End-of-Life Resources & Pet Loss Support for Beloved Animal Companions
Oakland Veterinary Referral Services and Emergency Critical Care understands the unique relationship between pets and their families. Having pets of our own and having lost our beloved friends, we are able to understand the terrible loss that our clients feel when their pet dies or is euthanized.
Your Pet's Passing: A Resource for Coping and Creating Lasting Memories
Click here to download the book Your Pet's Passing, written to help guide and comfort during this difficult time.
It's Okay to Truly Love a Pet
Adapted from the Michigan State University Pet Loss Support Hotline
When you must face the loss of an extraordinary animal companion, you may be shocked to find yourself experiencing intense grief. It might be worrisome to have an overwhelming response to "just an animal".
We know that your pet was not "just an animal". Your pet, for reasons perhaps known only to you, found a very special, unique place in your life and your heart.
Part of losing a companion animal is knowing that no other pet or person will ever fill that special place.
"I cannot thank you enough for you kindness. From the moment we entered the clinic I had no doubt that my little boy was in good hands. Our service was quick, kind and understanding. Everyone, from the receptionist, to the techs, to the doctors were so kind and thoughtful. The tech, who made my boy a bed of warmth so I could sit with him was so wonderful. Dr. Green- your job of delivering the bad news to us was done in the best way possible. I cannot thank everyone there enough for their kindness. Tyler was laid to rest that same day. I held him on the drive home and he was loved every moment of his life. The pain of his passing is so over whelming, but I am comforted to know that he did not suffer and that his care was so excellent."
Reaction to Loss
Every loss is unique and every person grieves differently even when experiencing the loss of the same animal. Give yourself permission to have a reaction, whatever it is.
Grief can occur before, during or after the loss of a beloved pet and triggers a variety of reactions that are considered normal:
- Crying spells
- Feeling hopeless
Profound sadness and grief may last for weeks or, without proper attention, for many years.
Questions and Emotions to Explore
- Determining the time to say good-bye
- Making specific arrangements for euthanasia
- Considering why we feel guilt over the loss of a pet
- Deciding how to talk to children about losing a pet
- Planning how to take care of your pet's remains
- Thinking of ways to memorialize your pet
- Deciding whether or when to bring another pet into your life
- Understanding that it is normal to grieve, at times, for a pet lost months or years ago
Suggestions for Self Care
- Reach out - don't be alone with your grief
- Talk only with people who understand
- Get plenty of rest
- Eat something nutritious, even if you are not hungry
- Avoid alcohol and drugs, as they can intensify feelings of depression
Coping With the Loss of a Pet
Adapted from the Home Vet website
Our pets live relatively short lives. For many of us who love our pets, their death can affect some of us even more than the death of a relative or friend. The death of a pet leaves few people totally untouched.
A pet may come to symbolize many things to each of us. It may represent a child, perhaps a child yet to be conceived or the innocent child in us all. It may reflect the ideal mate or parent, ever faithful, patient and welcoming, loving us unconditionally. It is a playmate and a sibling. It is a reflection of ourselves, embodying negative and positive qualities we recognize or lack in ourselves. The same pet may be all of these, alternating between roles on any given day or for each member of the family.
When a pet dies, we expect that our pain will be acknowledged, even if it is not shared, by our relatives, friends and colleagues. Though the bond between you and your pet is as valuable as any of your human relationships, the importance of its loss may not be appreciated by other people. The process of grieving for a pet is no different than mourning the death of a human being. The difference lies in the value that is placed on your pet by your family and by society as a whole.
Your grief may be compounded by lack of response from a friend or family member. Realize that you do not need anyone else's approval to mourn the loss of your pet, nor must you justify your feelings to anyone. Do not fault anyone who cannot appreciate the depth of your grief for a pet. The joy found in the companionship of a pet is a blessing not given to everyone.
Seek validation for your pain from people who will understand you. Speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary technician, groomer or another pet owner. Ask for a referral to pet grief support groups or veterinary bereavement counselors in your area. The death of a pet can revive painful memories and unresolved conflicts from the past that amplify your current emotional upheaval. Seek comfort in the support of professional counselors or clergy.
