One of the most difficult times many pet owners encounter in life is coping with events close to and at the end of their pet’s life, and then managing the grief that comes after the death of the pet.
One of the main questions that faces the owner of a pet that is chronically or terminally ill is when the decision to have the pet put to sleep should be made? The advice of your vet should help to guide you at this most difficult time. Quality of life is subjective – it is not solely judged by whether the animal may be in pain (pain can often be well controlled with modern medications), but the pet’s general interest in life, energy levels, appetite, mobility, etc. all need to be factored into any decision being made.
The aim of veterinary euthanasia is a pain-free, dignified death with as little stress for the pet and as little upset for the owner as possible. It can be valuable for a pet owner communicate with their vet beforehand to talk about any concerns they may have and how the process can happen in as stress-free a way as possible. The owner should decide on burial versus cremation in advance of the euthanasia. The owner may enquire whether a house call be possible, and it is important to discuss that with the vet in advance of the procedure.
A pet owner should consider euthanasia as a final act of kindness, a selfless act aimed at preventing unnecessary suffering of their beloved pet. When the time comes try to make an appointment for a quiet time of the day with your vet. The procedure is relatively quick and painless and many owners prefer to stay with the pet for the procedure. To put an animal to sleep the vet will administer an intravenous injection of a barbiturate anaesthetic which is concentrated and rapidly puts the animal to sleep. First of all some hair is clipped, usually from the front leg. Sometimes a vet will choose to sedate the pet first and sometimes the vet may place an intravenous cannula. Owners should be aware that a pet may have post-mortem muscle contractions, may urinate or defaecate after death. Pets generally don’t close their eyes which can upset some owners, but once the owner is prepared for these details the final act of euthanasia can be less stressful in anticipation and less shocking in its execution.
Bereavement can affect both the humans and animals left behind. Surviving pets may show some behaviour changes – loss of appetite, changed behaviour patterns, etc. Try not to inadvertently reinforce these changes by giving additional attention or tidbits as this can make the changed behaviour more permanent. Whether to allow surviving pets to see a deceased pet is difficult to judge but it is certainly not a wrong thing to do.
It is normal and right for you to grive after losing a pet. Do not bottle it up, talk to someone with pets who will understand what you are going through.
Human bereavement over the loss of a pet can be powerful and sometimes overwhelming experience the intensity of which frequently takes owners by surprise. Adult grief related to pet loss often goes unrecognised by family and friends and so can be an isolating experience. Remember that grieving is a process and that this process can actually begin before the pet dies (for example with the diagnosis of a terminal illness or the steady decline of an older pet). It helps to recognise your feelings and if possible to share them with someone else who understands. Emotions associated with the loss of a pet include shock, denial, sadness, blame, guilt, etc. These can result in bereaved pet owners crying, feeling confused or becoming depressed, and may lead to temporary social isolation. Many owners experience a decreased ability to concentrate and a loss of appetite.
Guilt from euthanasia can be an all-consuming emotion but an owner should never forget that they have acted out of kindness and love for their pet to prevent needless suffering at the end of the pet’s life. An example of a typical guilty feeling include the feeling that one could have done more to prevent the illness or to treat the illness. Some people experience anger after the death of a pet; this can be aimed at the vet who treated the pet, at family members or even randomly at strangers. Being willing to recognise and accept these feelings as normal parts of the bereavement process is important. Remember that recognising and expressing grief is healthy, and that suppression of grief tends to prolong the healing process.
If you have lost a pet remember to take care of yourself. Try to eat, sleep and exercise as normal. Try to find a sympathetic person to share your feelings with. Consider creating a small memorial – a photo album or a tribute box or urn containing your pet’s ashes can sometimes help owners to work through their grief. With time the raw negative emotions associated with the death of the pet will gradually be replaced by fond memories of happier times, but how long this takes will vary hugely from person to person.
Just as pets deserve to be given good lives by their human companions, so they deserve to have peaceful ends. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. On mature reflection, as long as you know that you’ve done the best for your pet, both in life and around the time of death, then there should be nothing to feel sorry about.
Authored by Fintan Browne MVB, Anicare Veterinary Group