Coping with the grief after losing a pet: Pete the Vet podcast from Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

To listen to this week’s podcast, click on the link at the foot of this page.

Pets are often seen as part of the family, and when they die, the grief experienced can be immense. There is a great deal of variability: some people seem to be able to separate out practicality and grief, just getting on with life, whereas other people are emotional wrecks, finding it difficult to carry on with normal life at all. It can be very difficult for such individuals: while our culture recognises the deep grief felt after human bereavements (such as when parents or children die), everyone is expected to rapidly get back to normal after the death of a pet. The truth is that while this may apply to most people, there are some who have intense feelings of distress that they cannot just put to one side.

Vets are commonly involved at the time of the death of a pet, and are often faced with challenging emotional situations. It can be difficult to know how to react, with some vets feeling that it isn’t professional to show too much emotion, and others being afraid, unwilling or unable to extend themselves beyond a rigidly formal clinical role. Sometimes this is a personality issue, not entirely within the decision range of the individual: it seems that we react as we react, not necessarily as we choose to react. And it can be difficult to judge: a act of empathy for one person (such as a reassuring touch on someone’s arm) might upset some owners. Emotions can be very fragile at this time, and it’s easy to make misjudgements, accidentally upsetting people.

There are some ways of helping with grief that have become well recognised and well accepted in the veterinary world

Carrying out euthanasia delicately and respectfully.

The end of life of a pet is a difficult time, and most vets take steps to make it as easy as possible.

  • Appointment times are chosen carefully to avoid busy times, and to avoid vets and owners feeling pressurised.
  • Our clinic lights a candle at the reception desk, informing others who may come in that a euthanasia is taking place, and requesting appropriate deference, quiet and space for those involved.
  • Owners are offered a separate, back way out of the building, so that they don’t have to go out past other people in the waiting room.
  • Most, but not all, owners prefer to stay while euthanasia takes place. Some people feel unable to do this,preferring just to go.
  • For people who choose to stay, the procedure is explained in detail in advance, so that there are as few surprises as possible.
  • Sedation may or may not be given (it can carry its own hazards, such as causing shaking, retching or lowering blood pressure, making it more difficult to find a vein).
  • An intravenous cannula may or may not be placed (again, this can have complications, such as meaning that the animal has to be taken to a separate room from the owner, it may take longer than a simple syringe and needle, and not every animal is suitable for this).
  • Usually, a nurse or other assistant will raise the vein while the lethal injection is given: this causes immediate unconsciousness (within seconds), and when the animal is unconscious, the heart stops.
  • The animal is entirely unaware that the heart is stopping: at that stage, they are unconscious.
  • Sometimes, after an animal has passed away, there may be a few gasps, which happen as a reflex: it can be upsetting for owners if they do not know this may happen.
  • An animals’ eyes do not close after they have passed away (in the movie Marley and Me, I couldn’t help groaning when poor Marley’s eyes closed at the end: this never happens in real life).
  • We usually leave people with their pets afterwards for as long as they want to stay: sometimes they want to take mementoes, like a collar, or a clipping of fur, or even a footprint cast in plaster. These can all be organised.
  • Sometimes a vet will be able to carry out euthanasia in the home, as a house visit. This can be ideal, with minimal stress for the pet, but it can also have restrictions, such as lack of availability of support staff if there are any difficulties during the euthanasia process.
  • Euthanasia is an easy way out for pets that are suffering: it is the ultimate in palliative treatment, removing all pain, without the animal knowing that this is going to happen.

Offering pet cremation.

While many people choose to bury their pets at home, this is not always a possibility. Twenty five years ago, vets used to have to take pets to municipal waste tips for disposal: there was no other option. Then Irish Pet Crematoriums were set up, and they now have a collection service that couriers animals’ bodies from vet clinics to a special pet crematorium. The ashes can be produced on an individual basis and returned to the owner if they so wish, or they can be cremated as a group, with no return of ashes. There are now several other pet crematoria around Ireland: it has become a standard procedure.

It is also possible to use creative ways to keep a pet’s ashes, including jewellery and other mementoes.

