Adrienne is certified dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several courses on hospice, end-of-life care for dogs.
When You Know Your Dog Is Going to Die
When a dog is diagnosed with a terminal illness such as cancer, the news is awfully devastating. Not many situations in life equal the pain and suffering associated with thoughts of losing a canine companion that was always there and provided unconditional love for several years.
It's as if the whole balance of life is gone. With more and more people perceiving dogs as family members, dogs and their families form strong units that are in a perfect state of homeostasis. Then, along comes a diagnosis and that blissful state of homeostasis is gone for good—the family unit is now out of balance.
Soon, feelings of uncertainty and doom crowd the daily lives of those who were touched. There may be that initial hope or initial shock at first, but then the fear of losing the dog becomes more and more tangible as the days go by and the dog starts manifesting signs of physical decline.
With dogs playing such important roles in the lives of many people, it should be easy to understand why a diagnosis of a terminal illness would feel so devastating. Yet, the way society perceives the loss of a pet still appears to lag a step behind.
There is still a deep gap between the way society perceives the loss of a person and the loss of a dog, explains Laurel Lagoni, Suzanne Hetts and Stephen Withrow in the book "Clinical Veterinary Oncology." Still, as of today, there are no formal or socially sanctioned rituals such as wakes, funerals and memorial services for the loss of dogs. There are also very little support systems to help dog owners cope with the reality of impending death and to help draw closure to the loss later on.
"It's only a dog" or "you can always get another dog someday" are some common sentences "regular, non-dog people" may toss out in an attempt to cheer up the dog lover suffering from the sensations of doom associated with the almost surreal thought of losing a furry family member who has been an integral part of the family for many years.
Recognizing the phenomenon of anticipatory grief experienced by dog owners is almost as important or perhaps as equally important as recognizing the grieving process. It is totally normal to go through a vast array of emotions during this time. It's equally important for the dog owner to recognize these emotions rather than trying to suppress them and deny their existance.
Society does not generally support grief over the death of a pet and thus there are few available support systems for the bereaved pet owner.
— M. Bernbaum
The 5 Stages of Anticipatory Grief
Anticipatory grief, also known as "pre-grieving," is the acknowledgement of impending death. For pet owners, this anticipation leads to a mixed bag of emotions including shock, hope, fear, frustration, and anxiety.
Shock is the immediate sensation felt upon hearing the diagnosis. It's as if that moment the vet pronounces the word "cancer" or other life-threatening diagnosis remains frozen in time. There is likely some element of denial or disbelief going on, almost as a defensive mechanism to avoid a direct hit. The vet's diagnosis almost sounds as if those words were directed to someone else.
Hope often soon follows and this often leads to proactive measures. Dog owners will try to help Maggy beat the cancer with a ketogenic diet, hemp oil and other powerful immune-boosting supplements. Other owners may take the traditional route with surgery and perhaps costly chemotherapy. Anything to just buy time and help add some more quality of life.
Fear is often an emotion that will pop up at random times throughout the journey. It will often transpire after the blissful times of hope are over and the cancer raises its ugly head, once again, reminding of the inevitable.
Dog owners may wonder what will happen when their dog starts deteriorating. Getting teary-eyed at random times of the day is not unusual, and breaking down emotionally can sometimes hit even in the most inconspicuous places such as while shopping or at work.
Some dog owners, on the other hand, may be hit with a sense of temporary alienation, which causes them to feel distant from their dogs. This alienation is a defense mechanism meant to detach and avoid feeling the raw pain.
Frustration is often an emotion that arises when despite all the measures taken (diet, prayers, Reiki, holistic approach) the dog deteriorates. Dog owners start realizing that they are losing the battle in an attempt to keep the disease from claiming their dogs.
Dog owners may feel slight envy or anger when they hear about dogs with the same condition living longer and responding better to a certain treatment. Many "what if" questions may arise causing wasteful mental torturing.
The truth is, with end-of-life disorders such as cancer, there are really no right or wrong decisions. Every dog responds differently and there are often no black-and-white rules to adhere to.
Anxiety is often felt as the disease starts taking over. It is difficult to sleep, the tears keep flowing and dog owners may obsessively observe their dogs for "signs" of the big decline that will take the dog's life.
How to Approach a Pet's Death Proactively
Living with dogs and enjoying their company is the double-edged sword that dog owners will eventually face at some point. "Grief is the price we pay for love," said Queen Elizabeth II. However, sometimes grief gets too much in the way, so much so that it puts a big dent into enjoying those last, precious days with a beloved dog.
Yet, dogs are not aware of what the future holds. They live in the present, in a state of blissful unawareness. Adopting a dog's philosophy of life can help dog owners make the most of the final days versus filling them with thoughts associated with unresourceful and unproductive anticipatory fear.
Cherishing the dog's last days is the most productive way to make the most of them. This will help provide comfort knowing that the dog was given lots of love in his final days. A bucket list of things to do should be compiled so to stay proactive. Making a list of things the dog enjoys doing and making those wishes come true can be a true blessing for both dog and dog owner.
Examples are going on a car ride to the beach, surrounding the dog with wonderful toys, making paw-print paintings, letting the dog sleep on the bed/couch or letting him enjoy that vanilla ice cream he always cherished. Even simple things such as spending extra time petting the dog in the evenings or feeding special treats can be treasured experiences. Loads of pictures and videos should be taken so to "materialize" these memories.
Doing all these things together will help focus on the moment and help build everlasting bittersweet moments that will be deeply cherished for years to come. Pre-grieving the loss of a dog, therefore, doesn't necessarily have to be a negative experience, but can actually turn into a proactive and productive one by simply cherishing every moment and perceiving life through the eyes of a dog.
Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, and filling an emptiness we didn't ever knew we had.
— Thom Jones
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Karen Gill on August 20, 2020:
I am doing a Pet Bereavement Counselling Course at present.It is something i have experienced on a number of occasions and hope yo help others.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 16, 2019:
Liz Spolar, anticipatory grief is a very deep type of pain, it somewhat resembles anticipatory anxiety. After that, comes the real grief which can be different in many ways than what we may have anticipated. I am so sorry for your loss. I wrote this article when I was about to lose my dog to a very aggressive cancer. and thought it may help others. Here is a read on the actual grief and its stages./pet-ownership/The-Stages-of...
Liz Spolar on November 13, 2019:
Had to say goodbye to my Apachee of 15 1/2 yrs on October 26,2019 still so raw i wish i would have found the information here sooner but have it for when i have to say goodbye to his mate Cherokee shes 15 she looks all over for him its so sad this pain is so deep.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 28, 2019:
The anxiety phase is a difficult time. It's important though to consider to make out the most of these days and make a bucket list of things to do. Our pets also can get upset when they see us cry and be emotional, so best to act normal in their presence as much as we can.
nrm on July 23, 2019:
We're in the "Anxiety" phase now. Lots of tears. No plans further out than tomorrow, and even that seems like a stretch. Part of me wants it to be over, but I also don't want her to be gone.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2019:
Pat, there are several support groups in social media (Facebook has a rainbow bridge group and I think there are also hotlines for pet bereavement. One that comes to mind is 1 (877) GRIEF-10 which is a direct line to ASPCA's psychologist and grief counselor, Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, PhD.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 12, 2019:
Marty, there must be a technical glitch going on. You can copy the URL and paste it on your Facebook post. It should allow you to share, and you may even see a picture open up along with my article on grieving the loss of dogs.
Marty ELLEW on February 27, 2019:
I wanted to share this to my FB page and I keep getting a message “app not set up”
Pat on January 05, 2019:
We lost our miniature schnauzer three weeks ago and my husband is grieving very hard. I know it was the right thing to let her go, he is just a hot mess. What can I do to help his depression??
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 18, 2018:
Peggy so sorry for your loss. It's so tough.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 18, 2018:
Thank you Heidi, every day is a gift and we are trying to make lots of good memories.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 18, 2018:
Adrienne, from some of your other posts, I know you're facing these issues head on. I have been there, too... too many times. It is a roller coaster and it's real. Your article sums it all up perfectly.
My thoughts are with you and your dog as you face these challenges and cherished moments!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 18, 2018:
It is always hard losing a beloved pet no matter what the circumstances happen to be. We had to euthanize our dear little Skippy just prior to Christmas last year. We still miss him!
Pet Bereavement – Understanding and Coping with Grief
Grief related to pet bereavement can be really intense.
Pet bereavement can cause really strong emotional reactions, sometimes greater than grief in relation to a human loss. No doubt the accepting nature of pets and the unconditional love they provide for people contributes to the intensity of grief felt. Grief can begin before a loss, e.g. when we learn our pet is terminally ill or see our pet getting older: this is known as anticipatory grieving. Grief may also be ambiguous or unresolved when we don’t know what has happened to a pet, e.g. when they are lost or stolen.
Grief is messy, chaotic and unique to the individual.
Grief is our reaction to loss it involves thoughts, emotions (feelings) and behaviours. Traditional understanding of grief reactions were based on stages models which suggest bereaved people pass through distinct phases.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stage model is often applied for understanding grief reactions to pet loss:-
- Denial and Isolation: refusing to accept the reality of the loss, e.g. carrying on as though a pet is not seriously ill, we may avoid talking about our pet’s illness or even not comply with important veterinary treatment to help manage symptoms after the death of a pet some people may feel unable to part with their pet’s body for burial or cremation sometimes people withdraw from meeting friends, family or going out.
- Anger: we may feel furious at our pet for dying, blame a family member or friend for the death or even feel hostile towards the veterinary teams that cared for our pet because they couldn’t make our pet better.
- Bargaining: this can involve making all kinds of compromises and “deals” in our heads as a perceived trade-off that we magically believe may prolong our pet’s life
- Depression: we can experience extreme sadness that prevents us from going about our daily tasks if this is long-lasting it is a good idea to check out what is going on with a GP, as pet bereavement can also evoke feelings of grief from other, past losses in our lives.
- Acceptance: this involves feeling more comfortable remembering good times with a pet and having thoughts of possibly investing in a relationship with a new pet or becoming involved in pet-related activities such as volunteering as a cat socialiser or dog walker at a local animal re-homing centre
More recent understandings of grief however, recognise its uniqueness to each individual and also its chaos and messiness grief reactions are not neat and linear, but rather dynamic – oscillating between immersing ourselves in the pain of loss (actively grieving, e.g. crying, longing for our deceased pet’s presence) to recovery orientated behaviour, e.g. seeing friends, going back to work, having contact with other animals, considering having another pet. Grief may make us physically unwell, e.g. vomiting, not being able to sleep, feeling run down and being more prone to infections.
Everyone is individual and grieves in his or her own way.
Pets are very much part of the family and each family member may have a different relationship to mourn. It is useful to know some of us are affective (emotional) grievers and our grief is very obvious to others, e.g. we cry and look for support from others however some us are instrumental grievers and keep our emotions to ourselves, preferring instead to focus on tasks e.g. sorting out a pet’s cremation or burial. There is no “wrong way” to grieve. There is also no requirement to stop talking about a deceased loved one or remembering them, e.g. taking flowers to a grave or special place where ashes were scattered, keeping photographs around our home of a deceased pet and talking about them. Continuing bonds with lost loved ones are healthy and normal. If we have experience of multiple losses in our lives this may make us more vulnerable to complicated grief reactions as pet bereavement can trigger other painful memories and bring to the surface unprocessed emotions.
In common with people, the most frequent method of after death body-care for pets is cremation. Veterinary surgeries can organise this at an extra cost. Cremations can be individual enabling returning of a pet’s ashes for keeping, burying or scattering alternatively communal cremations (where more than one pet is cremated together) provide the option of having a ‘token of ashes’ to keep, bury or scatter.
A more costly option is burial in a pet cemetery some pet cemeteries also offer the option of human burials for people who want to be with their pets after their own death. Home burial is a further option, but considerations such as feelings regarding moving house in the future and legal requirements regarding the depth of pet graves need to be taken into account. For children in particular, holding a “pet funeral” can offer a useful ritual for remembrance and also provide a foundation for learning how to cope with future losses.
Rituals of remembrance
Finding a way to remember a deceased pet can be very healing. Creating a memory box,e.g. of photographs, a clay paw print (this can be made pre or post death), a favourite toy can be a powerful way of retaining a continuing bond.
Planting a tree or shrub or flowers (e.g. forget-me-nots) offers a living memorial and focal place for remembrance as does a grave if a pet is buried or a special place where ashes are scattered (e.g. favourite tree on a walk). Making a donation in memory of a pet to an animal welfare charity e.g. Cats protection, Dogs Trust is another way some people memorialise their pets and also help other animals.
Sources of support
People are often embarrassed about grief related to pet bereavement and this can stop them seeking support. Emotional support is also available from Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) by phone 0800 096 6606 (8.30am – 8.30pm). All Blue Cross pet bereavement support volunteers have experienced pet loss. The Blue Cross also provides the option of creating an online memorial for your pet (www.bluecross.org.uk pet memorials). Another source of support for pet owners who have lost a beloved companion is the pet loss support website ‘The Ralph Site’ (www.theralphsite.com).
Looking towards the future
Some people will adopt or buy another pet very quickly because it feels right for them, but sometimes it feels wrong to even think about getting another pet, there may even be a sense of betraying or replacing the deceased pet. It can be helpful to remember no pet can ever be replaced their unique character and personality is their own, even if you opt for the same species and breed.
The Beginning of Your Grief Journey: Anticipatory Grief
Pet grief and loss. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)
You’ve heard the bad news. As we talked about in the previous post The Day You Heard The News: Saying Goodbye To A Friend, you have been given some devastating news that the end-of-life walk with your precious love is here.
While it’s important to begin to look at what those final days will look like with palliative care, treatments, and rituals, the emotional aspect of a grief that’s begun is front and center.
Anticipatory (An-tic’i-pa-to’ry) adj. to feel or realize beforehand. Grieving that begins before a death occurs is known as anticipatory grieving, and the physical and emotional reactions involved can mimic those that happen after a death has occurred.
The grief journey has already begun when a terminal diagnosis or the effects of age is showing the signs of a pending and imminent death. The “anticipatory grief” has started.
The loss of a beloved pet. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)
With anticipatory grief, the emotions of loss will resemble what grief looks like after death. As a pet parent experiencing anticipatory grief, be gentle with yourself as you maneuver these waters. Take the needed time to not only take care of the needs of your precious pet but to make sure you are taking care of your own needs as well.
For certain, in this final walk of life, the fear of the unknown will create so much of the anxiety that you might be feeling. Fear of “what’s next,” “will I have to make a decision,” “what am I missing,” and many other questions. Ask the questions that will give your heart the peace of mind in knowing that no “stone has been left unturned.” If you don’t know the questions to ask, turn to your veterinary professional or a local pet loss care professional to guide you. We all know that when we get into these incredibly emotional times, our thoughts and decision-making capabilities can get clouded by the emotions of the situation. Again, be gentle with yourself and turn to others to assist you at this time. Knowing that you have done your homework, you have made decisions because you have the information needed to make a good choice, and that the path you have chosen for you and your pet is the one that is right for both of you. A path that will eliminate as much of the regrets and guilt that may follow in the days to come.
For more information on pet grief and loss visit Colleen’s website Two Hearts Pet Loss Center or follow her on Facebook.
CHILDREN AND PETS - GRIEF RESOURCES
HELPING CHILDREN WITH PET LOSS
The death of a pet is often the first experience a child has with loss. Children tend to grieve differently than adults do and they need lots of love, guidance and support. Parents often want to shelter children from death, which is understandable but honesty can be the best thing. Each child is unique and each age group and stage of development can have different reactions. We’ve put together a list of links as well as books that will help you explain your pet’s death to your children and provide you with things you can do together to help them through their grief and begin to heal.
Websites for Grieving Children
Helping Children Cope by Moira Anderson Allen M.E.d
Grief Healing - Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC (Distance Credentialed Counselor). The site offers a wide variety of grief healing related articles, a blog, discussion group and healing courses, including support for children
Colorado State University Argus Institute: Helping Children Deal with Pet Loss- How different age groups deal with death and developmental considerations for different age groups
Ohio State University Article - Helping Children Cope with the Serious Illness or Death of a Companion Animal
Websites with Activities to Help Grieving Children and Ideas to Memorialize Their Pet
Psychology Today: Six Family Friendly Ways to Help Kids Grieve After Pet Loss
Kidlutions: Remembering a Beloved Pet - Memorial worksheet to do with children.
Books to Help Grieving Children
Death of a Pet by Shirl and J.W. Potter, and George J. Koss
Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping by Marty Tousley
Stay: A Girl, A Dog, A Bucket List by Kate Klise
Remembering Baymore by Peter Gollub, DVM
When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
Cry, Heart, but Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
Healing A Child's Pet Loss Grief: A Guide for Parents by Wendy Van de Poll
I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
Humphrey Was Here: A dog owner’s story of love, loss and letting go by Mark Asher
A Rainbow Bridge for Gus: A Story About the Loss of a Pet by Barbara Bareis Rigabar and Chris Sharp
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Ryant
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Ryant
My Pet Died: A Coloring Book for Grieving Children by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Pet: A Workbook for Kids and Guidelines for Adult Caregivers Kidlutions.com by Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD
Don’t Say Goodbye, Just Say See You! by Patricia A. Brill, PhD
Always Remember by Cece Meng
The Heaven of Animals by Nancy Tillman
The Next Place by Warren Hanson
Cats and Dogs Grieve Too
Pets grieve the loss of a companion animal or person in the home just like any other member of the family. They may experience grief and depression just as people do. And no two pets grieve the same. You may start to see changes in their normal habits such as eating, sleeping and playtime. Keeping to your pet’s routine and giving them extra love and support can help to get them through their mourning period. The following links and books will help you to understand your pet’s grief and provide helpful suggestions to get them through this difficult time.
Pet Loss and Bereavement Support
NorthStar VETS complimentary bereavement support is a great resource for those mourning the terminal illness or loss of their family pet. Our counseling sessions offer much needed comfort to pet parents dealing with anticipatory grief (pets suffering from grave medical issues) as well as those who have lost their cherished family member (including exotic pets).
Conversations are held by phone or email and offer a safe and accepting environment that focuses on letting go, saying good-bye, and rituals of remembrance.
If you or someone you know is grieving the loss of their beloved animal companion, email: Ann Rooney / [email protected]
Resources for Grieving Pet Parents
- Grief and the Loss of a Pet
- Helping Children Cope with Pet Loss
- Patient Advance Directives
- Quality of Life Scale
- Guide to Pet Home Burial
Certified Bereavement Counselor
Certified Animal Chaplain
Certificate of Veterinary Compassionate Care Proficiency
Ann Rooney has worked in the veterinary field for many years comforting pet parents in times of crisis. Certified by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, Ann has committed her career to supporting the emotional needs of clients who have lost their trusted animal companion. By working with veterinarians, connecting with various pet cemeteries, and even experiencing her own pet loss, Ann is a terrific resource for helping clients navigate the difficult journey of mourning a pet.
- Anticipatory Grief
- Pet Loss