It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, the death of a pet. Most of us acquire pets either by way of puppy or kittenhood, adopting an older pet, or accepting a stray who adopts us. At that time, the farthest thing from our minds is that loved one’s demise. We are busy with rearranging schedules, households and decor in order to make this new family member comfortable and happy. We look forward to long, healthy companionships with these wonderful, gentle souls who so enrich our lives. We don’t think about death at this time…
Each of us has encountered death in different ways, and so, have formed our opinions of its circumstances, in as many different ways as there are individuals. At Veazie, we are very aware of individual differences and try very hard to accommodate our clients as much as possible. Having been a receptionist here for nearly 15 years, I’ve seen many touching, loving, heart-wrenching times which have caused me to grow as a person. At such a vulnerable time, people’s emotions usually run high; but there is no right or wrong about any manner of grief.
One of my favorite memories is of a family, a very LARGE family, who brought their ancient Labrador retriever for euthanasia. She was old and tired and the family recognized that she was not living a happy life anymore. They made the painful choice of letting her go. Since there were so many people present, we offered to keep the dog in the car and surround it, allowing everyone to be more comfortable.
The doctor gently did his part and left the family to say their goodbyes to this loving, gentle spirit as she left this world. When they were finished, the technicians removed her body to prepare it for cremation. But the family remained a little longer: one member brought out a cigar, lit it and took a long, hard drag. He then passed it to the next family member who did the same, passing it to each sibling, uncle, aunt, grandmother and son who completed this loving circle.
We watched this sweet remembrance of a dog’s life surreptitiously out the window so as to give space and time to this wise and gentle family who learned the lesson of acceptance. We later learned that this was a ritual they had performed for years after each dog’s death. It was their way of recognizing her presence in their lives and the difference that she made and letting her move on. I may have forgotten the names of the people and the pet involved, but I will never forget the impact that wonderful ritual has had on my life; it helped me vocalize the importance of acknowledging and accepting death, in any form.
Another family recently showed us pictures of a small shrine with collar, leash, pictures, ashes and other momentos of their dog’s life. It was cathartic for them to create this space for him and write words about how much he meant to them. Those of us who were privy to the pictures were honored; one of the most gratifying parts of this job is to witness the deep emotions that people have surrounding their pets.
While some people like to share these emotions, others are extremely private about their sadness. They are stoic, not willing to expose their pain lest they appear to be weak. It used to be that men simply should not cry. Ever. Period. And some still feel this way. And while none of us at Veazie hold this perception to be true, we honor it in those to whom it is important. It is vital to accept people where they are and meet them there…
An older man, whom we all loved dearly, brought his little sheltie to us for years. At one point, he let us know that this was the dog that he bought for his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer, many years before. She had since died and now he was left with his little dog who was aging a little faster than he himself was. He nursed Little Dog along as best he could with the means he had for as long as he could. But the time did come when he recognized that he could not change the aging process and brought him in to be euthanized.
Each of us had tears in our eyes as we watched this man bring in his little dog. He did not shed a tear. He simply smiled and noted that this was the order of things and he didn’t want his “puppy” to suffer. When the deed was done, the doctor who helped with the process shook hands with this sweet man, parted ways and found a quiet office in which to sob. He would not cry in front of this older gentleman who would have been very uncomfortable, but rather, kept it together until he could grieve alone.
These stories have been focused on animals whose deaths had been a long time coming. But it isn’t always that way. We all know that pets, like people, can meet with an untimely death. Accidents happen and sudden illnesses or any number of things can catch us unawares and leave us floundering with this gut-wrenching loss. We can discuss at length, I expect, about which way is easier to deal with; but it is all very personal.
The important thing in either scenario is to grieve in any way that we find to be comforting. We can be as dignified as we choose in our expression of any emotion. There is nothing that says we have to publicly prove our devotion for a loved one who has passed.
Many people keep journals which are a private expression of their feelings. It may feel awkward at first, but letting emotions out onto paper is a safe, easy way to grieve. Creating a photo album of your pet from day one to the day he dies is effective in memorializing and showing how much you care. You may keep it private. Or you can show it to the world. Whatever works for you.
The process of euthanasia varies as well as how we deal with it. Whatever you choose, we will work with you to accommodate your needs and wishes.. The norm is to bring the pet to our clinic where we have a room prepared for you and your family, whoever you want to bring. Of late, we are choosing to use our new facility next door as it has more room and a much lovelier space in which to share last moments. Home euthanasia is another option. If our doctors can fulfill your request for home euthanasia, they will. You have only to ask.
Many people struggle with co-workers, family members, friends who say: “She was just a dog, move on” or “Get over it already!”. Such statements may intensify our feelings of loss, guilt and the inability to cope. At such times, it is important to know that there ARE people who do feel the same way that you do, that she was more than just a dog: she was your faithful companion.
Find those people who understand, talk with them if it will help you through your sadness. If there is no one in your circle of family or friends that understands, there are people in your veterinarian’s office who do. And, some people find therapy to be helpful. If talking will help you, there are people who will listen. Seek them out. On our website, there are hotline numbers that you can call, simply to talk about your pet. It’s a wonderful service!
One of the most common questions that we receive prior to a euthanasia is “How do I know when it is time?” If only we knew! As your pet’s friend, you know her behaviors best. You know the quirks, nuances, habits that may or may not tell that this could be the time.
Recently, I had to make this decision for one of my own pets. Stoney was a 10 year old Australian shepherd who had advanced mast cell disease. He was diagnosed last January. He had a tumor removed and Dr. Keene gave me the prognosis, the options, the chemo protocols. My decision was thus: Stoney HATED being at the clinic. He was a nervous, high-strung dog who barked at everyone and made you aware that he was uncomfortable with your presence!
With that in mind, I made the decision not to pursue chemotherapy and let Stony live his life as happily as he could. I didn’t know that it would only be for another 6 weeks. Every morning, it is my habit to walk whatever dogs are in my household, early and for about an hour. At the end of March, Stoney began to slow down while walking.
On his last evening, I was patting him and noticed a very large, hard mass in his groin. I spent the night denying its presence. He had just had surgery, had been acting fine, playing, eating, doing his normal routine. How could this happen so soon??
The next morning, I took him to work to visit Dr. Keene. She was gentle, kind and knowledgeable in her advice: we can take this tumor, and another, and another….it will end up in the same place. So I decided to let him go. Julie and Nika took him and me to her office where we held him, loved him and gently let him go.
You can listen to others’ experiences, you can hear what your veterinarian has to say, your neighbor, your friend….but only you know what is best for you and your pet. Know that your pet is brave; for the most part, when your pet shares pain, it is true, unadulterated pain. Of course, some are more stoic than others, but they do not show pain easily. Many pets find their way to the “Rainbow Bridge” without the aid of drugs to ease them along the way.
This is not to say that one way is better or worse than another. Each case is different. Each family is equipped with the tools, as well as the emotional and physical stamina to take the journey in the way that is meant for them. The important thing is to look at what is vital to your pet. Running? Playing with the children? Jumping? Eating? Swimming? Romping in the snow? Chasing the laser light? Guarding the ‘Hood? And what is vital to you? Trust what your heart tells you.