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05 December 2016Last updated
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How to cope with the loss of a pet

When a pet dies, it can be a traumatic experience for your family. Mike Peake meets experts who suggest ways to handle feelings of guilt and to honour your pet – and whether to get a new one

Mike Peake
18 Nov 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:iStock Image 1 of 2
  • Animal behaviourist David Ryan says those who’ve lost a pet – like Lorna with Jake (right) – must let go of the pain and move forward.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 2

It’s been a difficult few months for Lorna Chalk. When her beloved dog Jake seemed to be struggling with the summer heat, she thought he might have heatstroke and tried to keep him out of the sun. He was 11 years old, but in pretty good shape.

Then one morning in August her husband heard a thud from downstairs. They rushed down to find Jake collapsed in the hallway. ‘He was struggling to breathe,’ says Lorna, 55, a lifelong dog-lover who works in HR. ‘I rushed him to the local veterinary hospital but when we got there he was dead. It was such a shock, so very sad. I found it very hard to accept as he’d been reasonably well and I didn’t know why he died. I cried on and off for most of the next month.’

Lorna’s response to the death of her dog is far from uncommon – it’s wrenching, and it can take people by surprise, particularly the first time they experience it. While Lorna had been through the death of a dog before – she was very attached to a beautiful black Labrador named Winston that she’d had many years earlier – it didn’t make losing Jake any easier.

The dog had played an especially important part in her life because she’d got him as a puppy while on holiday in Greece, and she had grown to love his loyal, friendly temperament. ‘He’d pick up on your moods,’ she recalls, ‘and he was just so easy. He’d lay outside the house watching the world go by, and I never had to worry that he’d wander off. He was such a lovely, gentle thing.’

When a much-loved dog like that dies, it’s little wonder that it can knock you for six.

‘People are often surprised by the intensity of grief that they feel upon losing a pet for the first time,’ says Moira Allen, author of the book Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet. ‘Once you’ve been through it, you’re no longer surprised by the depth of pain that you feel when you lose one.’
It doesn’t make the grief any less, she says, but at least you’re a bit more prepared next time around.

Moira thinks a reason for the pain and anguish has a lot to do with the general concept of losing a very close companion.

‘One reason we’re so affected is that we live in an age where we don’t encounter grief and loss as often as in earlier eras,’ she suggests. ‘When you are a first-time pet owner, chances are very good that you may never have experienced a significant loss in your life – your parents and even your grandparents might still be alive. Today, it’s possible to move well into adulthood before losing a family member.’

So when your beloved furry friend suddenly passes away, it can be your first real taste of grief. ‘We often have no preparation for those feelings,’ Moira says.

Losing a pet can be traumatic. Experts say dogs and cats have a raft of human-like qualities, plus they tend to stick around for many years. You interact with them multiple times throughout the day and their intelligence makes them seem all the more magical.

‘We rely on them for giving us our well-being much of the time, for giving us nice feelings,’ says David Ryan, a clinical animal behaviourist. ‘There’s lots of evidence saying that you get the same oxytocin buzz from sitting with a dog on your knee and giving them a cuddle as you do with a person.’

The fact is, the death of a treasured pet can hit you so hard that you might find yourself sobbing at adverts for pet food on TV, or at the discovery of a well-chewed bone under the living room sofa. And like millions of people before you, you’ll probably be wrestling with a number of hard-to-answer questions. Here are the most common ones that people usually end up asking themselves – along with some helpful answers.

Why do I feel so guilty?

Guilt is a very common feeling when a pet passes away. You remember its big sad eyes looking up at you, willing you to make everything right as old age and illness set in. But you couldn’t. Worse still, you may even have been the one to make the decision to take it to the vet to have it put down.

‘Most people do have strong feelings of guilt if they have had to euthanise a pet,’ says Moira. ‘That can come from many sources, including questions like, ‘Could I have done more?’ and ‘Did I violate my pet’s trust in me?’.’

