This post is about the difficult subject of how to cope when pets die. No matter whether you are an atheist, an agnostic or believe in some kind of afterlife for pets, losing them in this life is heartbreaking. And it does not help that many people in England don’t believe that animals have the same importance. There is nothing worse than losing a beloved furry friend, and then after a few weeks, having some do-gooder say ‘it was only a dog or cat’.
When pets die, a range of emotions take force. Of course there is the grief. But also a lot of the time, there is guilt. We often have the responsibility to make the decision whether to have a pet put to sleep. This can be a difficult decision to make. And unlike the vets of old (when you would likely have a kindly country vet in a one-person surgery), today many surgeries are huge with lots of different vets in cold noisy environments. Not the best place to make that decision. At-home euthanasia is always better,, but not always possible if a decision must be made quickly. Death by injection is instantaneous.
Sometimes things go wrong. Someone accidentally leaves a gate open and a dog escaped and got run over, pets that go missing and never return, pets who exhibited symptoms that were not understood by people and vets. Unlike us humans (most of us can be grouchy sometimes), pets are more or less saints in furry bodies. So the guilt accompanying the memory of an animal in pain (especially due to misdiagnosis) can be overwhelming for the sensitive soul. Also see helpful resources for senior dogs.
To be fair, there is not much you can do to heal the grief, either than give it time to get rid of the shock. Animals are evolved souls of unconditional love, and will forgive you (even if you can’t forgive yourself). If you love animals as much as humans, the pain will likely never go away. But in Buddhism, they say that accepting the fact (rather than ‘trying to make the pain go away’ for any grief) is usually a better idea. Live with it and accept it, and likely you will eventually find some kind of inner peace.
How to Help You Cope with Pet Grief
- David Michie is a good Buddhist writer, and says that when pets die, they enter ‘pardo’ for 49 days, before their souls move on. During this time, he advises (if possible) keeping their bowl and bed around, for an easier transition, and to meditate to help both them and you. Anna Sayce has a nice interview on what happens to animals, when they die.
- Just like with a human, a little send-off ritual can help. You may wish to have a little prayer service at home or in your dog’s favourite forest. Or perform a little prayer, when scattering ashes. If unkind people laugh at your grief, pity those who have such lack of empathy in their souls.
- Create a little legacy. Planting a little memorial tree is a good idea. This does not have to be in your garden, there are charities who will plant trees in forests, in your animal’s name. If planting in your garden, see the post on how to make your garden safe for pets to know which toxic plants to avoid planting. Many trees (including yew and oak) are toxic to horses, and acorns, conkers and fruit pips and seeds are all toxic to pets.
- Blue Cross offers tips on how to humanely euthanise horses at the end of their lives.
Pet Loss Bereavement Counselling
- Blue Cross offers free pet bereavement support by phone (every day) or by email via confidential form.
- Paws to Listen is a similar service, offered by Cat’s Protection League, open weekdays (if the lines are busy, they can call you back). These are not counsellors but are sympathetic listeners, who can lend a helpful ear.
- EASE Support offers free resources written by their Pet Bereavement Support Specialist. These include 10-minute recordings, with soothing music.
- Supportline is a phone helpline for anyone who needs help for shock or grief, for any reason.
- Pet Bereavement Services is a company run by a registered experienced vet nurse, who has trained in pet bereavement counselling. She offers remote services and a free download to help children deal with pet loss.
- The Ralph Site lists pet bereavement counsellors nationwide, you can list if you would inclusion.
- Ally For All is a community support service (based in South West) run by National Animal Welfare Trust
- Chance’s Spot is an organisation to help shelter staff and vets/vet nurses, who likely suffer real stress from the trauma of seeing so many ill, injured and traumatised pets. Vets also have to regularly put pets to sleep, and this can weigh heavy on the soul, after a long time. The founder is an animal chaplain and pet loss counsellor.
- Blue Cross and The Blackford Centre for Pet Bereavement offer courses to become a pet bereavement counsellor. An ideal job if you are an empathic person, who would like to work locally or from home.
Should You Get Another Pet?
We all hear that it’s not a good idea to immediately adopt another pet. But of course that’s not always the case for many. And if a rescue case comes to you, it may be that it was meant to be. At least he or she will give you a reason to get out. There is a poem somewhere from a dog in Heaven, who asks his guardian to adopt again, as the best legacy (to give another dog the same happy life he got from you).
Some pets left behind may also prefer to have another furry friend around. It all depends on your circumstances (some older people prefer not to, lest they die). If this is the reason to not adopt, you could get a free Dog’s Trust Canine Card that enables (on your death) the charity to contact your nominated guardian to either adopt them or for them to find a loving home (they try to keep animals together). Unlike RSPCA, they never put healthy dogs to sleep. It also helps to include a codicil with your Will, on who you have nominated to look after your dog, in the event of your death. National Animal Welfare Trust South West) offers a similar card. Or you may wish to volunteer as a dog walker for elderly and disabled people, via Cinnamon Trust or PAPAS .
If you have other pets, keep a routine. Obviously pets left behind will be mourning too. So you howling in a corner is not going to help. Grieve peacefully together.
Books to Help You Cope with Pet Loss
- The Invisible Leash is a book to help heal readers living with grief. It illustrates the spiritual connection between pet guardians and their humans. After Zach’s dog dies, his friend Emily tries to comfort him with the news that there remains ‘an invisible leash’ around our hearts, connecting everyone to the pets in Heaven or beyond
- The Divine Life of Animals is a Biblical study by Ptolemy Tompkins, who takes us on a 20,000 year journey of history to ask if animals have souls. While many religious authorities scoff at the idea of animals in Heaven, this immensely readable (if scientific) book embarks on the answer. The positive picture painted is a gloriously inclusive picture of the cosmos.
- Will I See My Dog In Heaven? (he also writes versions for cats and a children’s version) is a nice little gift book by Father Jack Wintz, who has spent years as a Franciscan monk, studying the texts of St Francis of Assisi. He has hopeful things to say, for anyone who needs comfort, after losing a furry friend.