This is an opportunity for emotional growth. Your life was and will continue to be brighter because of the time that you shared with your pet. This is the best testament to the value of your pet's existence.
Five Stages of Mourning
The stages of mourning are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life. Mourning occurs in response to an individual's own terminal illness or to the death of a valued being, human or animal. There are five stages of normal grief.
In our bereavement, we spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage more or less intensely. The five stages do not necessarily occur in order. We often move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. Many of us are not afforded the luxury of time required to achieve this final stage of grief. The death of your pet might inspire you to evaluate your own feelings of mortality. Throughout each stage, a common thread of hope emerges. As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life.
Denial and Isolation: The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished pet is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
Anger: As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased pet. Rationally, we know the animal is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent it for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry.
The veterinarian who diagnosed the illness and was unable to cure the disease, or who performed euthanasia of the pet, might become a convenient target. Health professionals deal with death and dying every day. That does not make them immune to the suffering of their patients or to those who grieve for them.
Do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian to give you extra time or to explain just once more the details of your pet's illness. Arrange a special appointment or ask that he telephone you at the end of his day. Ask for clear answers to your questions regarding medical diagnosis and treatment. Discuss the cost of treatment. Discuss burial arrangements. Understand the options available to you. Take your time. Both you and your veterinarian will find that honest and open communication now are an invaluable long-term investment.
Bargaining: The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. If only we had sought medical attention sooner. If we got a second opinion from another doctor. If we changed our pet's diet, maybe it will get well. Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.
Depression: Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate. We worry about the cost of treatment and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our pet farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.
Acceptance: Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.
Pets that are terminally ill or aging appear to go through a final period of withdrawal. This is by no means a suggestion that they are aware of their own mortality, only that physical decline may be sufficient to produce a similar response. Their behavior implies that it is natural to reach a stage at which social interaction is limited. The dignity and grace shown by our dying pets may well be their last gift to us.
Explaining Pet Loss to your Child
It is natural to want to protect our children from painful experiences. Most adults, however, are surprised to find how well most children adjust to the death of a pet if they are prepared with honest, simple explanations. From a young age, children begin to understand the concept of death, even though they may be unaware of it at a conscious level.
When a pet is dying, it may be more difficult for a child to resolve the grief experienced if the child is not told the truth. Adults should avoid using terms like "put to sleep" when discussing euthanasia of a family pet. A child could misinterpret this common phrase, indicating the adult's denial of death, and develop a terror of bedtime. Suggesting to a child that "God has taken" the pet might create conflict in the child, who could become angry at the higher power for cruelty toward a pet and the child.
Children are capable of understanding, each in their own way, that life must end for all living things. Support their grief by acknowledging their pain. The death of a pet can be an opportunity for a child to learn that adult caretakers can be relied upon to extend comfort and reassurance. It is an important opportunity to encourage a child to express his or her feelings.
Two- and Three-Year- Olds: Children who are two or three years old typically have no understanding of death. They often consider it a form of sleep. They should be told that their pet has died and will not return. Common reactions to this include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The two- or three-year-old should be reassured that the pet's failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done. Typically, a child in this age range will readily accept another pet in place of the dead one.
Four-, Five-, and Six-Year-Olds: Children in this age range have some understanding of death but in a way that relates to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe, and play. Alternatively, it may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected if the child views death as temporary. These children often feel that any anger they had for the pet may be responsible for its death. This view should be refuted because they may also translate this belief to the death of family members in the past. Some children also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. They should be reassured that their death is not likely. Manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control, eating, and sleeping. This is best managed by parent-child discussions that allow the child to express feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are generally more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.
Seven-, Eight-, and Nine-Year-Olds: The irreversibility of death becomes real to these children. They usually do not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to themselves. However, some children may develop concerns about death of their parents. They may become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond frankly and honestly to questions that may arise. Several manifestations of grief may occur in these children, including the development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacal concerns, or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over-attentiveness, or clinging behavior may be seen. Based on grief reactions to loss of parents or siblings, it is likely that the symptoms may not occur immediately but several weeks or months later.
