A few suggestions, tips, and ideas to help families that are dealing with Pet Loss.

Working in a 24 hour Emergency Veterinary clinic means that our veterinary team sees a large variety of patients with many different illnesses and ailments. Dr. Desiree FitzGerald, WestVet Emergency Veterinarian, with tips on Pet Loss and Grief.There are many, many, amazing stories of recovery and pets who return to their families. However, there are times when animals perish and the loss of the furry family member is always tender and painful. One of our Emergency Veterinarians, Dr. Desiree FitzGerald, worked as a grief counselor for pet loss and shared her thoughts on grieving the loss of pets in today’s blog post:

Simply put, pets enrich our lives, as the wagging tail ready to greet us at the door after a long day or the furry blanket curling into our laps. Scientifically, research shows that pets can bring health benefits. Owning a pet has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and increase our activity as they insist on a nightly walk. So, it is no surprise that when we lose a pet, grief is involved.

Often people question, what is “normal” grief? How long should I grieve? How should I grieve? When should I get a new pet? We will explore some of these questions today.   

As an emergency doctor, I see all kinds of reactions as people are faced with the difficult decision to euthanize their beloved pet, whether the result of a tragic accident, a senior friend at the end of a long life, or a sudden onset of serious sickness.  Regardless of the circumstance, it is always an extremely difficult decision and heart-wrenching experience. Just as people are different, they handle these situations very differently. One of the key things to remember, there is no wrong or right way to grieve.

In my training as manager for the WSU-Pet Loss Hotline, I learned that first and foremost, it is important to realize anyone losing a pet is experiencing a loss—regardless of their outward expression.  At times, I see within the same family, a myriad of grief responses. Sometimes, a lack of emotion or visible reaction is interpreted as a lack of love or caring, when it is simply not the case. On the other hand, a person visibly distraught may be viewed as losing control. The bottom line—everyone handles grief differently. 

Another factor that contributes to grief is that people—even in the same family—have different relationships with their pets. For some, the pet is considered to be a sibling or child, while others have a more distant relationship with the pet. (This is not something to feel guilty about, if you grieved a previous pet loss intensely, and another one is easier, it just means that the relationship and connection was different for you.) All of these factors come into play when a person experiences grief. In particular, children may have extreme difficulty with a loss of a pet, we will address this topic in depth in a future blog post.

It has been my experience that often people are surprised at the intensity of grief they felt for a pet loss, even one they didn’t think they were particularly close to. At times, grief can be compounded with other life difficulties such as divorce, loss of family member, life changes, stress at work, etc. Losing your pet during other stressful times can bring to the surface the other feelings or losses you have experienced, and you may even feel like you are starting to grieve everything all over again.

Most importantly with any type of loss—it is important to realize that it is not a linear process. The five stages of grief commonly referred to in the psychology or counseling arena apply to the loss of a pet. These stages are denial, anger, isolation, bargaining, and acceptance. You may find yourself moving in and out of different stages of grief months and even years after the loss. Allow yourself time to heal, don’t jump into new commitments with pets or other situations until you feel you are ready. 

Reach out to family and friends for support, but remember this may be new territory for them, too, and they may inadvertently not provide the support you need. There are other resources that can help. We have listed a few on our website, HERE

Some ways that you can heal include writing a letter to your pet, memorializing them with a scrapbook, framing picture, or creating an online memorial, etc. A physical gesture can bring some peace and closure and enable you to say goodbye in your own time and way. 

Sometimes people struggle with the decision of euthanizing their pet and want the pet to ‘die on their own.’  While at times this can be the right thing to do, in other situations, this may entail a prolonged and painful end to your long-time friend’s life. As a pet owner, we are given the gift of allowing our pet to no longer suffer. Euthanasia is a painless and controlled method in which pet owners can say goodbye. Talk with your veterinarian regarding this decision. He/she can make recommendations based on your pet’s health, their quality of life, and your relationship with your pet. A previous blog post, written by Dr. Laura Lefkowitz, detailed this difficult decision and factors to consider, you may access it HERE. 

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