Coping with the Death of Your Dog

 

 

Often we think of death as something to be feared, to be put out of mind and avoided at all costs. Yet in the end it comes to all organisms. It will come to your dog and one day it will surely come to you and me.

Practical Aspects of Dealing With Death

There are certain things concerning death with which every pet owner should be acquainted. Though we do not and cannot ask our dog his preferences in these matters, we should ask ourselves what decisions are to be implemented relevant to the death of our pet when the time comes.

Hospital Care

When an animal is seriously ill and you are considering hospitalizing it, ask your veterinarian just what to expect and what the realistic chances are for recovery. Special care often can pull an animal through a serious crisis and enable it to live a few more years. However, there are some conditions, such as some forms of cancer or major heart or kidney degeneration for which there is little or no hope for recovery. Heroic but futile efforts to prolong a pet's life might involve extensive care and expense as well as drawn out suffering for the animal.

In cases where there is no real hope for a cure and death appears to be relatively close and painless, it can make sense to consider home death. If the family feels willing and able to handle the death of a pet, both in terms of time and emotional clarity the experience can be a positive one for all involved, including the dying animal. Unless the pet has been heavily treated with drugs (such as chemotherapy for cancer), death from many serious conditions can become comparatively free of excessive discomfort.

As a general guideline, if the animal seems reasonably comfortable and peaceful, you may wish to allow the process to unfold naturally. Ask your veterinarian what kind of physical care to give your dying animal should you feed him? He should receive water and some animals find chicken broth flavored water more palatable. Put him on a blanket and give him a warm, comfortable and quiet place to rest. Occasionally, you may need to help him outside to eliminate. The animal may welcome the gentle and calm presence of those it loves, but do protect your pet from to much noise, activity or disturbance. If the family feels the inclination to sit up the night with a dying dog, by all means do so. That is, do so if you are not so visibly shaken emotionally that you disturb your dog's final hour of life.

When the end is very near, the animal will grow quite weak. The body temperature will drop and breathing may become spasmodic and gasping. The pupils may dilate and the animal may stretch out or perhaps pass urine. This final dying process can last for only a few minutes and rarely for more than an hour or two. Dogs that die simply look, to the average person, as if they are asleep. Your beautiful dog does not begin to decompose before your eyes nor does he immediately discharge a repulsive odor. So you should have no fear in sharing this experience with the children if your dog dies at home.

Many older dogs die in their sleep, at night when the body is at its lowest ebb. In such cases you may just wake up in the morning and find him peacefully asleep without heartbeat or movement in his chest. His eyes may be open or closed. If you are unsure whether your dog has died, you can lift his jowls and examine his gums. If they are white and lifeless, the blood has ceased pumping vital oxygen throughout his body. Certain muscles may twitch slightly, even after death, but this is only the remnants of electrical energy reacting in his muscles and nerve complexes and, unfortunately, not a sign that he is still alive.

When animals (and humans) die, they lose control of their excretory functions. Should you come upon your dog in the morning and, having established that he is dead, notice that he urinated and defecated involuntarily during the night, don't be shocked. Clean it up as best you can and place him on a clean blanket. You are not going to keep him warm with the blanket, for his thermal sensitivity has left him.

In summary, when at all possible, a dog should remain at home for the end with the family he has loved and who will always love him. This is much more comforting in his final moments than being transported to the antiseptic ambiance of a veterinary hospital.

Euthanasia: The Painful Choice

For a pet lover, no decision is more difficult than authorizing euthanasia. Yet, too often, this painful choice is the right choice for your pet. No one can tell you when to put your animal out of his suffering. You must be guided by what your vet tells you, what your pet conveys to you through his own very distinct and meaningful language, and what your heart tells you. If you are at all in doubt as to the prognosis that your vet gives on the health status of your dog, get another professional opinion. When in doubt, don't ever proceed hastily with euthanasia. After the loss of your pet, you will be the far greater sufferer.

If you are hesitant about euthanizing a pet, you may be better able to make the decision if you are familiar with the procedure and its alternatives. Technically speaking, veterinarians perform euthanasia by injecting an overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic into a vein or the heart. The intravenous drug does not cause any pain. The animal loses consciousness and the vital signs cease soon thereafter.

Should you wish to share in the final moments of your dog's life by being present, and perhaps holding him in your arms, stroking his head and speaking gently, then by all means tell the vet of your wishes. Very rarely will a vet refuse this poignant request but this issue is best decided before hand. If there are any problems with your vet obliging your request, you can make accommodations elsewhere.

