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Losing a pet

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Dealing with the loss of a pet and Pete has advice on how to broach the subject with kids


There is one aspect of being a vet that is never easy: euthanasia, or to use the commonly used phrase. "putting down animals".  This is one of the most common tasks that vets are asked to carry out - I might be called to do this several times on one day. I know that I only ever carry out euthanasia when it is the best interests of the animal itself, so it is always an act of kindness.


But while euthanasia can be a physically easy task to carry out, it is always difficult emotionally, for two reasons.


1. The first reason is that euthanasia is, by definition, taking another creature's life. Even when I know that it is for that creature's best interests, I always pause to consider that fact. It can never be done lightly. There is always sadness that the animal has reached the end of its lifespan.


2. The second emotional challenge with euthanasia is the grief and distress experienced by the animal's owner. As the vet in the room, it's important to try to support the owner through this difficult time. The grief is a necessary part of saying goodbye to the pet, and it is a direct reflection of the love for the pet. In that way, the grief is positive. But at the time, it can be very upsetting for everyone involved


Death is inevitable for us all - human and animal - but in general, it is far more likely that a pet will die before us, and that we will then be faced with the prospect of coming to terms with that loss. Life once filled with the love and friendship of a pet, often suddenly seems very empty. When you return home, there is no longer the rustle of busy feet as your pet comes out to greet you. When you sit alone in your living room in the evening, there is a very obvious empty space where your best friend used to be.


There are two unique aspects about the death of a pet that can make the grief particularly difficult.


1) A human owner has to decide that euthanasia is needed. How can you possibly decide to deliberately end the life of a creature that you love so dearly? Vets do their best to help owners reach the decision in a clear, objective way. When an animal has reached the stage of illness or old age when she is no longer enjoying life, and there is no prospect of recovery, then euthanasia is clearly an act of kindness. The word "euthanasia" is derived from the Greek for "good death", and that is exactly what is involved. It is carried out peacefully and painlessly by giving an overdose of anaesthetic using a needle and syringe.  Animals do not have foreknowledge of what is happening. From their perspective, they are surrounded by those who love them. Their medical attendant (the vet) is giving them some type of attention, and then suddenly, they feel a sense of drowsiness and peace as they drift away.

It is very important to be clear about the euthanasia decision before the act takes place. Many owners go over their decision again and again afterwards, in their own minds. If there are doubts, it is important to express them, so that they can be resolved before the act of euthanasia is carried out. People often worry about carrying out the act too soon, but they may worry even more about leaving it too late, possibly allowing their pet to suffer unnecessarily. It is best to talk about the whole situation, with family, friends and with the staff at the veterinary clinic, so that you are as clear as you can be about the decision at the time.


2) The second unique feature of losing a pet is that there may be surprisingly little understanding of your grief from the world around you. When a human bereavement is suffered, our society recognises the pain and distress that is experienced. People approach you with gentle words, you are given compassionate leave from work, and you are helped through your grief with care and understanding. It is very different when you lose a pet. You may be given some sympathy on the first day, but people seem to expect you to move on far more rapidly than seems fair. Often you may wish to take time off work to give yourself space, and you should choose to spend time with those few people around you who do seem to understand.

For some pet owners, the grief can even lead to deep seated feelings of depression, and there are now pet bereavement counsellors to help people come to terms with their sadness at the loss of a pet. Most vet clinics are aware of such help in their own localities, if you ever feel that such help may be needed. Indeed, sometimes the staff at the vet clinic can be helpful even just to share a few words. Often they may have known you and your pet very well, and they are likely to understand some of your emotions and worries.


We are lucky that we are able to euthanase animals - we are able to give pets calm, painless, controlled exits from their lives. But it will always be a difficult, challenging process. There is no easy way.


One other thing that may be worth mentioning: the Rainbow Bridge. This is a piece of poetic prose written sometime between 1980 and 1992, whose original creator is unknown.

The theme is of a mythological place to which a pet goes upon its death, eventually to be reunited with its owner. It has gained global popularity amongst animal lovers who have lost a pet.

Although no major religion specifically refers to such a place for pets, the belief shows similarities with the "Bifröst bridge" of Norse Mythology.

The story tells of a green meadow located "this side of Heaven" (i.e., before one enters into it). Rainbow Bridge is both the name of the meadow and an adjoining bridge connecting it to Heaven.

According to the story, when a pet dies it goes to the meadow, having its body cured of any illnesses, frailties and/or injuries. The pet runs around and plays with other pets, missing only one thing - the love and companionship of its owner, who is still alive on Earth. Upon the pet owner's death, the human travels towards Heaven, crossing the meadow on the way. While doing so, the pet (along with any other pets the owner had while on Earth) spots its owner and runs to greet them.

Reunited, the pet and owner cross the Rainbow Bridge together into Heaven, never again to be parted.



Links: Solace BP Pet Bereavement counselling: Many others available locally around Ireland


Main points:

Euthanasia means "good death"

Talk to your vet about choosing the right time

Euthanasia prevents suffering and pain



It's normal to feel devastated after a pet dies

Find someone to talk to about your feelings

A professional counsellor is sometimes needed


Children and pet loss

A pet's death is often a child's first experience of loss

"Sensitive honesty" is the best way to deal with the situation

Don't tell lies or make up stories to cover up the truth