Grieving the loss of a pet after euthanasia can be a painful experience. Given how pets can play such an essential part in our daily lives, it can be challenging to learn how to live without them. However, there are things you can do to support yourself during this difficult time.
How Do you Know It’s Time to Consider Euthanasia?
Choosing to euthanize a beloved pet might be one of the most challenging decisions you will ever have to make. Deciding the right time to put your pet down is not easy. It helps to consult your vet regarding your pet’s current quality of life and what is likely to occur if euthanasia isn’t performed.
Euthanasia may be the best humane option if your pet is:1,2
- experiencing constant pain that can’t be managed with medication
- no longer eating and drinking
- enjoying their favorite activities less and less (e.g., going for a walk, playing, interacting with loved ones)
- having trouble standing or walking
- having difficulty breathing
- trembling, shaking, or hiding a lot
- acting depressed or withdrawn
Financial considerations can also be a significant factor in this decision, as veterinary medical treatment can be expensive.
Will It Be Painless?
Euthanasia for pets is intended to be as painless as possible. When you decide that it is time to put your pet down, your veterinarian will explain the process to you. You’re allowed to be present during the appointment, so your pet can hear, see, and be comforted by you as they move into unconsciousness.
A sedative or anesthetic might be administered before the procedure, typically taking 5-10 minutes to take effect. The vet will then administer a drug called sodium pentobarbital intravenously, quickly leading to unconsciousness, before gently stopping your pet’s heartbeat.1
Understanding the Grieving Process
Grieving the loss of a pet can be similar to the grief and loss of a human loved one. Grieving is natural, and each person will do so in their own unique, individual way. The normal grief process is not linear and will progress in its own time with no time limit; everyone will experience it differently. Complicated grief can occur if you experienced your pet’s death as traumatic. This grief can cause a person to become stuck in the grieving process and is characterized by symptoms that haven’t started to ease within six months following the loss of your pet.
How to Deal With the Loss of a Pet After Euthanasia
Choosing the timing of euthanasia for your pet can be very stressful. Some people struggle with wondering if they waited too long or if they did it too soon. Not clearly understanding what your pet is going through can make this more difficult. It can also be helpful to learn about the five stages and seven stages of grief to know how you might respond to the challenges through the stages of grief after pet loss.
Losing a pet to euthanasia is different than losing one to sudden death. In a sudden death situation, the control and decision making is out of your hands. In euthanasia, the power and decision-making can feel like a tremendous, painful responsibility. Be compassionate and kind to yourself as you deal with this loss and any conflicting emotions that arise with it.
Knowing that everyone will deal with the loss of a dog or other family pet differently can reduce unnecessary pressure and expectations. Here are some ideas that might help you support yourself and your loved ones following the loss of a pet after euthanasia:
1. Prepare Yourself If You Can
Suppose your pet is experiencing severe medical issues and a noticeable decline in quality of life. In that case, you might consider preparing yourself for the possibility of euthanasia.
Your vet can be a valuable source of information to provide insight into:
- How your pet’s health issues are likely to progress
- What medical interventions are possible, the chances of success, and what the costs will be
- What specific symptoms should you watch for to let you know it is time to consider euthanasia
2. Enhance Your Pet’s Last Days
If you know your pet’s last days are approaching, it can be comforting for you and your pet to make the remaining time special. This might mean staying close to them and offering reassuring words and touch if they are anxious. In addition to lots of cuddles, you might consider giving them a chance to experience their favorite places, foods, activities, or people one final time.
3. Surround Yourself With People Who Support You
Following the death of your pet, it is vital to surround yourself with people who will be supportive of validating your grief and offering understanding for what you have been through. You might need to talk through any mixed feelings about the experience of deciding on going through euthanasia with your pet, the loss of a companion, and trying to adjust to life without them.