Sending a sympathy or consolation card after a pet has died.

Vets recognise the depth of grief felt by many pet owners, and it’s now fairly common for this to be recognised by vets sending a note or card or email to an owner, expressing sympathy. Owners often appreciate this gesture, but it can cause some angst amongst vets at times. Is it always appropriate to send a card? What if an owner didn’t seem to be very upset? What if the pet hadn’t been well known to the vet? Sometimes vets feel that they might accidentally offend by intruding on people’s personal lives by sending a card when it might not be appreciated. In the past, some vets have accidentally upset owners by having their staff send out “automatic” cards of sympathy, without a personal touch. These can be difficult judgements, and when vets are very busy, and when they are not sure if it’s appropriate, it’s easy to see why they often may not be sent.

Referring an owner to a pet bereavement counsellor

Most owners cope when their pets die, but sometimes people can be inconsolable with distress. For such cases, vets may refer them to pet bereavement counsellors, who are individuals who take a particular interest in helping people cope with grief after losing a pet. In Ireland, this is an unregulated area. There’s a small but definite need for it. An online and telephone service, run by the UK Blue Cross, is also available to all.

Questions from listeners about pets

  • I have a 4 year old golden retriever if we go anywhere she won’t let me out of her sight instead of me owning her she thinks she owns me. help! dermot in limerick.
  • My 9 year old brother bought a goldfish at a market a few days ago. When he first got him, the fish didn’t move much and just sat at the bottom of the tank. We then purchased a bigger tank with a water filter, stones, plants, etc., and two more fish. He’s moving around a little bit more but not as much as the new two. I noticed that the original fish has a white/purple patch on his side and some tiny white spots on his tail. I read online that this is a sign of a parasite and I wanted to know if that’s correct, and if so, what can we do to get rid of it?Thanks, Erin in Meath
  • How I get my 15 week old Cocker Spaniel to allow people to pet her and not bark at the this is only a new thing for her.
  • I have two Japanese Spitz, 2 1/2 , both their teeth are turning brown. I feed them recommend food and give them Pedigree Dentastix on a regular basis. What can I do to prevent further damage or what is the long term prognosis if I do nothing. Kind regards Vincent
  • I have a four year old female jack Russell. She is generally a nice tempered gentle little dog however she is a different dog when visitors or other dogs come to the house. She barks uncontrollably, the hair on her back stands up and she gets physically upset and pure viscous. It is like she has totally lost her mind and doesn’t even notice me or anything else around her bar the intruder. I find it hard to control her when someone comes to the house, I’ve tried treats , muzzles , spray I don’t know what to do with her. Usually after the first meeting if the visitor can ignore her she will cease the barking but if she gets a sniff that there is fear it is incessant and she has even nipped a friend of mine who entered the house before me once. As for other dogs I keep her on the lead at all times as she will attack other dogs who approach her! I have painted her as a horrible dog but in general she is a happy little dog. I have to move home with my parents in a few weeks and they have a very busy home with a lot of coming and going. I feel it will cause a lot of trouble and stress! Any help greatly appreciated. Patricia, Mayo
  • What is the best age to spay a cat?
  • Five years ago we adopted two male kittens, brothers, from our local animal rescue center. They are both neutered, we have an electronic cat flap, linked to their micro chips, so the cats come and go as they want. So they are inside/outside cats. Sadly last week one of the cats was hit by a car and died. Since then our remaining cat is not himself at all – he seems really out of sorts and is not eating as much as normal. We are considering getting a new kitten/cat as we always believed that two cats would keep each other company but we are unclear as to the best approach in terms of our existing cat accepting the new cat. Do we get a kitten or an adult cat? Will he accept a female or male cat easier (cat will be neutered)? Are we better getting the new cat sooner rather than later, before our existing cats starts to feel that the house is his and his alone – he is currently accustomed to sharing. We have done some reading about introducing a new cat and it seems involved. I am on maternity leave at the moment and around the house to keep an eye on the new cat/kitten to ensure that our existing cat doesn’t attack him/her. Any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks, Heather

To find out he answers to these questions, listen to this week’s podcast by clicking on the link below

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