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    • Ask The Expert
    • 09 Apr, 2021

    Coping with the loss of a four-legged friend

    Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is one of the hardest moments many of us will ever face.

    Our animals become central to our family and for some people are their only companion, so it isn’t surprising that we can feel overwhelmed by grief when we lose them.

    Pet loss is something that has recently been discussed in the media after comedian Miranda Hart movingly shared her own experience, but it can be a hard subject to talk about for many. We asked our Veterinary team to share their expert advice to help pet owners.

    Time to say goodbye

    Many pet owners find themselves having to make the difficult decision to have their pet put down. This can cause feelings of guilt and sadness, and it can be tempting to avoid making the decision in the hope that the pet will pass away on their own. Sadly, in many cases pets will not pass away peacefully in their sleep. Euthanasia literally translates as ‘good death’. Taking responsibility for a pain-free, peaceful death is maybe one of the kindest things an owner can do for a much-loved pet.

    A man touching noses with his cat

    What to do when your pet passes away

    If you believe your pet has died at home, it’s important to check that they have truly passed away. Place two fingers on their chest behind the point of the elbow – if your pet has passed, you will be unable to feel a heartbeat. If your pet’s eyes are open, they will not blink when you tap at the corner of the eye. You should always contact your vet, so that they can confirm the death.

    Being unsure what to do with your pet’s remains can add to the distress that you feel. You may wish to bury your pet at home. In the UK it is legal to bury pets on land that you own, but not in the grounds of rented property or public spaces. Another option is to have your pet’s remains cremated. This can either be arranged through your vet or directly with a local pet cremation service.

    Assessing your pet’s quality of life

    There are some questions that you can ask yourself with close friends and family to help you decide whether your pet still has a good quality of life. Please check with your vet or veterinary nurse to see if there are any adjustments you can make at home.

    Are they showing signs of pain? 

    These might include being unwilling to get out of bed; panting, shaking or trembling; hiding away; or avoiding being stroked.

    Are they eating and drinking normally? 

    Adequate food and fluid intake is important for your pet’s health and eating food is an activity that pets usually enjoy. If they no longer take any enjoyment in eating, this will have an impact on their overall quality of life.

    Are they toileting normally? 

    Cats may stop using the litter tray. Dogs that are normally house-trained may stop letting you know that they need to go outside to toilet. Sometimes pets may urinate or defecate while they are sleeping.

    Do they still enjoy activities that they used to? 

    It can be helpful to write a list of a few things that your pet enjoys most, such as playing with toys or going for a walk, and review whether they are still able to do these things.

    Are they sleeping normally? 

    Some pets may sleep much more than they used to; others may struggle to sleep and might start barking or meowing during the night.

    How well are you and your pet coping with any treatments they need? 

    If you are struggling with giving medications to your pet, discuss this with your vet or veterinary nurse as there may be alternative options that are easier to administer.

    A cat relaxing

    What happens when a pet is put to sleep?

    Euthanasia is usually carried out by injecting an overdose of anaesthetic, most commonly into a vein on a front leg, although it can be given in other areas of the body. If a pet is stressed or agitated, they may be given a sedative beforehand to help them feel more relaxed.

    As the injection takes effect, the animal will start to feel sleepy and then peacefully fall unconscious within a few seconds. After a short time, their breathing and heart will stop. The vet will confirm that they have passed away by listening with a stethoscope. It may be helpful to discuss with your vet what to expect during a euthanasia procedure so you are as prepared as you can be.

    Time to grieve

    Losing a pet is very upsetting and people deal with the loss in different ways. Give yourself time to grieve. Pets are an important part of our lives and it is natural to miss them. Feeling shock, anger, sadness or guilt are all normal and there is no right or wrong way to experience grief – how you feel is unique to you.

    Children, in particular, can find coping with the loss of a pet difficult. It may well be their first experience of death and it can be hard for them to understand. How you explain what has happened will vary depending on the age of the child, but in general it is best to be honest, leaving out any distressing details and using straightforward terms. Try to avoid phrases like ‘put to sleep’ or saying that the pet has gone away as this can be confusing.

    Many people find it helpful to talk about how they are feeling with a supportive friend or family member. Help is also available from bereavement counsellors or pet bereavement support services.

    Helping other pets cope with loss

    Whether or not to show the body of your deceased pet to any surviving pets to help them understand what has happened is a really common question. As long as the deceased pet doesn’t pose a risk of infection (check this with your vet if you are unsure) and you are comfortable doing so, then you can. Be aware that the animals may not have the same awareness of death as people so may not react calmly and gently as you might expect.

    The best thing you can do to help your surviving pet cope is to try to keep their routine as normal as possible to help them adapt to the change. It might be tempting to bring home a new pet so that they have a companion, but this shouldn’t be rushed into and should only be considered if it is the right thing for the whole family.

    Remembering your pet

    Once you have taken some time to grieve, you may wish to do something to commemorate your pet’s life. Celebrate the happy memories you had together by displaying photos of your pet around your home or planting a new plant in their favourite spot in the garden. You could also consider sponsoring one of our cat cabins or dog rooms to commemorate your pet’s life in a way that will leave a lasting legacy for other pets in the future.

    Saying goodbye to Trilby

    Mayhew volunteer Pete East shares how he has coped with the loss of his beloved cat.

    Trilby was an unwanted stray who found his way into my life – and my heart. I named him Trilby after watching Foyle’s War on TV, where the main character wears a trilby hat. Unfortunately, he started suffering from Caudal Stomatitis [an extremely painful condition which causes inflamed gums and mouth tissue]. He had dental procedures over the years and most of his teeth were removed, which can often help cats with this condition. However, last year he needed steroid injections and tablets to manage the disease. I found many different ways of giving the tablets to him – mixing them with hairball paste and getting him to lick it off my finger, mixing them with mashed-up tuna and sprinkling them on wafer-thin chicken.

    Trilby

    Last summer, Trilby started getting picky with his food, even when I coaxed him out with his favourite dishes, and it seemed uncomfortable for him to eat. My Vet said we were running out of options. The inside of Trilby’s mouth was very inflamed; he wasn’t interested in food and wasn’t sleeping in his favourite places, preferring to hide away. He had another steroid injection and and I tried to coax him to eat in order to give him the oral medication and painkillers, but it seemed to cause him more pain as the days went on. I couldn’t bear to see him like this and felt I had to make the heartbreaking decision that it was in his best interest to have him put to sleep. I’ve never felt so sad.

    My vet was kind and reassured me I was doing the right thing. The procedure was very quick, peaceful and calm, and they allowed me to be with him for a while afterwards. I felt overwhelming guilt and worry (“I shouldn’t have given up”; “Maybe if I’d done something different, he might still be alive”).

    My friends have been supportive. I’ve also called the Pet Bereavement Service several times and they have been fantastic. I think it’s really helpful to speak to someone who really understands what it is like to lose a pet.

    Trilby was a real character, a big softy and such an affectionate cat. I’m so glad that I had him and was able to take care of him when he was poorly. I really do miss him so much.

     

    Finding support

    If you are struggling with the loss of a pet, there are organisations that can offer support and advice, including the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Service and pet support website theralphsite.com.

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