Adolescents: Although this age group also reacts similarly to adults, many adolescents may exhibit various forms of denial. This usually takes the form of a lack of emotional display. Consequently, these young people may be experiencing sincere grief without any outward manifestations.
Reasons for Euthanasia
We are never quite prepared for the death of a pet. Whether death is swift and unexpected or whether it comes at the end of a slow decline, we are never fully aware of what a pet has brought to our lives until our companion is gone.
Our involvement with the final outcome may be passive. We may simply not pursue medical or surgical treatment in an aging pet. Perhaps its ailment has no cure and the best we can do is alleviate some of its suffering so that it may live the remainder of its days in relative comfort. An illness or accident may take it suddenly.
Everyone secretly hopes for a pet's peaceful passing, hoping to find it lying in its favorite spot in the morning. The impact of a pet's death is significantly increased when, as responsible and loving caretakers, we decide to have the pet euthanized.
Euthanasia is the induction of painless death. In veterinary practice, it is accomplished by intravenous injection of a concentrated dose of anesthetic. The animal may feel slight discomfort when the needle tip passes through the skin, but this is no greater than for any other injection. The euthanasia solution takes only seconds to induce a total loss of consciousness. This is soon followed by respiratory depression and cardiac arrest.
Doctors of veterinary medicine do not exercise this option lightly. Their medical training and professional lives are dedicated to diagnosis and treatment of disease. Veterinarians are keenly aware of the balance between extending an animal's life and its suffering. Euthanasia is the ultimate tool to mercifully end a pet's suffering.
To request euthanasia of a pet is probably the most difficult decision a pet owner can make. All the stages of mourning may flood together, alternating rapidly. We may resent the position of power. We may feel angry at our pet for forcing us to make the decision. We may postpone the decision, bargaining with ourselves that if we wait another day, the decision will not be necessary. Guilt sits heavily on the one who must decide. The fundamental guideline is to do what is best for your pet, even if you suffer in doing this. Remember that as much as your pet has the right to a painless death, you have the right to live a happy life.
Each of us mourns differently, some more privately than others, and some recover more quickly. Some pet owners find great comfort in acquiring a new pet soon after the loss of another. Others, however, become angry at the suggestion of another pet. They may feel that they are being disloyal to the memory of the preceding pet. Do not rush into selecting a replacement pet. Take the time to work through your grief.
To help you to prepare for the decision to euthanize your pet, consider the following questions. They are intended as a guide; only you can decide what is the best solution for you and your pet. Take your time. Speak with your veterinarian. Which choice will bring you the least cause for regret after the pet is gone?
Consider the following:
- What is the current quality of my pet's life?
- Is my pet still eating well? Playful? Affectionate toward me?
- Is my pet interested in the activity surrounding it?
- Does my pet seem tired and withdrawn most of the time?
- Is my pet in pain?
- Is there anything I can do to make my pet more comfortable?
- Are any other treatment options available?
- If a behavioral problem has led me to this decision, have I sought the expertise of a veterinary behavior consultant?
- Do I still love my pet the way I used to, or am I angry and resentful of the restrictions its condition has placed on my lifestyle?
- Does my pet sense that I am withdrawing from it?
- What is the quality of my life and how will this change?
- Will I want to be present during the euthanasia?
- Will I say goodbye to my pet before the euthanasia because it is too painful for me to assist?
- Will I want to wait in the reception area until it is over?
- Do I want to be alone or should I ask a friend to be present?
- Do I want any special burial arrangements made?
- Can my veterinarian store the body so that I can delay burial arrangements until later?
- Do I want to adopt another pet?
- Do I need time to recover from this loss before even considering another pet?
Web Resources for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Adapted from the Michigan State University Pet Loss Support Hotline
Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement — www.aplb.org
Site includes chat rooms, website links and memorial pages. Hotline, counselor and group information for US and Ontario. Information for equine and resources for children.
