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How to say goodbye to a pet

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Anyone who has ever loved a good pet will tell you there are few relationships more rewarding — or losses more agonizing.

Posted: June 14, 2022 8:42 AM

Anyone who has ever loved a good pet will tell you there are few relationships more rewarding — or losses more agonizing.

“It’s an intense, really unique connection that does not exist anywhere else,” says Laura Purdy, a veterinarian with Journeys Home Pet Euthanasia, which provides end-of-life services in the privacy and comfort of your own home. “It’s not uncommon for people to say, ‘I am so much more emotionally broken up losing my dog than I was losing a human relative.’ But it’s not acknowledged in our society in the same way.”

Some pets die peacefully on their own, others suddenly and tragically. But most of the time, deciding when to say goodbye falls to us humans. As excruciating and complicated as that can be, it’s also when our pets need us the most.

“It really and truly is the final act of love,” says Linda Colletti, a hospice bereavement counselor and pet loss grief specialist who started Madison’s Pet Loss Resource Center to offer support groups, one-on-one counseling and other resources for anyone navigating pet loss. “You don’t want to let them go, but also, on the other hand, you love them. More than that, you don’t want them to suffer. That’s our responsibility to the pets that we take into our hearts. We have to make that hard decision.”

So how do we know when it’s time? “One thing that is always at the forefront of my mind is that I need to make sure that I’m not keeping them alive for me,” says Lindsey Decker, owner of DogMa Home Boarding & Hiking. Decker has fostered more than 700 dogs over the past decade and specializes in senior, hospice and special-needs dogs. This results in shorter but intense relationships with pets who are often close to the end. “So many times, people can’t let go, and they push their dog way past what is probably comfortable for that dog,” she says. “For me, I want my dogs to always die with some dignity. I want them to die still standing.” But exactly when that moment is can be difficult to determine, and it’s certainly easier said than done. In addition to guidance from your veterinarian, here are some factors to consider and tools that might help.

Fido isn’t acting like Fido anymore. Choose three characteristics that make your pet who they are, then watch for them to stop doing those things. Maybe Fido used to greet you at the door, but now he barely lifts his head from the couch. Maybe he’d do anything for cheese, but now he only sniffs at it. “Personally, for me, my criteria has always been when my dog or cat can’t do dog or cat things anymore,” Colletti says.

Track objective measures. When we see our pets every day, sometimes we can’t see — or don’t want to see — changes in their health and behavior. Purdy recommends taking a daily or weekly photo of your pet so that you can look back at regular intervals and spot things you might not have noticed otherwise. Journeys also offers a free online assessment tool called the Quality of Life Scale for Pets. Created by Journeys’ founding partner, Dr. Katie Hilst, it can be taken as many times as you like as things progress and helps measure things like mobility, pain, food intake and mood. “There’s never going to be a tool that perfectly encapsulates this super personal and complicated process, but it can be a way to open up our awareness of what’s going on with a pet on a bunch of different levels,” Purdy says.

Consider your pet’s needs. Cats often resist car rides and vet visits, so at-home euthanasia may be the least stressful option for them. Dogs often love to hop in the car and visit their friends at the vet, so going outside of the home for the procedure isn’t an added stressor. Think about what your pet would ideally want, but also remember that, although pets naturally experience fear and joy, they don’t attach meaning to future events the way humans do. “One thing that’s really beautiful about them is that they seem very much in the present,” Purdy says.

Consider your needs, too. Maybe you can’t be present with your pet at all when it’s their time — that’s OK. Maybe at-home euthanasia would create memories in your safe space that you don’t want, so going to the vet is better. While considering your pet’s needs, it’s important to be honest about your own fears and feelings as well, then come to the compromise that feels right — and trust yourself. “I really believe that when your heart says it’s time, that somehow I think that is the signal from your pet, too,” says Colletti. “There is such a bond and I really believe we have to accept that there’s something else at work there.”

Choose the path of least regrets. Sometimes it can be helpful to think about what you don’t want to happen, says Purdy. “Try to figure out what the biggest fears are in our end-of-life transition; what are the things that we would feel the most devastated by?” she says. For example, if a prognosis is definite, and it’s a matter of weeks, in the grand scheme of life that time might not be worth your pet enduring more suffering or possibly having an emergency event. While the path forward is rarely clear-cut, Purdy says, “We are choosing a path of least regrets.”

Plan a bucket list day. When it’s clearly getting close, and while your pet is still able to enjoy it, schedule the procedure and then clear your schedule for a pet-specific bucket list day. “That might be lying fireside snuggling, eating ice cream,” says Decker, or getting a drive-thru hamburger, going for one last swim in the pond or making goodbye rounds. “Or just rides in the country — I’ve had plenty of dogs who just love going for car rides. It’s like, ‘Let’s just go for a Sunday drive and be quiet and just feel each other,’ you know? Sit with that energy and that love and allow yourself to be OK knowing that it’s the end.”

Comfort yourself with information. Sometimes it helps to familiarize yourself with what the euthanasia experience entails. Veterinarians like Purdy can come to your home, while brick-and-mortar vets often have special practices just for these purposes. True Veterinary Care in Verona, for example, has a designated room with a private entrance where families can gather around a bed on the floor, give their furry bestie a last meal of forbidden foods like chocolate and take all the time they need to say goodbye. Typically vets administer an initial anesthetic sedative that relaxes the animal, and then only when you’re ready, they give a second, painless injection that stops their heart. Veterinarians will also help you deal with the body afterward, often contracting with independent organizations such as Memorial Pet Services on Todd Drive, which offers cremation and, depending on the relevant pandemic protocols, funeral services and comfort rooms.

Seek support afterward. At the Pet Loss Resource Center, Colletti facilitates bimonthly support group meetings on Zoom, as well as individual counseling. She says most people are surprised by the intensity of their grief over the loss of a pet and even feel sheepish about it, but they shouldn’t. Healing takes time, and people who lived alone with their pets are especially at risk of feeling isolated or misunderstood in their grieving. “Part of my job is to normalize grief,” says Colletti. “You never forget your pet. You never stop grieving your pet. But it doesn’t always hurt as intensely as it does in the beginning,” she says. “The whole purpose of grief isn’t putting your memories away or forgetting your pet, but learning how to integrate your loss and be able to move on.”

Memorialize your pet. Whether you opt for burial or cremation, or want nothing to do with your pet’s cremains, there are numerous options for memorializing your pet. Memorial Pet Services sells urns, jewelry, lawn markers, paw prints and other custom keepsakes, and it also has a list of local artists on its website if you’re looking to commission a piece. You can also make a donation to a local organization of your choice, such as the humane society, a rescue group or a nonprofit like Czar’s Promise, which helps fund cancer treatments for pets and children. While your pet is still healthy, hiring a pet-specific photographer such as Beth Skogen, ArrowStar or Dog Grin Photography is another way to memorialize ahead of time and capture the joy that pets bring us while they are vividly, wonderfully alive.


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