Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dealing with the loss of a pet

I have not been posting much lately...

Today is the one month anniversary of the death of my sheltie Andy. I did post a video I made about him, but have not had the heart to blog too much since. It has been a very tough winter for us...I lost my Hoppy cat in December; one week later we lost Grouch; and then on Feb 12 Andy passed away very unexpectedly. So many losses so close together have been difficult to bear, particularly since Andy was probably my "once in a lifetime dog", and Grouch was my favorite cat I have ever owned.

Andy was approaching his twelfth birthday, but was still very active and energetic. He was still competing in obedience and needed just one more qualifying score towards his UD. We had hoped to enter some tracking tests this spring. He was to have his retirement run in agility the weekend after he died...he was still fast and loved to run, but had developed a heart murmur and I was worried that he would run faster than his heart could handle.

On that Thursday night, he was active and up all day, wrestling with Cory; he jumped into the van and spun and bit the door just like always. When we reached home 15 minutes later, he collapsed in the driveway. I rushed him back to the clinic and attempted to stablize him, but we lost him before we could even consider surgery...he had bled out into his abdomen from a cancerous mass on his liver. In retrospect, it was lucky that he went so fast and that I did not know, as even had we operated there was not much we could have done, and the type of cancer he had would not likely have responded to chemo even if I had known it was there (he had normal bloodwork and x-rays just days before he died). It has been so hard to accept that he is gone, though, because i had no time to prepare. I did have just a little time to say goodbye; when I knew his leaving was inevitable I chose to spend those last few moments holding him rather than trying one more useless procedure.

I am so lucky in that I am surrounded by good friends who understand just how special the relationship can be with a pet. My friends that I train with and my clients have been so supportive and helpful; I have gotten more cards than I can count, and my waiting room was full of flowers. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be if I had to go to a "regular" job everyday where people just didn't understand that grieving for a pet does not make you weird or unbalanced- it just means that you are human.

In many ways, losing a pet can be harder to deal with than losing a member of our human family. Grieving for other people is to some extent formalized and expected; going through the motions of funerals, memorial services, flowers, sympathy cards etc can be hard but at the same time they help us to pass through the stages of grief. Most of us have a support network which kicks in and others EXPECT us to need help in dealing with things for a while. But when a pet dies, we are often left to deal with our emotions on our own. In some instances we are expected to "buck up" and act as if nothing has happened- after all, it was just a dog.

I lost my grandfather and my much loved old sheltie Levi within a few months of each other in 2004. My grandpa had been my hero since I was a little girl; our family is pretty close and I saw him frequently and grieved for him terribly after his death. And yet, the death of my dog affected me more on a day to day basis and was harder to get over. It had nothing to do with loving one or the other of them more- I'm not sure just how you prioritize one love as more important than another anyway. I loved them both. But Levi had been my 24/7 companion for nearly 17 years, represented a link to my vet school days and friends, and was an important part of my social network which revolved around training and showing. On a day to day basis, I missed him more than my grandpa who I saw or talked to every week or so. When my grandpa died, I had a large circle of family who came together and supported each other and a formalized process for processing his death. With a pet, even with the best of support from family and friends, you are still much more on your own.

One thing that struck me in losing Andy was the importance of the different stages of grief. Anger is a stage that is often seen in my business; it is natural to feel anger that your loved one is gone, and unfortunately that often is directed at the veterinarian whether or not it is justified. When Andy died, I felt terribly numb...I could not be angry, even at myself, because I knew that he absolutely had no symptoms that any reasonable person would have followed up even as much as I had, much less more. He had a quick death and a wonderful life, he got to do all the things he loved most right up until the day he died, and I was lucky to have him. But when his pathology results came back and confirmed, as I had suspected, that it was hemangiosarcoma that caused his death, I finally felt angry. I was angry at the cancer...that was a cancer that Goldens or shepherds got, darn it, not shelties! I had tested him for every genetic disease I could in his breed, I had done every most paranoid wellness test on him and had monitered his diet and his every move to the nth degree. He had been stuck for bloodwork so many times in his very healthy life that it's a wonder he didn't leak through all the holes when he took a drink. How DARE this cancer take my dog. Especially without giving me a chance to fight it. And I discovered that anger is a much easier, more cleansing emotion than sadness. It serves its own purpose in helping us heal. It really didn't matter that it makes no sense to be angry at a disease process. I have a new understanding and sympathy for clients who need to be angry with me now.

If you are grieving the loss of a pet, I think it is important to allow yourself time to deal with all the emotions. Don't let well meaning friends tell you when you should be feeling better- love is love, grief is grief, and whether the loss is a pet or a human really doesn't matter much when you are hurting. Find one person who understands and take advantage of their support. If you don't have an "in person" support network, there are a number of online pet loss support websites and email lists. It was very healing for me to make Andy's video. He never would have watched it, and although I posted it to this blog I made it primarily for me, not for anyone else. I am finally reaching a point where I can make it most of the way through without crying, and I can smile when I look at some of the pictures. I have his scrapbook out ready to put his last few pages in of titles he finished that I hadn't gotten to yet, but I think it will be a little while before I am ready to do that project. In the spring I will plant something in the garden that will bloom every year, and make a special place to remember him.

Please know that you are not alone, and that there are people who understand what you are going through. And thank you to my wonderful friends- you know who you are- who have helped me through this tough time. I am so lucky to have you.
Rest in peace, my beautiful boy...I know you have thundered over the rainbow bridge and are holding your contact at the end waiting for me.


  1. Yes. This post is so important. I am going to link to it (if I can figure out how to do that). I too just feel Numb after the loss of a pet.
    I have always found that the emotion that stays with me the longest, and is the toughest to handle is guilt. I ALWAYS feel there was something I "should have done". Guilt can be a killer. In the end, I feel all I can do is ask for forgiveness and tell them over and over again how much I loved them (this of course is really in the form of Prayer- since I they are not in body form for me to actually "tell"). Dogs are just the best, and those of us who choose to surround ourselves with their love- also must deal with the fact that our time with them is very short.
    I really feel for you because of all of the unfinished goals- and the fact that Andy was so Game, but really, you were lucky to have been able to enjoy him right to the end. I guess you will just have to tell him how much you loved him and how you miss him now, and (pray) that you can find it in your heart to heal- but Never Forget!

  2. I am probably going to have to put my shih tzu dino to sleep today.I have had him nearly 16 years. i knew this day would come and that it would be hard,but not this hard. Since we brought him to the hospital saturday I have not stopped crying, i just cant imagine him not being around. He has been my best friend since the age of 23. I couldnt go in to work home I look at his basket where he slept, the pictures I have up of him. I just dont know what to do. im going to miss him so much.