As with sitting at home until the final hour with your pet, if you are much too distraught to contain yourself, then lavish final embraces upon our dog, walk out of the vet's office and don't turn back. Some people may be eternally tormented by the vision of a beloved dog lying dead in their arms. These people should embrace the dog one final time, walk out of the office and remember their pal as he was in life, not death. Some people may choose not to witness the procedure but to have a last good-bye after the procedure, to complete their separation. Whatever your choice, it is personal. Do whatever feels right in your heart and your dog will know you were with him until the very end.

The Proper Good-bye

At some point, you are going to have to make final arrangements for your pet. Most veterinarians can either handle matters themselves or explain the choices available. There are several options:

  • Cemetery Burial
    People have been burying their pets in a ritual fashion at least since Egyptian times. Today, there are pet cemeteries in virtually every populated area of the United States and Europe. Many are spacious, with safeguards against the land being used for other purposes and with funding to provide future grounds keeping. Standards established by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries might help you guide your choice. A list of their standards is available free on request by writing to Box 1346, South Bend, Indiana 46624 or by calling (219) 277-1115. The costs for cemetery burial vary, from around $200 for a simple burial to thousands of dollars for elaborate services. Many pet cemeteries will cooperate with veterinary clinics, sending a representative to handle details.

  • Communal Burial
    This less costly option is offered by many pet cemeteries and private humane organizations. Your pet's dignity is in no way affected by burial with other animals. Communal burial is a common choice.

  • Home Burial
    It is not uncommon for pet owners to bury their pets somewhere on their own property, but you should check with your municipal government before making such arrangements. Typically, home burial is permitted in rural and suburban settings. A tight-fitting wooden box will help safeguard your pet's remains. You may want to consider the permanency of the residence before choosing this option.

  • Individual Cremation
    Your veterinarian probably can arrange for individual cremation. This option is more costly than communal cremation, with fees commonly ranging from $75 to $250. Often pet owners will then bury the ashes, either at a pet cemetery or on their own property.

  • Communal Cremation
    In areas where land is expensive, communal cremation is a sensible alternative. Some veterinary clinics even have their own crematoriums, as do many pet cemeteries and humane organizations. The fee is relatively modest, often less than $100.

Some of the pet cemeteries in our area are: Pet Memorial Park, Foxboro, MA (800) 477-5044; Balmoral Pet Cemetery, Gaylordsville, CT (203) 354-3433 and Bide-A-Wee, Wantagh, New York (516) 785-6153. (This does not represent YGRR's endorsement of these places, we're just sharing the information.)

In Memoriam

One way to soften the impact of your pet's death is to make a donation in the animal's memory to a worthy animal-related cause. Humane organizations need financial support to care for homeless pets. Many veterinary schools accept scholarship funds in the name of the donor. Sometimes veterinarians make gifts in honor of deceased "clients." If you have a favorite animal related charity, you should tell your veterinarian.

The Grieving Process

We grieve over the death of a pet. This reaction is only natural. Our feelings toward pets are so special that experts have a term for the relationship: the human-companion animal bond. When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Society does not offer a grieving pet owner a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment "It's only a dog (cat). You can always get another." Such a reaction would be heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member, and it is generally recognized such a loss needs the support of friends and relatives. Psychologists now acknowledge that we need as much support but get far less -with the loss of a companion animal.

How We Feel

When a person dies, family friends and relatives pay their respects at the family home or funeral parlor. There is a funeral where sorrow and tears are accepted, even expected. Afterward, during a mourning period, friends and relatives assist and comfort grieving family members until their grief subsides and new routines develop. When a pet dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief. To many, a funeral for the family pet would seem eccentric and a formal period of mourning bizarre. (Pet funerals do seem to help children cope with the loss). Even the immediate family and intimate friends may not fully understand the loss. Still, the loss of a pet affects our emotions and all the more so if the pet was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief we feel.

The First Stage: Denial

Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when confronted with a pet's terminal condition or sudden death. This rejection seems to be the mind's buffer against a sharp emotional blow.

The Second Stage: Bargaining

This stage is well documented in the human grieving process. Many times, faced with impending death, an individual may "bargain" - offering some sacrifice if the loved one is spared. People losing a pet are less likely to bargain. Still, the hope that a pet might recover can foster reactions like, "If Rover recovers, I'll never skip his regular walk, never put him in a kennel when I go on vacation, never."