AVMA Brochures — www.avma.org/communications/brochures/default.asp
Brocures available online and for print. Including When Your Animal Dies, Pet Euthanasia and Equine Euthanasia.
Cherished Keepsakes — www.nepanetwork.com/keepsakes
Tribute and memorial pages for dogs and cats. Links for poems, books, pet cemeteries and support hotline resources by state.
Colorado State University — www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu
Information for families and children, memorialization and coping with sick animals. Offering memorial plaques and stones for the Tribute Garden.
Companion Animal of Arizona, Inc. — www.caaainc.org
Local support information and brochures available. Site includes online forum.
Cornell University — www.vet.cornell.edu/org/petloss
Information about stages of grieving, euthanasia and frequently asked questions regarding pet loss. List of books and videos and website links.
Cremation Resource — www.cremationresource.org
Information and answers to common questions regarding cremation.
Delta Society — www.deltasociety.org
Information for hotlines, counseling and groups. Various articles on pet less.
Eden Publications — www.creatures.com
List of books for pet loss and bereavement.
Faithful Companion Memorials — www.faithfulcompanionmemorials.com
Cremations, urns and memorials.
Forever Pets — www.foreverpets.com
Specialized and custom urns, paw prints and plaques. List of books and website links including lost and missing, online memorials, pet portraits, counselors, rescues and shelters, books, articles, sympathy cards and support groups and hotlines.
Grief Healing — www.griefhealing.com/petlinks.htm
Thorough listing of web resources for every aspect of pet loss and bereavement. List of recommended books, cassettes and CDs. Website links for hotlines, message boards and chat rooms. Newletters and articles available. Resources for children available.
In Memory of Pets — www.in-memory-of-pets.com
Memorial pages with poems, photos, comments, stories and message boards. Resources for grief suppport, pet hospice, pet cemeteries, rescues and shelter,s as well as books and more.
Iowa State University — www.vetmed.iastate.edu/animal_owners/petloss/default.asp
Resources for grieving and euthanasia. Printed and audiovisual materials available. Website links.
Michigan State University — www.cvm.msu.edu/petloss/index.htm
Book list and articles on handling loss. Local group information and website links.
Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets — www.pethospice.org
Pet Loss Support page with links to books and cassettes, including summaries of each. Pet Loss Services page has info limited to California Bay area.
The Ohio State University — www.vet.osu.edu/792.htm
Website links and book list.
Our Pals — www.ourpals.com
Resource for grief support including poems, stories, preparing for pet loss and what to expect. Website links with brief outline for each. Memorialization merchandise available.
Pet Grief Support and Candle Ceremony — www.petloss.com
Candle ceremony and tribute pages. The Rainbow Bridge poem available in 10 languages. Site includes chat rooms, message boards, and poetry collection. Website links to online support groups and hotline information.
Pet Loss Support Page — www.pet-loss.com
Listing of hotlines, groups and counselors by state.
Pet Place — www.petplace.com
Articles for coping with loss of cats, dogs, horses, reptiles and small mammals.
Tufts University — www.tufts.edu/vet/petloss
Website links to resources for grieving, online support groups and book lists.
University of Illinois — www.cvm.uiuc.edu/advancement/bond.html
Information on grief process and family grief. Pet gallery and online resources and books.
University of California-Davis — www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/petloss
Article on loving and losing pets. Listing of books and books especially for children.
University of Guelph Canada — www.ovc.uoguelph.ca/petloss
Articles on grieving, euthanasia and pet loss. Newsletter available online.
Washington State University — www.vetmed.wsu.edu/plhl/home
Articles on grieving process and how to help those who are grieving, how to help children. Information on memorialization and pet memorial page with donation.
