Part of what I do as a hospice veterinarian is to help clients prepare for the loss of their beloved pet. This is a very confusing time for many pet owners. The news that their pet has a terminal illness is often unexpected and overwhelming. In order to cope with bad news, some people choose to deny it, some become fixated on or obsess about their pet’s illness and give up living their own lives, and some start their grieving prior to the death in anticipation of the loss.
I cannot stress the importance of preparing for the loss of a pet earlier rather than later or not at all. Those that reach out early have the best chance of minimizing their pet’s and their own suffering. They are taught what causes pain and suffering, and learn the physical and emotional signs that signal it. Once they understand this and the benefit of constant communication with their veterinarian, their pet doesn’t suffer or suffers minimally and for a much shorter period of time.
Preparations for pet loss should include: A discussion about the medical and emotional aspects of euthanasia; researching options for euthanasia (home vs clinic) and hospice care; informing family members, friends, and others about your pet’s illness and your decision to euthanize; asking for a loved one’s presence during the euthanasia to provide support; educating yourself about aftercare options (i.e. cremation, burial); the collection of poems/prayers/music/memorials that will be meaningful and comforting during your pet’s euthanasia; and a plan in the event of an emergency.
It is also important to be informed of a pet owner’s previous experiences with loss (both human and pet) and euthanasia. Those that have experienced an undesirable or recent death generally show stronger emotions than those who have witnessed peaceful transitions in the past. I find that those who have never experienced the death of a close relative or pet they had a strong bond with also have a more difficult time coping.
Working to defeat denial is the first and most important step a pet owner must conquer in order to make appropriate end-of-life decisions that are in the best interest of the pet. When the caretaker is in denial, pets end up suffering the most for the longest period of time, and are more likely to die in an undesirable or tragic manner. Compassion, empathy, patience, and the desire to listen to pet owners is the key to overcoming denial. Once a person moves past the denial of their pet’s illness, a well thought out end-of-life plan can be put into place.
Anticipatory grief and obsession with a pet’s inevitable death can be damaging to the pet, the pet owner, and the family unit. The quality of life of the caretaker becomes compromised, and their emotional experiences start to effect their health, relationships, and overall well-being. I’ve had clients develop high blood pressure due to the extreme anxiety they experience because of their pet’s condition. Some cancel family trips, call in sick to work, and spend all of their free time at home with their pet for fear that their pet will pass away while they are gone. It is important to continue to go about normal daily activities. Normalcy causes the pet less stress than having an owner who hovers and expresses sadness a majority of the time.
It is very common for me to recommend a mental health professional for those anticipating the loss or who have experienced the loss of their companion. It is important to realize that it is okay to ask for help if it is needed. Veterinary Wisdom for Pet Parents (www.