The Third Stage: Anger

Recognizing anger in the grief process is seldom a problem; dealing with it often is. Anger can be obvious, as in hostility or aggression. On the other hand, anger often turns inward, emerging as guilt.

Many veterinarians have heard the classic anger response, "What happened? I thought you had everything under control and now you've killed my dog!" Another standard: "You never really cared about Rover. He was just another fee to you, and I'm the one who has lost my pet!" Such outbursts help relieve immediate frustrations, though often at the expense of someone else. More commonly, pet owners dwell on the past. The number of "If only " regrets is endless: "If only I hadn't left the dog at my sister's house;" "If only I had taken her to the vet a week ago." Whether true or false, such recriminations and fears do little to relieve anger and are not constructive. Here your veterinarian's support can be helpful.

The Fourth Stage: Grief

This is the stage of true sadness. The pet is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only an emptiness remains. It is now that the support of family and friends is most important and, sadly, most difficult to find. A lack of support prolongs the grief stage. Therefore the pet owner may want to seek some help from the pet's veterinarian or from a professional counselor. It is normal, and should be acceptable, to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful, too, to recognize that other pet owners have experienced similar strong feelings , and that you are not alone in this feeling of grief.

Here are some helpful ideas from Patricia Gallagher, a professional bereavement counselor:

  • Talk it out, share your feelings, ventilate; don't let your grief get bottled up inside and cause physical problems. The chest, stomach and back are usually the body areas most affected by the stress of emotional suffering. Physical exercise sometimes helps to relieve the stress as do relaxation and meditation exercises.

  • Tears are often the best therapy for emotional strain - for both sexes and all ages. Weeping is a natural way to ease anguish and release pain. Laughter, too, can serve as an outlet for discharging pent-up emotions.

  • It's important to find an understanding group or individual with whom one can share feelings on a long-term basis. In addition to talking about the grief and telling others what is needed from them, writing down experiences in a daily log or journal can be therapeutic. Writing about feelings helps us clarify them.

  • Many people try to keep themselves too busy to think, as a way of avoiding the grief. But the feelings must be dealt with and accepted as part of a normal separation process. There is no "normal" grief span - the process is never the same for two people.

  • Giving people support when they are experiencing a severe loss is important. Words of wisdom are not required, nor are they necessarily helpful. Rather, reaching out with a card, a phone call or a personal visit meets the need. Show your concern and sorrow in your own way, but be available to your friend and encourage others to reach out too.

The Final Stage: Resolution

All things come to an end - even grieving. As time passes, the distress dissolves as the pet owner remembers the good times, not the pet's passing. And, more often than not, the answer lies in a new pet, a new companion animal to fulfill the need for a pet in the house.

If The Burden Is Too Heavy

Veterinary colleges, in studying the human-companion animal bond, are increasing their efforts to help pet owners cope with lingering grief. The following are some which have social workers specially trained to counsel pet owners.

  • The Animal Medical Center, NYC, NY, Susan Cohen: (212) 838-8100
  • The University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, Victoria Voith: (215) 898-4525
  • Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine,North Grafton, MA. (508) 839-7966
  • The MSPCA, Boston, MA, (617) 522-7400
  • Jane Nathanson, (617) 325-4828
  • M. Patricia Gallagher, Darien, CT, (203)656-2669

If you have lost a Rescue dog and need someone to talk to, call the YGRR Hotline, (978) 568-9700. Someone will call you back as soon as possible.

The University of California at Davis has a pet loss support hotline which you can reach between 9:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time at (916) 752-4200.

Cornell Veterinary School has a pet loss email and support hotline, which you can reach between 6 and 9 p.m. Eastern Time, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at (607) 253-3932.

Pets Mourn Too

They may show symptoms like refusing to eat, eating little, staying in bed or searching for the missed one. They may lose interest in the things that used to interest them.

A pet in mourning needs extra loving attention too. Sometimes increased physical activity will help, and if the deceased was another pet, in time it may help to introduce another one. It may be helpful to remove items from the home that carry the scent of the deceased. Profound grieving in an animal should not last more that a month to six weeks.


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This information is made available to you by the efforts of YGRR volunteers. To join them in helping our homeless Goldens, please consider becoming a member or making a donation.

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Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1985.
Rescue and Adoption services for Golden Retrievers from the six New England states.
Address: P.O. Box 808, Hudson, MA 01749-0808
Hotline: 978-568-9700

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