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How to Emotionally Prepare for the Death of a Pet

woman with three dogs

(Part 1 in our 5-part series on pet loss)

We’d like to think our furry family members will live forever. But pet loss can occur at any time—in a tragic instant or over a period of time due to an extended illness. Whether we’ve had our pet for a few days or many years, we form deep bonds with our pets and grieve their loss deeply.

A couple of pet parents had a five-year-old dog whom they’d raised from puppyhood, who unexpectedly passed away from a seizure.

After the dog died, the owners would find balls in the closet and toys tucked into nooks around the house, which triggered trauma. The loss was so distressing for the pet parents that they took two weeks away from home to grieve and journal their feelings about the loss of their family member.

When a pet is aging or infirm, find things to do that bring you both joy.

It’s disheartening to watch a formerly active pet grow frail. But even as you bemoan the fact that you can’t do certain things with your pet anymore, you can find other ways to spend time together.

dog in car

If you and your dog enjoyed taking hikes together but he now struggles to walk, take him for a drive in the car or relax under a tree together.

If your cat can no longer jump to her favorite sunny spot by the window, create a ramp covered with carpet, or box steps that will provide firm footing.

Other ways to prepare for pet loss:

Making difficult end-of-life decisions

Some pet parents face not only preparing for the loss of their beloved pet, but also making the decision as to when that time has come. In these cases, they may experience feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and even depression. Not everyone will understand their grief, which makes it harder to work through the grieving process.

One pet parent adopted a senior cat when the cat’s senior humans passed away. The cat had health problems. As her health got worse, it was draining on the cat and on her human. Loss was inevitable, and not any easier, even with extended time to emotionally prepare for it.

Pet parents often struggle with knowing when the time has come to let a pet go.

One couple, who adopted a pregnant stray cat, decided to keep one of her kittens. When the kitten was 8 weeks old, she scampered under their car as they were backing out of their garage. They immediately brought the kitten to an emergency veterinary clinic, but her injuries were too severe, and the vet had to euthanize her. The difficult decision was guided by trusted medical advice.

Another family had an equally tough decision to make. All weekend their retriever, Sam, had given them those puppy-dog-eyes. “Please help me.” Every movement he made revealed his pain.

After Sam’s initial knee injury, his family had consulted with their veterinarian. A splint and time, and they hoped to avoid costly surgery, but those measures weren’t enough.

As his pain increased and mobility decreased, the pet parents faced a difficult decision. They couldn’t afford the surgery. And they cared too much for Sam to allow him to continue to suffer. As Sam had stood by his pet parents in a time of health crisis, in turn his pet parents decided to do the humane thing and relieve Sam of his pain.

Knowing when it’s time to say goodbye

Our pets may not always be able to communicate when it’s time to go, as Sam did with his humans. The process of determining when a pet is “too sick” or “too injured” may leave pet parents with feelings of guilt or failure.

Throughout our pet’s life, it’s important to closely observe them and to be alert for signs of illness, injury, or suffering that may lead to an end-of-life decision.

Key indicators may include:

  • pain that cannot be managed by medication
  • inability to eat on their own
  • inability to use their indoor or outdoor bathroom space
  • lack of interaction with loved ones
  • lack of enjoyment and ability to participate in favorite activities
  • overall mood and quality of life

We want the best for our family and pets—in sickness and in health, in life and in death.

It’s not always possible to emotionally prepare for pet loss before it happens. The only way to ready yourself is to honor the time you have with your pet while you have it.

When the time comes to part, use that time to express sadness that is authentic. Time well used is the best way to honor your friendship with your pet.

Coming next week:

Helping Family Members Grieve the Death of a Pet

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Atlantic Veterinary Hospital in Seattle serves the following neighborhoods: Mt. Baker, Columbia City, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Seward Park, Capitol Hill, Leschi, Central District, Madison Valley, International District, and Georgetown.