SAYING GOODBYE… Surviving the passing of your fur child
Our pets become members of our family from the moment we welcome them into our home and we build a connection with them that can be every bit as strong as those we share with our human loved ones. One of the very few drawbacks about having pets is that we will generally outlive them and have to cope with their loss.
There is nothing that anyone can do or say to lessen that grief, but our hope is that what we share here will help prepare you for the day that you have to say goodbye, and offer some suggestions on how to navigate your loss.
Euthanasia – what to expect.
We cannot prepare ourselves for the accidental or unexpected death of a pet, which brings with it shock and disbelief. Many times however, we as pet parents will be faced with a difficult decision that we don’t encounter when a human family member is terminally ill: the option to euthanase our pet and thereby end its suffering sooner than nature would allow. Understanding your options and the process involved when a pet is “put to sleep” can help you prepare yourself and know how best to support your furry loved one, yourself and the rest of your family through the experience.
Your veterinarian understands, better than most, the complex emotions and the challenges involved in making the best decision for your pet. They will always allow for a pre-euthanasia consultation to answer all your questions and to give you an honest assessment of the likelihood of your pet living a meaningful life in the future, or its current quality of life. No vet will ever make the final decision for you (unless the pet is deemed to be suffering extremely and unnecessarily, in which case they have an ethical obligation to end an animal’s suffering). However, they will guide you to the extent that you involve them. Speak to your pet’s health care team – as pet parents themselves they know the pain of loss first hand, and they want to help you in any way they can.
Your veterinary team will most likely be prepared to go out of their way to make this your personal time with your pet. Let them know if you have specific wishes with regards to the venue or time, so that they can take care of everyone involved.
You may choose to remain with your pet throughout the process, to offer comfort and reassurance, and you will always be afforded some time alone with him or her afterwards. That said, for some pet parents it’s just too overwhelming to stay, and it is completely okay to leave your furry loved-one in the caring and capable hands of your vet after saying your goodbyes.
Some veterinary practices offer the option of euthanasing a frail pet in the comfort and privacy of your own home. If this is your wish, discuss it with the clinic staff ahead of time so that they can make the necessary arrangements.
If your pet is elderly or ill, start having these conversations with your veterinary team and put some plans in place to reduce as much of the stress as possible when the time comes.
How will I know it’s “Time”?
Deciding to put a beloved pet to sleep is never going to be easy, regardless of how old or sick he or she may be. We all worry that we’ll push our pets beyond the point where they can’t manage anymore because we want to hold onto them for as long as possible. Or that we’ll make the decision too early and rob them of a few extra weeks or months with their family. The following guidelines from a veterinarian may help you reach a decision that you can be as comfortable with as possible.
You know your pet the best: what makes him happy, how he shows his enjoyment of life and what routines and activities demonstrate his positive engagement with his family and other pets. For instance: running to the gate to greet visitors, playing favourite games, purring like a tractor-engine, tail-wagging, interacting with family members, eating well, and the ability to maintain their personal hygiene. Pets become very stressed about losing their dignity and especially the control of their bodily functions.
Make a mental note of these behaviours while your pet is still healthy and then decide, based on the absence of these, where the point is reached that your fur baby is no longer enjoying a decent quality of life. As pet guardians, we should consider quality over quantity when it comes to their lives; now more than ever before, medical advances allow us to extend our animals’ lives beyond what might otherwise have been possible. It falls to us to balance our ability to have our beloved pets live longer than ever before with the responsibility not to extend suffering without the prospect of a meaningful recovery. It’s truly a privilege to be able to make a decision to spare our furry loved ones pain, suffering and loss of dignity.
Municipal by-laws generally don’t allow pets to be buried on your property, and in Johannesburg, there is a professional pet crematorium that provides a service to all veterinary hospitals, and can also collect your pet after a home euthanasia (or unexpected death).
In our personal experience after many years in the veterinary industry, these facilities are absolutely outstanding and their operations based firmly on dignity and respect. Before your pet is put to sleep, your vet will discuss the options available to you: a communal cremation, a private cremation with the return of your pet’s ashes, a memorial plaque at a garden of remembrance, or the possibility of creating a life-gem from your pet’s ashes, and the associated costs. You may want to bring along a favourite toy, blanket or other meaningful items to be cremated with your pet – in as far as possible, every effort will be made to fulfil your wishes in this regard. You may also arrange to attend your pet’s cremation.
If you’ve opted for return of ashes, these will generally arrive within a week. Some owners bury or scatter the ashes in the pet’s favourite spot in the garden, perhaps plant something beautiful there or create another form of memorial. Any form of remembering your beloved pet will greatly help you and your family come to terms with his loss. This is also a special way of assisting children to process what may be their first encounter with death.
How will I cope?
The loss of a pet can have the same impact as the loss of a person, and it follows the same stages of grief. Everyone experiences a very personal bereavement and there is no right or wrong in our feelings, or in how long we take to grieve.
Take some time out from work, create space for yourself, have conversations with your pet …. whatever you need to help you feel okay. There is no script and no-one can tell you when it’s time to “get over it”. Seek out the company of fellow animal-lovers who understand what you’re going through and won’t contribute ridiculous comments like “But it’s just a cat!” or “Why don’t you just get another dog?”
There are also dedicated pet memorial websites where you can share the memory of your pet, which gives many pet parents comfort.
In some cases the remaining pets in the family may also be suffering the loss and need support. You may find them huddled on the bed of the pet who passed, or that they begin sitting in his favourite place in the garden. They could be subdued and lose their appetite for a while. Some will “ask” you to help them look for their missing friend by pawing at cupboard doors, trying to get behind the bed or the fridge, or popping out to the garden every now and then to check that he hasn’t perhaps turned up. If you have other fur kids, give them lots of attention and reassurance at this time, regardless of how low you’re feeling – you’ll find this contact and the shared activities will help everyone. It’s been said that grief is merely love with no place to go, so be sure to pour out that love to those close to you.
Young children who haven’t yet formed a concept of the finality of death will process the passing of pets differently, based on their age. There are many helpful resources online to assist parents.
Should I get another pet?
Nobody can tell you when it’s right to get another pet: whether you should do so immediately, or give yourself some time. This is something only you and your family can decide. It can be healing to focus on the needs of another animal – a helpless kitten, a rescue dog or whatever special furry being calls to you and needs your TLC. But you may also feel that you need to fully grieve your pet first, before considering making space in your heart for another. Some people never get another pet, given the pain their loss caused them. But we hope that your grief will not prevent you from opening your home and heart to another fur baby to experience your love and care. It may help to imagine what the deceased pet might want for you.
We will miss and always remember the furry companions that have shown us so much unconditional love and enhanced our lives in so many ways. Perhaps the fact that they are only with us for a short time should be encouragement enough to make every moment count. Make each day a special one with your dog or cat – take them places, spoil them, expand their horizons and give them loads of hugs. They repay in kind beyond our wildest imaginings and leave us with a lifetime of wonderful memories.
This article is dedicated to all the wonderful furry souls lost by Twisted Whiskers clients and staff. Their pawprints are forever on our hearts.
© Written By Twisted Whiskers