Grieving to death: the animals left behind

By Michelle Mitchell

Ezma, a 13-year-old female cat, was brought to the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center after her owner passed.

When a cat or dog gets lucky, they can spend over a decade in a home with abundant affection. They are accustomed to unconditional love; they’re used to getting their belly rubbed and love to snuggle on their favorite part of the couch. Until one day, everything changes, and these animals are ripped out of their home and dumped at the shelter.

If a pet’s owner dies and nobody planned ahead, this could lead to problems. Animals are often dumped at the shelter or just thrown out. The Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center said this is a problem; they’ve recently saw more animals come in because their elderly owner died, in situations where none of the children could or would take care of them. Often, these animals do not survive at the shelter.

“Once they come here, the chance of them making it out is slim,” SVASC Assistant Director Tracey Meadows said. “When they come into a shelter environment, it’s very stressful for them. Sometimes they can’t overcome. They grieve themselves to death.”

Sometimes animals at the shelter miss their human so much, they won’t eat or drink. It is an entirely different lifestyle for them that they cannot get used to.

“I think they’re heartbroken. They’ve been with their family their whole lives and all of a sudden their routines changed, it’s not the same,” SVASC worker Hope West said. “They give up. They feel like they have nothing else to live for.”

They can develop medical issues and even die as a result of being depressed. Dr. Leti Hansen, a veterinarian at Greenbrier Emergency Clinic in Charlottesville, explained.

“I think the hardest issue that animals face when entering the shelter after leaving a home is depression,” Hansen said. “The shelter is a very stressful place to live. The staff works extremely hard to decrease the stress of its animals but it is impossible to replicate the home environment that these animals have come left. Animals that become depressed when entering a shelter can become immunocompromised, rendering them more susceptible to some of shelters’ more common upper respiratory diseases such as kennel cough or upper respiratory diseases of various causes in cats.”

“Depression can lead to anorexia. Anorexia in cats can cause a condition called hepatic lipidosis. Hepatic lipidosis is a condition where the liver is overwhelmed by the attempt to metabolize the body’s fats in order to create energy for the body. These cats will become systemically ill and risk dying if left untreated,” she added.

Changing behavior

The shelter affects behavior as well. For an older animal, they just can’t take the stress and change of lifestyle and shut down.

“Dogs will often become reclusive when spending time in a shelter. It is very difficult for a potential adopter to understand how this dog will behave outside the shelter,” Hansen said. “This high stress environment often causes behavioral changes in the dogs, such as tail biting, hiding in the back of their run, loud barking, and anorexia.”

Young or old, death does not discriminate. Shelter officials said the most important aspect is to be prepared. If a pet owner is prepared, cases like this will not happen as much. They recommended people write a living will with a special clause for their pets.

“We take care of our kids in our wills, we need to take care of our animals,” West said. “If people aren’t prepared at all, they end up here. A lot of them, this is where they spend their last moments. Some, they get so old and they’re so devastated, this is the last place they see. It’s sad because they’ve been in a home. Somebody loved them.”

When somebody does their will, they should ask which family member is able to take on the responsibility of their animal, SVASC members explained. This way, everything is planned for and there is no fight or confusion. If no family member steps up, they recommended people ask friends or neighbors. Again, if nobody is able, people can search online for local rescue groups that help senior animals.

“Go a little bit above and beyond. Try to rehome them to somebody before just dropping them off at your local shelter. Try to find them a home. Being in this cage is just not fair for them,” West mentioned.

If pets lose their owner, they lose their life, Meadows said. This is why it’s so important to have a plan. Hansen agreed.

“I strongly recommend people talk to their families ahead of time to ensure that their pets will have a safe home in the event of their owner’s death. Adding a clause to your will is also recommended. We see a lot of animals come into the shelter after an owner has passed away because provisions were not made ahead of time. To those family members that step up to take care of their loved ones pets, we extend our gratitude,” she stressed.

People need to be prepared, and expect the unexpected, West said, adding that animals are a commitment for life and beyond. If a pet loses its owner, it doesn’t need to lose its freedom as well and end up in a cage.

“I think people don’t take it seriously. It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. If you’re going to commit you need to commit for life. If not, don’t adopt,” West said.

West said it is up to the owner and children to make sure their furry friends are safe if the unexpected happens. With the right precautions, people can rest assured that everything will be taken care of.

“Take your parents in consideration. If your parents had these cats from the time they were kittens until they’re 13 or 14 years old, apparently they loved them,” she explained. “You parents wouldn’t want to see them in a shelter—nobody wants to see them here. They waste away to nothing a lot of them just grieve themselves. I just don’t think people think it through.”

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