For many people, the death of their pet comes with many difficult decisions. Because each pet is different, as are his or her owners, options, feelings and coping mechanisms vary. Experts predict that over half the human population has a pet at home. The average life expectancy for pets is 15 to 16 years. Given these statistics, it's safe to say that a great number of people will experience the death of a pet at least once in their lifetimes.
The relationship between humans and their pets is often described by psychologists as a simple one—free of the complications that people experience in dealing with each other and full of unconditional love. This can often make the grieving process more intense when a pet dies. A pet is a constant companion, and facing its loss can be devastating. Angela, who is facing the impending death of her own cat, says: "Stones is my baby. I got her as a kitten and raised her right after I moved out of my parents' house. She has lived my adult life with me, and this is, by far the most 'adult' decision I've ever made. It's terrible, and nowadays I can't look at her without apologizing or crying."
Dr. Amir Shanan, who runs the Compassionate Veterinary Care facility and is one of the country's leading veterinarians on hospice practices, euthanasia and end-of-life conversations, urges grieving "pet parents," as he calls them, to consider all the options. "We don't have a lot of control over the fact that we're losing our pet," Dr. Shanan explains. "We still have control over a lot of things, and having that control can make a really big difference in how we experience the grief."
Dr. Shanan feels that working with a vet to explore options is the best course of action, such as providing pets with hospice care at home, acupuncture, and exploring holistic medicines to provide comfort to a pet with an illness. Dr. Shanan's Lincoln Park practice offers human-friendly hospital rooms for ailing pets that require constant vet care. The individual rooms have sofas for pet parents to sleep on overnight to be near their pets.
The grieving process during the end of a pet's life is different for everyone, but it may include some of the complex emotions of the grief cycle, which are guilt, denial, anger and depression. Experts recommend speaking to others who understand pet loss and can provide support to pet parents.
In addition, many online sites have chat rooms and message boards for grieving pet owners to utilize. Dr. Shanan says that his practice receives many phone calls from grieving pet parents and his well-trained staff will stay on the phone as long as needed, even if there are clients in the waiting room. "When you're at a point as a pet parent and you have a decision that many people say is the most difficult in their life, being heard, being validated, the message they get from us is, of course, you're sad," Dr. Shanan says. "That alone gives the caller some strength that they didn't have earlier."
Memorializing a pet can be a healthy part of the grieving process. Dr. Shanan recommends reminiscing about the pet's life with friends and family. Writing a letter to a pet may help clarify a pet parent's grief. A framed photo or a photo album can help remind a pet parent of their pet. Some people keep the ashes of their pets and bury them in a spot favored by their pet.
Many pet owners wonder if they should get another pet, but can feel guilty about "replacing" their pet. Most animal lovers enjoy the pet relationship so much that they do adopt another pet with they feel the time is right. Michelle says: "I knew I could adopt again because every pet has a distinct personality. My son and I waited about a year until we could handle young cats, and then we looked for months for the right cats for us."
Losing a pet can be one of the most devastating things to happen to a pet owner. Sometimes the loss is sudden, but more often it is the result of an illness or condition that has worsened over time, facing the pet wonder with the difficult decision of whether to euthanize or let the animal die naturally. The fact that it is difficult to gage how much a pet may be suffering makes the decision all the more difficult. Support and understanding are especially important to seek out. For Angela, whose cat, Stones, has been a steadfast friend for nine years, life without her seems empty. "I can't imagine waking through this door and not hav(ing) her here."
PAWS Chicago, www.pawschicago.org
Christina Fugate is a writer who hails from Chicago. This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Angel Tales.