. Just put a few drops into their water bowl each day.
Talking to someone who is not closely involved can help greatly, especially if that person is trained in bereavement counselling, they will listen carefully to you and help you come to terms with your loss.
As I mentioned at the start, death and the effects of death, is a vast subject and it is not possible to cover everything here. I hope however this article will be of help and interest to some and if you want any further information please talk to your vet or contact a Companion Animal (Pet) Bereavement Counsellor. I am always happy to talk or correspond with. I can be contacted through my website: www.treetops-cattery.com
Beyond the Rainbow
As much as I loved the life we had and all the times we played,
I was so very tired and knew my time on earth would fade.
I saw a wondrous image of a place that’s trouble free,
Where all of us can meet again to spend eternity.
I saw the most beautiful rainbow, and on the other side
were meadows rich and beautiful, lush green and wide!
Running through the meadows as far as the eye could see
were animals of every sort as healthy as could be!
My own tired, failing body was fresh, healed and new
And I wanted to go run with them, but I had something left to do.
I needed to reach out to you, to tell you I’m alright
That this place is truly wonderful, then a bright glow pierced the night.
‘Twas the glow of many candles shining bright and strong and bold
And I knew then that it held your love in its brilliant shades of gold.
For although we may not be together in the way we used to be,
We are still connected by a cord no eye can see.
So whenever you need me, we’re never far apart,
If you look beyond the rainbow and listen with your heart.