4. Anticipate Your Change in Daily Routines & Build in New Rituals
The first few days following the death of your pet are likely to be the most trying. Waking up and engaging in your daily routines without them will further emphasize the reality of your loss. Over time, you will develop your new patterns without your beloved animal companion; but this is all a part of the process. Practicing new rituals will help you better manage any symptoms of anticipatory grief leading up to euthanizing a pet.
5. Honor Your Pet by Letting Go of Guilt
Because the decision to move forward with euthanasia can sometimes be a gray area, someone might wrestle with guilt over it. Remind yourself that you made the best move for your pet with the information you had at the time. Your companion is no longer suffering! Choosing to dwell on the past doesn’t add anything positive to your life or your memory of them. You deserve to show yourself compassion throughout this process, not judgment.
6. Find Special Ways to Memorialize Your Pet
Some people find comfort in the ritual of creating a memorial to remind them of their pet and the joy they brought. With euthanasia, there is at least some control over the timing of passing to have opportunities to memorialize your pet in ways that are impossible in an unexpected sudden death.
If you and your pet are up to it, a paw print impression or a final photo together might be a way to memorialize your beloved pet in their remaining days. One of the ways we honor influential people in our lives is to talk about what they mean to us. For some, taking the time to tell your pet what they meant to you might also provide some closure for you as you say goodbye.
Some examples of pet memorials are:
- A paw print impression
- A memorial photo or collage
- A memory box (including pictures, collars, favorite toys, etc.)
- A memorial garden stone
- An ornament with a picture of your pet
- Planting a tree in memory of your pet
7. Journal About Your Pet & Your Loss
For some, journaling is a powerful way to process the thoughts and emotions associated with grief over the loss of a pet. Euthanasia can cause conflicting feelings and thoughts. One part of you might feel relief that your pet is no longer suffering. At the same time, there might be a part that feels guilty for deciding to put your pet down. You might feel gratitude for the joy and love your animal brought to your life or profound sadness and loss as you miss your pet daily.
Writing out these thoughts will allow each part of you to “speak” without interruption from conflicting feelings and help you honor your reactions to everything that has happened. Grief journal prompts might help get you started with this process if you aren’t sure where to start.
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When to Talk to a Grief Counselor
Grief counseling is not always necessary for normal or non-traumatic grief. Even though at times, the sadness can seem overwhelming, grief typically still allows for moments of joy, laughter, and peace. Healthy grief focuses on loss in the present moment and aims to figure out how to readjust to it–in this case. It may include missing your beloved animal companion in daily life.
However, complicated or prolonged grief focuses solely on the circumstances of a pet’s death. Complicated grief means a person is “stuck” in the grieving process. A lack of symptom improvement also characterizes this type of grief after six months.3 If you are experiencing complicated grief, it is recommended that you talk to a grief counselor to help you heal.
Complicated grief around euthanizing your beloved animal can include:
- Intrusive thoughts of death
- Guilt over the decision to euthanize
- Being lonely after losing their pet
- Seeing constant reminders of them
- Reactions of horror, despair, guilt, fear, and pain
Should I Get Another Pet?
There are no concrete deciding factors as to when or if you should get another pet. Deciding to get another pet is a deeply personal decision, and some people prefer to work through their grief first. Alternatively, others may choose to adopt again soon after, expecting the new animal companion to help fill the void left by their loss.
Some factors you might want to consider before getting another pet include:
- How other family members and/or pets might feel about inviting a new pet into your home
- Whether you will have the time to help a new animal integrate into your life, especially if it is a puppy or kitten
- If you are ready and able to make another lifetime commitment to a pet
When we bring home a new pet, we accept that we will likely have to live without them at some point. We do this because the joy and companionship they bring to our lives are precious. So, when we lose this bond, it can feel devastating; remember that your loss and grief are valid. Be kind, compassionate, and gentle with yourself as you navigate life without them. Grief takes time, but your mind and body will guide you through it. However, if you are feeling stuck, grief counselors and pet loss support groups are there to offer support.