One of the points Moira makes on her website, pet-loss.net, is that we have a profound sense of responsibility towards our pets, the kind we also reserve for small children. This is what causes us such crushing feelings of guilt when a pet dies – even if it died naturally. We find ourselves wondering if we could have been kinder to our pet, or played with it a bit more.

Moira says that a way to deal with negative thoughts like this is to refocus your attention on the good times, for example, when you lavished your dog with praise and attention. Most importantly, try not to languish in guilty feelings or you’ll struggle to move on.

Should I get a new pet?

According to the experts, many people go through a very confusing period when they start thinking about getting a new pet. Indecision can be crippling – especially when struck by thoughts that getting a new one means you are failing to honour the pet that passed away.

‘It’s like saying, “If I could just go out and replace you, you must not have meant that much to me”,’ says Moira. She also thinks that people hold on to the grief they feel because they think it is the only way that they can continue to ‘hold on’ to the pet itself. ‘It’s all you have left of it, and it’s natural to want to hold that as long as you can, even though it’s painful,’ she says.

But letting go of that pain is essential. It is the final step in saying goodbye and also in acknowledging that your pet is not coming back, Moira says. ‘Eventually, people come to the realisation that being happy and having a new pet relationship is actually honouring your pet and not the reverse.
It becomes an act of acknowledging how wonderful that relationship really was, and that you are capable of experiencing that love again.’

David, the animal behaviourist, is in favour of moving forward, too, and thinks that a new pet will usually work out fine
– so long as owners are not expecting a carbon copy of the one that passed away. ‘It’s really important that people understand that they can’t replace a dog they’ve had with a new one,’ he says. ‘What you’re going to get is a brand new, different dog, and it’s not going to behave in the same way, even if it’s the same breed.’

If I do decide to get a new pet, how long should I wait?

Some people decide on a suitable mourning period of several months, others take longer, or less time – sometimes a lot less. ‘There’s no one-size-fits-all,’ says Moira. ‘Only occasionally does getting a new pet right away work out well, but it sometimes does, so I won’t say you shouldn’t.’

‘It’s completely different for everyone,’ adds Todd Carson, managing partner at the Dubai Kennels and Cattery (dkc.ae). ‘Some people never get over it, some people get over it very quickly and go on and buy another pet.’ In other words, you have to do what feels right for you.

Moira points out that when people do get a new pet, it’s quite common to have feelings of resentment towards it – especially if they’re not properly through the mourning period. ‘It’s very easy to continually look at the new pet and compare it to the one you lost, and consider it lacking,’ she says. This is because it’s not the pet you really want right now – which is the old one. Things should get better as you start to appreciate your new pet in its own right.

If I’ve lost a dog, should I get the same breed again?

According to David, ‘I’ve known so many dogs, many different breeds, and each one is absolutely unique. Each will bring different qualities to the table, and just like people, they can have completely different temperaments.’ One thing he definitely recommends is getting a rescue dog from an animal shelter. ‘You’ll be in the same boat,’ he says. ‘You’ll both be looking to replace something you’ve lost.’

Should I give my new pet the same name?

Definitely not, according to Moira, because it’ll just make you think of the pet that died. ‘Watch out as well for giving a pet a name that is likely to lead to the same or similar nickname that you gave the previous pet,’ she cautions. ‘For example, if your last dog was named Tommy, and you nicknamed him Mr T, then if you name the next one Teddy, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that he, too, could end up being called Mr T.’

What if my new pet isn’t any good?

‘One of the key factors to remember is that it took time for your old pet to become the personality that you loved so much,’ says Moira.

‘Your pet didn’t walk into your life with that personality, its personality evolved over time, and in particular, over time spent interacting with you.’

So stop looking at Fido’s replacement and wondering why it doesn’t bring your slippers: it will develop its own sparkling personality if you give it the chance.

How can I make sure that we never forget the pet that died?

Here it pays to be innovative, and Moira has a good suggestion: ‘Create a photo album with your favourite pictures, in particular, pictures that evoke specific memories.’

Todd Carson at the Dubai Kennels and Cattery says, ‘When pets die we do a paw imprint in clay and we present that to the customer as a memento of their pet.’

Mike Peake

Mike Peake