Coping with Pet Loss

We all have to deal with the death of a beloved Cavalier at some point whether the owner of a single dog or a breeder with many dogs. It is never easy. We all grieve differently and some more intensely than others. And often our grieving is not understood by others who make comments such as “it’s only a dog, get over it” or “it’s not like it is a human being after all”, which often can intensify our feelings of being alone after the loss of our four-legged friend. 

Grieving takes us through many stages and often starts before the actual death of the pet. In general, we have to make the decision as to the timing of the end which is often preceded by a time of illness such as congestive heart failure. We are faced with feelings of guilt which leave us wondering if we could have done more, if the time was right – did we take precious moments away? Did we miss something that if caught earlier could have saved or prolonged the dog’s life? We might face anger – at the dog for leaving us, at the vet for not saving our dog, at a breeder for selling us one that developed a health condition, at ourselves for perhaps missing something or not doing enough. Another normal feeling is depression, after all a big part of our lives is gone and we feel alone. 

When is the time right? 

This could be the million-dollar question. I think many of us privately hope that we will find our beloved dog curled up in its bed passed on after a long healthy life. Dealing with terminal ill health and then making the decision to let our friend go with dignity provides an owner with a lot of stress and sadness. However, this is likely to be one of the most important, hardest and unselfish decisions we will make for our friends. How do you decide when it is the right thing to do? I work on the general guideline that when the bad days outweigh the good days then it is clearly time but some-times it is not as simple as that especially when faced with a disease like MVD. Some dogs will be seriously coughing and having difficulties breathing especially during the night hours but still happily enjoy your company, eat and go for short walks. Some questions you will have to ask yourself are: What is the quality of life of the dog? Is the dog in pain or distress? Is the dog eating and drinking sufficiently to maintain weight? Is the dog still affectionate and happy to be with you or is it withdrawing? Is the dog still cognizant? Are there any other treatment options which may give the dog a comfortable quality of life? It is not always easy to answer these questions as dogs in general tend to be very stoic (though Cavaliers known “wimps” tend to be less so!) and so signs of their discomfort can be kept from us for a considerable time. 

Some considerations 

Once the time has come there are some decisions that are best to be made ahead of time. Do you wish to be with the dog when he is humanely euthanized? Some owners cannot face this and choose to drop the dog off to have the vets and their staff takes care of the dog. Knowing what to expect perhaps might help with this decision. The dog will be given a very concentrated dose of an anesthetic by intravenous injection. Other than a prick in the arm the dog will usually not notice anything and will be unconscious within seconds, leading quickly to respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Particularly in elderly and sick dogs this is such a kindness that one can almost see the relief as they are freed of pain or suffering. 

Do you intend to have it done at the vet clinic? Most vet clinics will set up a room for you and your pet so you can say goodbye in privacy. Or you may prefer to have it done in your own home and you can ask your veterinarian if they will make a home visit. 

Another consideration is disposal of the remains. You may choose to take the body with you and bury it on your own property. This option may not be open to those who live in a city where burial of pets is prohibited or if you live in an apartment. There are various other options available such as cremation, pet cemetery or common burial which may be decided upon depending upon preference and affordability. These sorts of decisions are best made ahead of time as most people are in such distress after the event, they can’t cope with making any decision. 

There is no “normal” way of coping with the loss of a pet. There are many self-help books and websites devoted to pet loss which can certainly help with broad outlines but we all have our own individual ways of dealing and what might be right for one is not necessary the way for another. A good example was a couple who contacted me for a Cavalier a year or so ago. They had just lost their previous Cavalier a couple of weeks before and they wanted one right away. It is often suggested that owners do not get a new dog right away, and usually not the same breed or color. Most people need time to grieve between pets and also have a tendency to compare the new dog to the old one. Needless to say, I was very hesitant but they supplied me with the name of the previous dog’s breeder, their vet clinic, etc. and after a discussion with the other breeder I suggested they come for a visit as I had an older pup. They wanted to come that evening and they were 4 hours’ drive away but they did agree to wait for the weekend. They were lovely people and fell in love with the pup right away. This was their way of coping. They could not be happy without a dog to dote on and each time one of their Cavaliers passed they would immediately replace it. Other people as they know that the end is nearing for one dog will get a young dog so that there is continuity. This can often be good for the older dog giving them a longer lease in life as they may become more active chasing a younger dog around. Then there are those who will wait for a couple of years before the time is right to get a new pet. 

Talking to grief counsellors who specialize in pet loss and support groups can be of benefit to those who are having difficulties coping. Talking about your pet and expressing your grief with people who understand is invaluable to help you come to terms with your loss. 

Breeders are often faced with the loss of their dogs more frequently than a single pet owner and have a tendency to develop rituals to honor their lost Cavaliers. Rituals are often comforting and a way to ease the grief into acceptance. There is no right way or wrong way to deal with pet loss but everyone who has loved a pet must face this eventually. 

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