Recommended Reading List
Adapted from the Argus Institute at Colorado State University
Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, ISBN 1879779005 (2001)
Journey Through Pet Loss by D. Antinori, YokoSpirit Publications, ISBN 0966884817 (Revised 2000) Audio Cassette
Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, ISBN 080664348X (2003)
Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet by Gary Kowalski, Stillpoint Publishing, ISBN 1883478227 (1997)
Preparing for Pet Loss
A Final Act of Caring by Herb and Mary Montgomery, Montgomery Press, ISBN 1879779021 (1993)
Pets Living with Cancer: A Pet Owner's Resource by R. Downing, DVM, American Animal Hospital Association, ISBN 1583260226 (April 2000)
Surviving the Heartbreak of Choosing Death for Your Pet: Your Personal Guide for Dealing with Pet Euthanasia by Linda Mary Peterson, Greentree Publishing, ISBN 0965257223 (1997)
Helping Children with Pet Loss
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic Trade, ISBN 0590417010 (September 1995) Ages 4-8
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic Trade, ISBN 0590100548 (September 1997) Ages 4-8
A Special Place for Charlee: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss by Debra Morehead, Partners in Publishing LLC, ISBN 0965404900 (1996) Ages 4-12
A Gift From Rex by Jim Kramer, DVM, Beaver's Pond Press, Inc., ISBN 1890676632 (2001) All ages
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, Simon & Schuster Children's, ISBN 0689712030 (1975) Ages 4-8
Remembering My Pet by N. Liss-Levinson, PhD and Rev. M. Phinney Baskette, Mdiv, ISBN 9781594732218 (2007)
Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child by Earl Grollman, Beacon Press, ISBN 0807023639 (1991)
When Your Pet Dies: Dealing with Your Grief and Helping Your Children Cope by Christine Adamec, iUniverse Incorporated, ISBN 0595092470 (2000)
Healing the Bereaved Child by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Companion Press, ISBN 1879651106 (1996) A Child's View of Grief by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Companion Press, ISBN 1879651009 (1999) Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Companion Press, ISBN 1879651270 (2001)
Souls of Animals by Gary Kowalski, Stillpoint Publishing, ISBN 1883478219 (1998)
Dogs Have Souls Too by George and Emily Watson, PMD Publishing, ISBN 0967487501 (2001)
Spirit Dogs: Heroes in Heaven by Susan Kelleher, Owl of Athene Press, ISBN 0965049515 (1998)
Grief and Loss
How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies by T. Rando, Bantam Doubleday Dell, ISBN 0553352695 (1991)
Beyond Grief by Carol Staudacher, New Harbinger Publications, ISBN 0934986436 (1987)
The Courage to Grieve by Judy Tatelbaum, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0060911859 (1984)
The Grief Recovery Handbook by J.W. James and R. Friedman, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0060952733 (1998)
How to Survive the Loss of a Love by M. Colgrove, Mary Books/Prelude Press, ISBN 0931580439 (1993)
Healing Your Grieving Heart by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Companion Press, ISBN 1879651254 (2001)
Understanding Grief: Helping Yourself Heal by Alan Wolfelt, PhD, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1559590386 (1992)
Stories and Readings about Animals
Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul by Canfield, Hansen, Kline and Becker, Health Communications, Inc., ISBN 1558747109 (1999)
Animals as Teachers and Healers: True Stories and Reflections by Susan Chemak McElroy, Random House, Inc., ISBN 03455421175 (1998)
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by C. Knapp, Broadway Books, ISBN 0385317018 (1999)
Kinship with All Life by J. Allen Boone, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0060609125 (1976)
The Dogs Who Came to Stay by George Pitcher, Dutton, ISBN 0452275539 (1996)
Animal Angels: Amazing Acts of Love Compassion by Stephanie Laland, Red Wheel/Weiser, ISBN 0894808249 (1990)
All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat by Suzy Becker, Workman Publishing Co., Inc., ISBN 0894808249 (1990)
James Herriott's Cat Stories by James Herriott, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0312113420 (1994)
Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0689712634 (1988)
Old Dogs Remembered by Bud Johns (ed.), Synergistic Press, Inc., ISBN 0912184124 (1999)
Angel by My Side by Mike Lingenfelter, Hay House, Inc., ISBN 1401900216 (2002)
Angel Whiskers: Reflections on Loving and Losing a Feline Companion by Laurel Hunt (ed.), Hyperion Press, ISBN 0786865784 (2001)