Dealing with the death of a dog is difficult for any owner — no matter the age of your pet. Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists, and Dr. Wallace Sife, clinical psychologist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), offer advice on managing the end, grieving and moving on.
While a small percentage of dogs may die peacefully at home at a very old age, most pet owners will at some point be faced with the decision to end their dog’s suffering with a medical intervention. “Sometimes it’s an uncomplicated decision — say an animal stops making red blood cells,” says Joyce. “But just as often it’s a slow process, like cancer. The dog still has a good day every once in awhile.” In the latter situation, Joyce recommends the following:
Make a list of the things your dog enjoys, like chasing a ball or spending relaxed time with the family. Consider whether any of these activities are still an option.
Give yourself an objective measure — a point at which you will let the pet go. For example, “Once my dog has not eaten for three days in a row, I will put him down.”
Seek guidance from your veterinarian and pet owners who have had to make that difficult decision. The APLB’s website offers chat rooms that address the topic.
“Owners will say to me ‘I can’t kill my dog,’ but that’s not what euthanizing is,” says Joyce. “I think of it as releasing the animal. It’s the last and most selfless decision we make for a pet we have cherished and cared for.”
Memorializing a Beloved Dog
Deciding how to mark a dog’s passing is a very personal decision. Some pet owners choose the formality of a proper funeral in a pet cemetery, while others cremate and scatter their pet’s ashes. Many veterinary hospitals offer to make a clay imprint of a dog’s paw as a keepsake.
Sife suggests making a contribution to an animal group in your pet’s name, planting a tree in its honor, volunteering with shelter animals, or setting up a memorial on the APLB’s website. “We’ll light a candle for the dog each year on the anniversary of its death,” he says.
Coping in the Aftermath
Everyone deals with loss differently, though dog owners can expect to go through the same stages of grief as anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one. Sife suggests reading one of the many books on the topic, including his own, The Loss of a Pet. “The pain is unavoidable, but a book can help to normalize the experience,” he says.
Most important may simply be allowing yourself to grieve. “It can be hard because society doesn’t allow public grieving as much with pets. People feel less comfortable saying ‘I’m going to take a day off of work because I just put my dog to sleep,’ but it’s legitimate,” says Joyce. She adds that some of her clients have found support groups for people who find they need more comfort than they are getting from friends.
Adopting a New Companion
While a pet can never be replaced, at some point many dog lovers may want to bring home a new pet. Sife advises against getting a look-alike. “That may be a way of refusing to accept the loss,” he says. Joyce also advises waiting until the raw part has passed.
Both Joyce and Sife recommend adopting a shelter dog from a local shelter. Saving the life of a dog without a home can be one more way to honor the memory of a best friend that’s passed.
Rose Springer is a New York City-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. She has been writing about pets for a decade.