Some time ago, I mentioned to someone that I was grieving over the loss of my beloved dog, Mingo. The person's response was dismissive, to say the least. This individual stated that I should thank God that it was not a child who died. Besides the fact that this is a common contemptuous attitude of some who do not own pets, it misses the point that the issue is not the loss of a child, but the loss of a pet, also a member of the family. There was no choice that had to be made between human versus animal life. The underlying meaning of this type of comment from some non pet owners is that our pets are "just animals" and are not important. Nonsense.
For example, someone recently sent me an E.Mail about their terrible feelings of loss because they had to have the veterinarian put their dog down. It is hard enough to suffer the loss of a pet but it is even more emotionally painful to decide it is time to euthanize a pet.
Euthanasia refers to the humane process of ending the pet's life. In addition to the agony of making such a decision, there is always the question of timing. Pet owners obsessively think about whether the pet has more time to live or, is in too much pain or still has a chance to recover. These are not easy questions to answer.
The fact is that our pets are full family members. Our children develop close emotional ties to them as do parents, grandparents and others who live with us. All of us joining together and laughing about the silly things they sometimes do and we relish the ways in which they cuddle up to us. There is also lots of evidence that owning pets, particularly dogs or cats, lowers blood pressure and diminishes stress and depression and feelings of loneliness.
It is all of this that makes that final decision so very difficult. Yet, many of us are forced to face that time.
I clearly remember the angst my family and I experienced when Mingo suddenly became very ill. We took her to the veterinarian who stated that she had a month or so to live and that we should make her as comfortable as possible but to bring her in when her pain became too much for her to tolerate. Mingo was a beautiful golden retriever who had a wonderful temperament, helped me work with anxious and depressed patients in my psychotherapy office and who attended reading sessions for young children at the public library. The children would sit on the floor while they read aloud to Mingo while her paw calmly rested on the page so that they could keep the right place in the book. Mingo was nine years old. It felt cruel and unfair that this was happening to her and to us.
The time finally did come when we had to bring her to the vet because she no longer had any quality of life. I remember carrying her from the car and into the vet's office. Fortunately, he was a warm and caring man who attended to Mingo's needs as much as to mine. I held her closely while he prepared the medication that would end her life. She was used to being held close because she was always wonderfully affectionate. Finally, she was gone and I wept. I am not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby. I continued to weep the rest of that day.
How to decide when its time for your pet?
It is important to work closely with the veterinarian. He is best at advising whether there are treatments that can restore health or prolong the suffering of your pet.
Mingo had lost her ability to rise from her bed and eat her food. Also, she was clearly suffering increasing amounts of pain. Having lost pets in the past, my family and I were well aware of the danger of waiting too long. I think people wait too long to euthanize a pet because they feel guilty and want to have their pet around longer. Oftentimes, this only prolongs suffering.
How to cope with the loss?
We did a number of things to help us grieve. We looked at the endless number of photos we took of Mingo alone or with the family and delighted in remembering those wonderful times with her. We also spoke to people we knew were sympathetic because they, too, are pet owners. As a family, we allowed for the grieving, never thinking or uttering the notion that "this was only a dog."
In fact, I advise everyone who owns a pet to dismiss any comment from any person to the effect that "Oh, come on, its only an animal."
If and when you as a pet owner, are faced with this, give yourself permission to grieve. If you need to, constantly remind yourself that you did not "kill your pet." You helped relieve its suffering.
Finally, never say to your children that "we are putting our pet to sleep." Young children are concrete thinkers and can become terrified of going to sleep each night because that statement helped to confuse sleep and death.
Your comments are strongly encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD