Two weeks ago, my cat unexpectedly passed away. Over the years, she’d become a real-deal dear friend, and in the midst of being isolated during the pandemic, my connection to her only grew stronger. Perhaps that’s part of why I’ve taken it harder than I ever imagined I would; grieving the loss of a pet under these circumstances feels not dissimilar to how I’ve felt after losing humans in the past. But despite commonalities in emotional experience, there are no rituals in place for how to proceed when it’s a pet you’re grieving, and that’s left me feeling lost.
According to Jillian Blueford, PhD, a Denver-based therapist who specializes in grief, what I’m feeling is extremely common. For starters, she assures me that it’s natural to feel pain when a pet dies. “Grief comes down to the loss of someone or something that was significant to us, where there was some attachment to it, and so it makes a lot of sense that the death of a pet can invoke a similar grief response [to the death of a person],” she says. “A lot of us consider our pets part of our family, so it can be impactful when they pass.”
And since pets tend to provide their owners with unconditional comfort and emotional support, their passing can leave a significant hole in our lives. Add this factor to the reality that many are spending more time at home with their pets than ever before due to COVID-19 safety measures, and the exacerbated sense of loss for those whose pets have died during the pandemic is much clearer.
While the only way out of grief may indeed be through it, Dr. Blueford has several suggestions to offer those grieving the loss of a pet during the pandemic who may feel even more alone and isolated as a result.
Below, a grief specialist offers 9 ideas for grieving the loss of a pet during the pandemic.
1. Create a ritual
While there are no standard rituals in place to mark the passing of a pet, burials are still common, says Dr. Blueford. And even if your pet’s body isn’t actually interred in your backyard, you can still hold a funeral ceremony or wake for them wherever makes sense for you.
2. Collect mementos
Some may find it therapeutic to collecting photos, toys, or other things that remind them of the good times they experienced with their pet. For example, I bought an iPhone Polaroid printer so I could print photos of my cat, which are now taped to my computer and fridge (the two places I gaze upon the most, LOL).
3. Get rid of reminders if they trigger sadness
On the flip side, Dr. Blueford notes that some people may find donating their pet’s things to be more healing because doing so gets those items out of sight (and potentially aids in the happiness of another pet). “There’s no timeline for getting rid of that stuff,” she adds. “It’s just about doing what feels right for you.”
4. Sharing stories
Dr. Blueford recommends sharing pictures and stories with others, just as you would do if you were grieving the death of a beloved person. If this makes you feel weird—as it does me—she says to consider why and work to get through those feelings. “Oftentimes we feel like we would be a burden on people for sharing our grief and memories of our pet, but oftentimes people do want to listen,” she says. “It’s just about finding the right person to share with, especially when an anniversary or special date comes up where you know your grief will be more challenging. You can say, ‘I know I’ve already talked to you about my pet, but they’re really on my mind today’.”
You can, of course, share on social media, too. “If you’re active and comfortable, that can be the audience you’re sharing to,” Dr. Blueford says.
5. Write to your pet
You can also journal letters to your pet, Dr. Blueford suggests. “It may feel odd, but we communicate with our pets all the time, and they communicate with us,” she says. “So just like we might do with someone who has died, we can write to our pets to tell them how much we miss them, and about the things that are going on that they’d normally be a part of.”
6. Consider adopting a pet
Dr. Blueford says her clients often struggle with the choice of whether or not to get a new pet—and if so, when. But, she assures, there’s no right or wrong way to go about this. “If you do decide you don’t want a pet ever again, that’s okay,” she says. “And if you decide you’re missing that companionship and would like another pet, that’s okay, too.”
If you choose the latter, she does make clear that the new pet won’t erase the grief you feel for the pet you’ve lost. “We don’t like to be in that pain, so it’s easy after the death of a pet to say, ‘I’ll go get another pet and this will help me avoid the loneliness and grief I’m feeling right now’,” she says. “But that’s not always the case. Even if you do decide to get another pet, the grief will be there, so sometimes it’s best for you to experience a little bit of time before deciding if you want to bring another pet into the home.”
7. Feel your grief
“I will always promote feeling the grief and whatever ugliness and joy comes out of it,” Dr. Blueford says. “As much as we try to push down any type of grief, it will eventually resurface to the point where we can’t avoid it.”
So in addition to memorializing and honoring your pet, try not to fix your feelings. “Honor the grieving and whatever feelings or thoughts come up—pain, anger, confusion, guilt, or even reminiscing on more joyous memories and laughing,” she says. “And hopefully the next time [the grief surfaces] will be more manageable.”
It’s important to note, she says, that like with all forms of grief, grieving the loss of a pet can be an unpredictable process, especially in the beginning. “That early, more acute grief can feel exhausting and like a roller coaster—maybe one minute you’re okay and the next minute you’re not, and you can’t predict when grief is going to hit you,” she says. This unpredictability is the part we dislike most, Dr. Blueford says, which is why many might try to suppress it. Doing so only likely postpones grief, however, so you may as well let yourself feel it when it first arises.
8. Look for support groups
Support groups for those who are grieving may be particularly helpful because they allow you to connect with others in similar situations. There are hotlines dedicated to pet grief, too.
9. Allow yourself to feel joy
When I tell Dr. Blueford that I’m experiencing guilt related to my pet loss amid moments when I feel joy, she assures me this is also a common feature of grief. “We have to give ourselves permission to have good days and know that that doesn’t mean we’ll forget our pet or the loss,” she says. “Grief is a unique aspect of our life because it doesn’t go away fully, and we have to learn how to integrate it into the new normal, knowing that means both good and bad days.”
When Helen Williams’ father died suddenly, her partner left and her first dog died, a Maltese shih tzu puppy called Hudson was exactly the balm required.
“I needed something to love again and Hudson was it,” she says.
When, at 14 years old, Hudson’s declining health meant he had to be euthanised, it was among the most painful experiences of Williams’ life. “It was harder than my divorce,” says Williams, who worked as a personal assistant for 47 years before her retirement.
Williams had buried her previous dog in the back yard of her mother’s place in Melbourne. But that would not work for Hudson, who died three years ago. “I knew that I was going to be moving house shortly after his death … I thought, ‘I don’t want to leave Hudson there’,” she says.
The vet who euthanised the small dog arranged to have him cremated for about $400.
A few days later, Williams received a polished wooden box, containing Hudson’s ashes in a velvet pouch, along with a card and a poem. She brought them with her when she moved to the Brisbane bayside suburb of Redcliffe one year ago.
Williams isn’t alone – either in her grief or her desire to memorialise her pet.
Australians have one of the highest rates of pet ownership (61%) in the world and spend a collective $13bn annually on pet-related products and services, according to Animal Medicines Australia’s 2019 Pets in Australia report.
The social isolation imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic has made companion animals more important than ever, says the University of South Australia’s Dr Janette Young.
Young led a study published in December 2020 in the Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy, which found more than 90% of the pet owners interviewed identified cuddles, pats and other forms of cross-species touch as integral to their wellbeing during lockdown.
“These relationships [with pets] may be one of our greatest health-promoting resources at this time,” she says.
Our connections with companion animals, and our willingness to spend on them, even after their deaths, is fuelling the booming pet end-of-life business.
Tom Jorgensen, director of Queensland’s only independent pet crematorium, Pet Angel Funerals, says he cremates approximately 9,600 pets a year.
These range from cats, dogs and guinea pigs through to alpacas, water dragons and koi fish.
Packages range in price from $220 to $379 and include the pet’s collection from home or vet clinic, an individual cremation and return of ashes, a lock of fur and paw print if requested, certificate of cremation, engraved plaque and crystal guardian angel memento.
Other memorial products, including urns, lockets for ashes and memory bears, are also available.
The industry is growing at 9% per annum, according to human funeral provider InvoCare. In November 2020 InvoCare spent $49.8m on two pet cremation businesses – Western Australia-based Family Pet Care and Queensland-based Pets in Peace.
In an ASX announcement, InvoCare said the acquisitions represented a strategic expansion of the group’s existing pet cremation business in NSW, Patch and Purr.
Dr Rachel Allavena, a senior pathologist in the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science, says that there are sound reasons to cremate, rather than bury, an animal.
If an animal has been “put to sleep” with powerful anaesthetic drugs, a back yard burial comes with a hidden risk: the poisoning – sometimes fatal – of wildlife or other pets who dig up and eat the remains.
Allavena refers to one case, from a vet in Darwin, who reported a poisoning eight years after an animal was buried: “It shows how long these things stick around.”
She urged pet owners living close to veterinary schools to consider donating their pets’ bodies to science or education as an alternative.
Pet owners should also choose a cremation service carefully, as the industry remains unregulated.
Jorgensen says he would welcome regulation of the industry. Twenty years ago, long before he established Pet Angel Funerals in 2015, Jorgensen paid to have his beloved border collie Sophie cremated, but he “never saw the ashes”. In order to offer a transparent service, Jorgensen has unique numbers imprinted on stainless steel discs, which follow each animal all the way through the cremation process.
For Williams, who has chosen to work as a pet sitter rather than love and lose again, the money she spent on Hudson’s cremation was well worth it. “I’m so glad I did this, as this way, he is always with me,” she says.
A good death is achieved by advocating for, and acting on, what is safest for the pet, what is most meaningful for the caregiver, and what will nourish the veterinary team
By Kathleen Cooney, DVM, CHPV, CCFP
Animal euthanasia has come a long way in the past 15 years. With the increased attention given to the human-animal bond, particularly during COVID; the emotional complexity of animals; and the recent and welcomed focus on veterinary wellness, the importance of a good death has risen to center stage. In forward-thinking veterinary practices, the euthanasia appointment is no longer an unpleasant burden in the day, but rather a rare gem of connectedness and intimacy so many of us look for in our professional lives. It provides teams the chance to slow down, to listen to stories, to take deep breaths in quiet reflection in an otherwise chaotic schedule. Euthanasia, while sad and heartbreaking, can lead to rich personal satisfaction when performed well. When love is at the heart of our work, the veterinary profession finds peace, even when life is lost.
Good euthanasia has evolved past the simple “one step” of giving an injection. It orbits around consistent components such as the right timing, compassionate staff, skillful techniques, and loved ones gathered close. The focus has been shifting to ensure the pet’s last moments are comfortable and peaceful, rather than just getting it over with as soon as possible—quality over quickness, in most cases. When it comes to euthanasia, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, especially since there are no do-overs.
To understand the scope of the “good death” revolution, we need to explore some key game-changing influences that have brought about the shift. The first worth mentioning is the attention paid by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other governing bodies to euthanasia techniques and animal welfare. Numerous revisions have been made to AVMA’s Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals, most recently in 2020. The document highlights the value and significance of proper technique choices and the ethical considerations we all must weigh, regardless of the species in question. Are they perfect? No, but they are extremely well-thought-out and closely match peer-reviewed literature. They will improve as research progresses and as society dictates.
A second influencer then has to be society’s demand on veterinary professionals to deliver a death worthy of the life itself. It is well understood pet owners largely view their animals as family members or loving companions. As evidenced further on in this article, loving pet owners regularly view the euthanasia appointment as a modest funeral. More and more are seeking those special touches that pay added respect for their companion.
As a home-euthanasia specialist, I’ve had many families over the years attend the euthanasia of their pet wearing suits and ties. Even though no one would see them, they dressed up to honor the life and the loss. Jessica Pierce, PhD, bioethicist and purveyor of the good death revolution, advocates for what she refers to as the sixth freedom: the freedom to die a good death. She adds this freedom to the already well-known five freedoms of animal welfare. “A good death is one that is free of unnecessary pain, suffering, and fear; it is peaceful; and it takes place in the presence of compassionate witnesses. It is, above all, a death that is allowed its full meaning.” The euthanasia of a family pet is significant and for many, will be their first experience with death.
A third major influence was/is the recognition by many in the veterinary profession that death needed to be more meaningful. The kind of experience we are talking about here is one that leaves the entire veterinary team feeling they provided the best medicine possible and supported the client throughout. Approximately 20 years ago, a small number of veterinarians and technicians throughout North America found just how enriching full devotion to the euthanasia experience can be. They shifted their appointments to focus on the bond as much as the act of euthanasia itself.
Early adopters had numerous things in common. They:
Took time to preplan and provide highly individualized care
Increased euthanasia appointment times
Offered home services
Provided sedation or anesthesia to all pet patients
Elevated bereavement support
In return for these specialty touches, clients showered them with thank you cards and told other pet owners about the wonderful care they had received. Through eventual collective sharing of their successes in advanced euthanasia work, other veterinary professionals joined in and the modern revolution began. Since 2011, at least seven books have been written focusing entirely on companion animal euthanasia (or contain chapters on the subject), more end-of-life care guidelines are available, and the number of pet bereavement organizations has skyrocketed. Today, there are more and more veterinarians specializing in euthanasia work, many of which offer animal hospice services as well. Animal hospice is a philosophy of care aimed at providing emotional and medical support for the dying pet and caregivers. As of early 2020, the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) touts more than 800 members, a number sure to grow in the coming years.
Have you ever thought about how much really goes into a euthanasia appointment? If you start to explore all the components of a good death experience, it’s no wonder euthanasia appointments are lengthening.
Here is a list of 14 essential components of companion animal euthanasia as developed by the Companion Animal Euthanasia Training Academy (CAETA).* Spelling out “good euthanasia,” each aspires to minimize stress for the pet, provide emotional support for the caregiver, and streamline the actions of the veterinary team.
G: Grief support materials provided
Examples: Printed pet loss guides, books, or direct links to online resources.
O: Outline caregiver and pet preferences
Examples: Talk about what’s important to the caregiver and pet. Match what they need.
O: Offer privacy before and after death
Examples: Make sure a family has time to be alone with their pet if requested.
D: Deliver proper technique
Examples: Always use the most efficient and appropriate technique based on the pet’s health and available supplies.
E: Establish rapport
Examples: Slow down and emotionally connect with the caregiver and pet before proceeding.
U: Use of pre-euthanasia sedation or anesthesia
Examples: Sleep before euthanasia reduces anxiety and pain, and increases technique options.
T: Thorough, complete consent
Examples: Every euthanasia must be properly documented in records.
H: Helpful and compassionate personnel
Examples: Engage staff to assist who are naturally empathetic. The use of a “euthanasia attendant” is strongly encouraged (more about this later).
A: Adequate time
Examples: Slow down, block out enough time to complete all 14 components.
N: Narrate the process
Examples: Describe what each step of the process looks like, being mindful to keep language simple and uncomplicated.
A: Avoid pain and anxiety
Examples: Be gentle when handling the pet, use sedation whenever possible, and go slow to reduce anxiety.
S: Safe space to gather
Examples: Consider using a quiet room in the hospital or performing the euthanasia at home.
I: Inclusion of loved ones
Examples: Talk to caregivers about who should to be there, including other household pets bonded to the one being euthanized.
A: Assistance with body care
Examples: Preplan with families around what’s important to them and carry out their wishes as if the pet were your own.
In addition to veterinarians carrying out the medical act of euthanasia, vital support staff help ensure everything goes well. Empathetic veterinary technicians, veterinary social workers, assistants, receptionists, and grief support personnel work together to ensure the pet is Fear Free and the client is carefully looked after. CAETA advocates for use of what it calls the euthanasia attendant. This person is responsible for guiding the family unit through the appointment from beginning to end. While many people may be involved in the pet’s care, one consistent person increases the likelihood that everything flows smoothly.
If you’ve been watching for change, you’re sure to have noticed the increase in specialty mobile euthanasia services around the world. According to online directory In Home Pet Euthanasia, nearly 600 mobile services have been listed since 2009 as providing home euthanasia services in Canada, the U.S., and England. Nearly 80 percent specialize in euthanasia work or the broader field of animal hospice, including euthanasia services. The shift toward home euthanasia is well-founded and necessary for many families. Pets feel safer at home. And for loving owners, being at home for their pet’s euthanasia provides them privacy and reduces the challenges of driving and interacting with others while in the midst of grief.
Home euthanasia has proven extremely rewarding work for those who offer it. It’s also gaining in popularity, with one service reporting its team of veterinarians assisted upward of 50,000 pets in the home setting in 2019. That’s an impressive number and indicates the trend of home euthanasia is here to stay.
Like any other progressive movement, advanced euthanasia did not happen overnight. And there are lingering obstacles that continue to stifle necessary change. Number one is the old paradigm that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It can be hard for veterinary teams to make lasting change around euthanasia. Reshaping a hospital’s culture takes time and commitment, but it can be done and done well.
Consider the following steps to create lasting change:
Dedicate one month a year to euthanasia-related discussions
Get everyone’s input on desired improvements
Create a euthanasia manual and refer to it regularly
Hold euthanasia rounds to review successes/challenges
Have multiple team members obtain advanced euthanasia training
These days, the veterinary profession recognizes the value of appropriate self-care. In this respect, self-care with regard to euthanasia begins long before the appointment. It is becoming standard practice to discuss a veterinary team member’s professional limits around euthanasia. North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) human animal bond certification program focuses on this concept in its euthanasia module. It describes how veterinary teams should take time to determine who enjoys (yes, enjoys) euthanasia work, to write down how many euthanasias one can help in a day, week, etc., and how the team plans to practice self-care. Examples include team outings, fun food days, and setting limits on the amount of time worked in a day. The likelihood of compassion fatigue is high if care is not properly taken from the onset of euthanasia-related work.
As far as we’ve come, there is always room for growth. New techniques, improved euthanasia education opportunities, and better client support tools are on the horizon. We continue to hone our skills around gentle animal handling and pay increased attention to where we gather for euthanasia. This has never been truer than during the COVID pandemic. Veterinary teams have shifted the delivery of care, ensuring euthanasia remains an essential procedure. Creative approaches to preplanning, social distancing, technique selection, and appointment timing have played vital roles in protecting the human-animal bond. The veterinary profession dealt with these necessary modifications swiftly and compassionately. And it’s important to mention that while this article has been focused on euthanasia, death is a process, not always just a moment in time. Good death also refers to the meaningful journey leading up to death, be it natural or via active euthanasia. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Well done is better than well said.” To help the good death revolution flourish, we must act accordingly. A good death is achieved by advocating for, and acting on, what is safest for the pet, what is most meaningful for the caregiver, and what will nourish the veterinary team. If you haven’t already, how will you join the revolution?
A sad event provided researchers in Portugal with a rare opportunity to observe how feral horses react to the death of a herd mate and to collect data that may advance understanding of emotions and intelligence in all horses.
Scientists from the University of Coimbra in Portugal and Kyoto University in Japan were doing routine fieldwork, observing a feral herd, when they noticed a 2-month-old foal whose hind legs had been severely injured in a presumed wolf attack.
“We started to work with this horse population in the north of Portugal in 2016,” says Renata Mendonça, PhD. “Every year in the breeding season, from April to July we conduct fieldwork. We are almost every day in the field following and observing horses’ behavior from morning to late afternoon. Additionally, this population is subjected to predation pressure from the Iberian wolf, and for the past two years, foal mortality has reached almost 100 percent and we believe it is mainly due to wolf predation. These two factors combined increased our chance to observe this event.”
The researchers watched the foal for nearly six hours, making notes on his behavior as well as that of his dam and other members of the herd in his vicinity. They noted the activity of the nearby horses—such as feeding moving, resting or social interactions—every five minutes and documented the approximate distance between all the observable horses and the injured foal every two minutes.
For the first several hours, the herd was walking, but the foal moved only when prompted by his dam. Eventually, the foal went down and was unable to stand. His dam stayed close by grazing and occasionally nuzzling the foal. About 15 minutes later, the herd began to move again, leaving the dam and foal behind. The stallion returned to the dam soon after and attempted to herd her away from the foal. After the seventh attempt, he was successful and the dam left, whinnying to the foal 10 total times during the separation. The foal responded only once.
A few minutes later, a second group of horses arrived in the area and remained within 20 yards of the foal for about 40 minutes. All the group members initially showed interest in the foal, but most eventually started feeding nearby. Two adult females, however, remained interested and licked and sniffed the foal for several minutes. The foal’s dam watched this interaction from a distance and whinnied 44 times, but the stallion prevented her from approaching. The foal responded only once, after the other adult mares had left.
The foal’s dam briefly returned to his side later in the day and clashed with bachelor stallions who showed an interest in her, but not the foal. Eventually, the dam moved away from the foal to join the herd, which was 200 meters away. The foal stood three minutes after she left but fell twice and made no further attempts to follow. The researchers estimate he died about an hour later.
Although conceding that it was difficult to watch these events unfold, Mendonça says researchers must try to avoid interfering with animals in the wild. “It is always hard for us to see our subjects of research get injured or die,” she says, “and our first instinct is to call for help or try to intervene. However, when we are dealing with natural causes, as in this case, we try as much as possible not to intervene. We have to think about the complex environmental and trophic interactions that are occurring and can benefit from such a loss. A carcass is a food resource for other animals, scavengers, which depend on them to survive and to feed their offspring (which were born in the same season), such as wolves, foxes, crows and wild boars.”
Mendonça says that the dam leaving her foal may seem heartbreaking, but it makes sense in evolutionary context. “Ensuring her own survival seems to be a priority for the mothers in the animal kingdom, in general, even if the mother-infant bond is the strongest bond established among individuals. While a mother can produce offspring every year (in the case of horses), developing, growing and reaching sexual maturity requires a lot of time and has a lot of costs, so, for the benefit of the species, it is more advantageous, and less costly, if mothers prioritized their survival over their offspring’s,” she says, adding, “The constant harassment by the two bachelor males could have hastened the abandonment of the foal. The situation might have been different if she had been alone with her foal.”
More difficult to understand, says Mendonça, was the attention the two unfamiliar adult mares gave the dying foal. “I was surprised by the reaction of the unrelated females toward the injured foal,” she says. “Usually adult mares and stallions behave agonistically toward foals from other groups. These agonistic interactions (e.g., chasing and bite threats) are observed when foals get lost from their band and approach other groups while seeking their own or when foals are lying down far away from their group and other groups approach. Showing affiliative behaviors, instead of agonistic as expected considering previous scenarios, could mean that the horses somehow perceived that the foal’s condition was unusual.”
As for the broader question of how horses perceive death, much more remains to be learned, but in the meantime it’s advisable to take equine emotions and reactions into account when managing domesticated horses.
“Some studies suggest that [after the death of a herdmate], horses show signs of anxiety, cessation of feeding and social withdrawal,” Mendonça says. “Therefore, it is important to consider horses’ needs when they are facing a situation of loss before asking them to complete or perform their daily tasks.”
Will was distraught after his dog, Ray, died. Though Ray had been slowing down and sleeping more, Will had passed it off as normal, signs that his trusted buddy was simply getting older. By the time the vet diagnosed cancer, there was little that could be done.
Looking back, Will blamed himself for not getting Ray to the vet sooner—“He was counting on me and I let him down.”—and kicking himself for not being able to afford additional diagnostics, much less treatment. “I just didn’t have that kind of money and it’s tearing me up inside.”
He couldn’t shake memories of Ray’s death, or stop the self-critical thoughts that brought guilt and a sense that “I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
When we lose a canine companion, these kinds of thoughts and feelings may become a part of our grief. Though rooted in positive values such as loyalty, protectiveness and a commitment to our dog’s well-being, these values can also leave us in moral pain when we believe that we have failed to live up to them. According to Brandon Griffin, PhD, “Moral pain may be attributed to an event or series of events that a person views as a gross transgression of his or her moral beliefs and values, such as when we violate our own values by what we did or failed to do.”
In his book, The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies, Wallace Sife, PhD, points out that caring for an animal companion involves “a complex set of responsibilities” in some ways “similar to the obligations of raising a child.” Given that we cannot always protect our dogs from suffering and may have to make decisions about when to end their lives, there may be times when we second-guess ourselves and wonder how well we have fulfilled these responsibilities.
In our grief, we may disproportionally focus on our perceived failures and imperfections rather than view our actions as those of someone doing her or his best to stand by a canine loved one during painful circumstances. Thus, when a dog dies, Sife observes, we may “need to consider the feelings of guilt and failed obligation that almost always crop up during intense bereavement for a pet.”
Often, moral pain abates as we process our grief. There are times, however, when it persists. When this happens, it may indicate deeper issues such as depression, anxiety or what counseling professionals call moral injury. According to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University: “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when [one] perpetrates, witnesses or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”
People struggling with moral injury may feel intractable shame, guilt, anger and/or remorse. They may experience unwanted and intrusive memories of painful events or harbor a sense of being morally defective. Over time, moral injury can lead to social isolation and a diminished sense of self-worth.
When it comes to our canine friends, there are many potential sources of moral pain. When a dog is sick or injured, we cannot talk with them about what is going on. We can’t get their input and involve them in decision-making. The pressure is on us to make painful but necessary decisions, which may involve euthanasia or treatments that temporarily cause suffering. Under such pressurized circumstances, it’s easy to agonize about what to do and to criticize whatever choices we make.
Veterinary social worker Jeannine Moga points out that dogs can be very stoical and mask underlying physical issues until they are advanced. “Diseases can progress in their bodies before they start to show overt signs of illness. Add to that the significant expense of veterinary diagnosis and treatment, and people can be faced with animal losses complicated by unknown causation, questions of ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ and worries that they’ve somehow failed to take adequate care of their companions.”
The decision for euthanasia, even when done to alleviate suffering on the recommendation of a veterinary professional, can be a source of acute moral distress. In their book, The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice from Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups, Ken Dolen-Del Vecchio, LCSW, MFT, and Nancy Saxon-Lopez, LCSW, reflect on painful questions that arose after euthanizing a beloved cat.
Had we waited too long and prolonged his suffering unnecessarily? Had we put enough thought into the decision to end his life? Should we have taken him home and thought it over more carefully? Should we have sought another opinion? … Should we really have stayed with him when the vet put him to sleep? Did Reggie think that we killed him? Should we instead have said our goodbyes and left the room until he was gone?
According to Maryjean Tucci, MSEd, MDiv, lead bereavement coordinator for a hospice program and coauthor of A Peaceful Path: A Supportive Guide Through Pet Loss, decisions about euthanasia can raise other moral concerns. “When a person’s religious beliefs are such that they believe they are killing their pet by ending their life in an unnatural way, moral distress may play a role in their grief.”
“There are times,” Tucci continues, “when individuals may not understand the medical implications of what is happening to their pet and therefore are unable to make a clear decision on the process of euthanasia. If a pet partner experiences their pet struggling when their pet is being euthanized, this may cause an interruption of their grief experience by thinking they may have made the wrong decision. This is also true if the pet rallies and is perky just before the injection.”
There may be moral anguish if a grieving person looks back and concludes that they failed to understand the extent of an animal’s suffering and/or put off making a decision about euthanasia because it was too painful. In such instances, humans may blame themselves for allowing a pet to suffer. “When this occurs,” Tucci says, “there can be extreme feelings of guilt and low self-worth.”
Circumstances specific to an individual dog’s death may also cause moral pain—for example, the dog who escapes through an open door and is hit by an automobile, or the dog euthanized against an owner’s wishes due to aggressive behavior shown to a neighbor.
I worked with a patient who had no one to adopt her aging and infirm Beagle, Rosie. Days before we met, she made the heartbreaking decision to end Rosie’s life in order to save her from being abandoned and feeling unwanted. Though this client was terminally ill, much of my counseling with her focused on the moral pain of this decision despite the loving intention behind it.
Sometimes moral pain has nothing to do with the specifics of the death. For example, I worked with a woman who was providing care for her dying mother, which left her little time for her 14-year-old Basset Hound. “I was so stressed by Mom’s care that I just wound up ignoring him. He started having occasional [urinary] accidents, and I found myself getting impatient and yelling at him. I even had occasional thoughts that it would be easier if he were gone.”
When her dog needed to be euthanized, she felt at peace with the decision but agonized over having lost her temper in moments of frustration. “I feel horrible. I worry he might have thought I didn’t love him anymore or that I wanted him to die. I wish I could have that time back.”
Ritual and Remembrance
When grieving for a beloved dog, it’s important to have opportunities to share one’s grief and, if desired, engage in rituals that honor and help make sense of the loss. Unfortunately, some who have lost pets find that such opportunities for rituals and support are rare, even nonexistent.
When it comes to our canine companions, says Tucci, “Families, friends and society do not always recognize this loss as important or legitimate. Statements from others such as: ‘This wasn’t a child,’ or ‘The impact isn’t as bad as losing a sibling or a parent,’ minimize the loss for the person experiencing grief.”
She likens this to what Kenneth Doka, PhD, calls “disenfranchised grief.” In his book, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Doka describes situations in which the significance of a loss goes unrecognized, unacknowledged or is dismissed by others—situations for which there is no recognized social or communal context in which to express one’s grief and receive support.
Feeling isolated in one’s grief can intensify the suffering of moral pain by presenting barriers to processing one’s thoughts and feelings as well as to receiving reassurances from a caring other. Attempting to grieve in isolation can complicate such pain and even cause some to wonder if there is something wrong with them. Sometimes, this isolation is experienced as abandonment, even betrayal, by those from whom a grieving person expected compassion.
In “Grief and Moral Injury,” a blog post about his grief following the death of his German Shepherd, psychologist David Fisher, PhD, describes feeling abandoned by those he counted on for support and understanding. Having no one to “witness” his “inconsolable grief,” he writes, significantly intensified his pain.
Over time, moral pain typically lessens as we grieve and gain perspective. For those who are struggling with this kind of pain, the suggestions that follow may be helpful.
• Give yourself a break. Moral pain comes from caring about doing the right thing and wanting the best for your dog. If you did not care, you would not be feeling this kind of pain. Sometimes, there are things we don’t recognize or cannot control. We may need to make decisions under duress. Intense emotions and conflicting responsibilities can make these decisions very difficult, and whatever we decide, we may criticize ourselves. Acknowledge the difficulty of this kind of pressure and let yourself be human.
• Find someone with whom you can talk. If you don’t have someone, think of somebody in your life, even if they are no longer alive, from whom you have felt love and compassion. Imagine they are in the room with you and tell them what you are thinking and feeling. Imagine their response.
• Get creative. Some people find it helpful to write in a journal. Some write poetry or letters to their dogs, telling them what is in their hearts. Others express their feelings and honor connections with deceased dogs through other forms of creative expression, including music, art, storytelling, play, humor or dancing.
• Share the story. As we tell the story of our dog’s life, even if it’s just to ourselves, we see the longer journey we had with our pet, not just the last weeks, days or hours. When we place end-of-life events in the larger context of a friendship that may have unfolded over years, we remember good times and moments of connection and warmth that may have been minimized or forgotten in the midst of our pain.
• If desired, create formal or informal rituals to honor your dog’s life and affirm the enduring meaning of the relationship. Tucci says these kinds of rituals “legitimize the grief experience and reflect the importance of the pet in this person’s life. This also becomes part of the letting go and moving forward process necessary in the healing of grief.”
• Be mindful. It’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and beliefs. Being mindful means paying attention to what we are thinking, sensing and feeling in the present moment without avoiding, judging or identifying with negative states. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Feelings, psychologist Christopher Germer, PhD, observes that “it seems that the more intense our emotional pain is, the more we suffer by obsessing, blaming ourselves or feeling defective.” He recommends bringing gentle attention to our inner experience and responding with self-compassion, “taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.”
• Beware of cognitive distortions. Part of mindfulness is being aware of our thoughts and what we are telling ourselves. When doing this, it’s important to be on the lookout for what psychologists call cognitive distortions. These are ways our minds convince us of things that aren’t true and unconsciously reinforce painful beliefs that keep us feeling bad. There are dozens of cognitive distortions, including personalizing, black-and-white thinking and negative mental filtering.
For example, emotional reasoning refers to a belief that if you feel something, it must be true. If you worry that your dog was angry at you or felt unprotected because you discovered too late that she was sick, you assume it’s true even though it’s not. The key to not getting hooked by cognitive distortions is to notice when they are occurring and gently “talk back” to them. “Oh, I’m falling into the trap of emotional reasoning. I feel sad about what happened, but Maggie was good at hiding when she was in pain. She knew how much I loved her.”
• Don’t confuse regret, guilt and shame. This is easy to do. In simple terms, regret is a sense of sadness that things turned out the way they did. It can convey a wish that we had understood a situation better so that we could have done things differently. Guilt refers to a belief that we knowingly did something that violated our code of ethics. Shame takes guilt to a whole new level by replacing the belief “I did something that was bad” with “I’m a bad person because of what I did.”
It’s easy to confuse these experiences. If you’re feeling intense regret, it’s easy to start blaming yourself. Before you know it, regret can turn into guilt and guilt can lead to shame. If you’re feeling shame, ask yourself, “Could this really be guilt?” If you’re feeling guilt, ask yourself, “How much of what I’m feeling is really regret?”
• Tend to your body and spirit. Moral pain doesn’t just affect your heart and mind. It’s important to take care of your body by getting exercise, rest, and practicing good nutrition and sleep habits. If you have a faith tradition or spiritual/contemplative practice, these can be sources of strength, comfort and perspective.
At times, moral pain can be intensified by destructive messages we’ve received and internalized at some point in our lives, often as children. Messages like, “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I have to be perfect,” “It’s my fault when something goes wrong” or “It’s my job to make sure everyone is safe/happy.” Readers for whom this registers are warmly encouraged to find a safe context, possibly with a caring professional, to explore and gain perspective on these messages.
Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help or to join a support group. It’s okay to reach out to a psychotherapist, clergy person or professional bereavement counselor. Many counselors understand this kind of pain and how deep the grief can be for a deceased animal companion.
In August of 2018, millions of people watched a video of an Orca in the Pacific Northwest and felt their hearts break. The new mother named Tahlequah had lost her calf, but persisted in pushing the corpse around for 17 days. It was almost impossible not to feel, deep down, that the mom was grieving.
Scientists are tempted to draw those conclusions, too. But even if researchers feel that an animal’s behaviors mean it is mourning, that’s not how their job works. “We need documented evidence that this is indeed an analogue to grief,” says Elizabeth Lonsdorf, a primatologist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, that proof is hard to get. “In terms of emotion, animal cognition is tricky,” she says. “It would be a lot nicer if you could ask them what they’re feeling.”
Since that option is off the table, scientists resort to observations, analysis and testing hypotheses to figure out why animals interact with their dead, and whether those interactions count as grief. And it’s going to take a lot more than just observations in the wild to get an answer. “The short answer is this is one of these great scientific problems that will take people working from all areas to sort out,” Lonsdorf says.
To begin with, it’s important to understand how rarely researchers see animals interact with the dead. Even if observations make headlines, those are single incidents. Scientists need a large dataset of interactions to reach any conclusions about why animals do what they do.
For many animals with documented behaviors toward deceased individuals, the field notebooks don’t have many entries. When Lonsdorf and her colleagues analyzed incidents of chimpanzee mothers carrying infant corpses for a study published in July, there were 33 total cases to work with — and that was after 60 years of research in the same chimp communities in Tanzania. Data is scarce for cetaceans, too. Between 1970 and 2016, there were only 78 recorded incidents of different dolphins and whales showing interest in a dead individual.
Observing these interactions in the wild is somewhat serendipitous. Unlike other animal behaviors, it’s not possible for researchers to head out into the field intent on observing interactions with the dead. “You can’t go out and wait for animals to die,” Lonsdorf says.
There’s also a chance that the incidents that do end up in studies are only the ones that intrigue us humans the most. As behavioral ecologist Shifra Goldenberg and her colleagues point out in their 2019 analysis of elephant behaviors, “There is probably a bias within this body of anecdotes that favors the recording of interesting or more obvious behaviors.” Even when compiling all recorded instances, finding a pattern of behavior can be hard if not all research groups know or document the exact same details every time. These details might include how long the interactions were, who showed up, or the exact nature of the relationships between the living and deceased.
Using Context Clues
Researchers can still take a close look at the ways in which different animals interact with the dead to try and suss out their motivations. For example, some scientists have proposed that maybe a given species nudges, touches or carries a corpse because they don’t yet know their child or friend is, well, dead. When it comes to cetaceans, like dolphins and whales, many biologists think that within a few days of interaction, the living individual would have figured it out. After all, their motionless companion starts to reek of decay. But there’s still no concrete evidence that the aquatic mammals are aware that the individual won’t be revived. “Though research into this realm started over fifty years ago,” wrote zoologist Giovanni Bearzi and his colleagues in their 2018 analysis of these cases, “there has been little direct research on this topic and the matter is still open to investigation and debate.”
With chimpanzees, it’s a different story. In their study, Lonsdorf and her team analyzed the same possibility — that mothers didn’t realize their child had died — but found evidence to suggest otherwise. The moms sometimes dragged the infants, something they’d never do while their child was alive. In some cases, they cannibalized their young, a pretty clear indicator that they knew something had changed. Other theories about why these mothers interacted with their deceased kids didn’t fit the evidence, either. One idea was that mothers are so overwhelmed with the postpartum hormones influencing their maternal instincts that they can’t bring themselves to let go of their child. If that was the case, then the research team would have seen mothers who lost older kids let go faster, as they’d be well past the wave of hormonal attachment. But there wasn’t any relationship between infant age and how long the mother carried the body around.
When their analysis was done, Lonsdorf and her colleagues were left with the impression that chimp mothers know their child has died, but still can’t let go — even grooming their baby as if it were still alive. But that doesn’t mean the team concluded that these primates were feeling grief. “Our conclusion was, ‘Okay, at least for chimps, the simple solutions don’t work.’ We need to think more creatively.”
To better understand why chimps — or elephants or cetaceans or any number of animals — interact with their dead, more nuanced research needs to happen. When it comes to chimpanzees, maybe experiments with captive individuals could show how they react to, say, photos of deceased friends. After a death, primatologists could look for changes that mirror some common human grief behaviors, like withdrawing from others or losing interest in food, Lonsdorf says. For cetaceans, Bearzi and his colleagues think that it might be worth trying to record the sounds the marine mammals make after a death, as many species are famous for intricate echolocations.
A better understanding of animal behavior could use some introspection, too. Grief is a vague, variant concept and process for humans, and even death itself comes with a learning curve. Lonsdorf, for example, remembers watching Star Wars as a kid and believing the actor who played Obi-Wan Kenobi actually died on screen. “I was shocked when he showed up in another movie,” she says. Death and grief can still seem strange and unfamiliar to us. Naturally, a more nuanced understanding of those concepts in people might help us recognize them in other creatures, too.
Grieving over the loss of a pet is traumatic. But sometimes, it can be even harder when we know that our dogs don’t have much time left. Anticipatory grief is real, and it’s a completely normal emotion to feel.
Dogs are very intuitive, and your grief may be contagious to your ailing pet. Perhaps instead of spending your remaining time with your canine companion in a state of grieving and sadness, you can make the rest of your dog’s life as comfortable and wonderful as possible.
Here are some tips on how to make your dog’s last days the best that they possibly can be.
Create A Bucket List
Dog parent Riina Cooke made the decision to make a bucket list for her terminally ill Boxer, and it helped her with the grieving process tremendously. From a cheeseburger to a pedicure, she filled her dog’s remaining time with fun and happiness.
What makes your dog ecstatic? Is it taking luxurious car rides? Hanging out with some of their favorite friends?
Create a list of what your dog loves to do best, and cross off as many as you can as long as your dog’s health and safety permits.
There’s nothing better than seeing your pup at their happiest, and there’s no better way to remember them than in that state, as well.
Go All Out With The Food
If your dog’s vet agrees that certain people foods are okay for your dog to ingest, give your pup the tastiest, most decadent food possible.
When my childhood dog, a nine-year-old Cocker Spaniel, was suffering from a myriad of ailments, we gave her steamed rice and steak every night for dinner. Some nights, her dinner was fancier than what the humans of the household were eating.
Ask your vet which foods are appropriate, and start making Fido gourmet meals.
Indulge In All Forms Of Pampering
Go buck wild with any and all forms of pampering, especially anything that will relax and soothe your dog.
Have a dog masseuse come to your house. Go to a dog bakery and get them the most outrageous dog cake you can find.
You can even go a little less traditional route and do things like take your dog to a pet communicator or psychic to hear what they’re really feeling. You may not be a believer, but it will probably be a fun experience and a fond memory.
Get Educated On Pain Management
This may not be the most fun part of the list, but it’s crucial. If your dog is suffering, it may not always be apparent that he or she is in pain. Educate yourself on the signs of pain in dogs.
If your dog hits a point of extreme pain or a point where you cannot take care of your pup yourself, it may be time to consider dog hospice care. Much like human hospice care, dog hospice care is from the comfort of your own home.
You can work with your vet on things like administering medications and deciding if and when it’s the right time for euthanasia.
Allow Your Friends And Family To Help You
In order for you to be in the right state of mind for when your dog is nearing the end of their life, you should have a solid support group. Talk to friends who know your dog well, family, and a veterinarian you can trust.
Many animal hospitals also offer support groups. By having this ring of support for yourself, you will be able to effectively and lovingly support your pooch through this painful time.
Letting go of a dog is never easy, but you can make it as positive of an experience as possible for both you and your dog.
If you’ve gone through the grieving process of a dog passing away, what did you do to make your dog’s last days their best? Do any fond memories bring you comfort? Let us know in the comments below!