Pet loss, what support is there for a bereaved owner?

99% of pet owners consider their pets as a full-fledged family member, like my own little cat ‘Buddy’. So when you reach the time to say goodbye it can have the same emotional impact as losing a family member. These animals are an integral part of our lives for many years and a part of our day to day routines. So, understandably when they are no longer there, it can leave a gap in our lives and in our hearts.
Sadly, there are many circumstances that can lead to your pets passing, often long-term or even short-term illness can be just as traumatic as a shock accident. We can’t quantify grief and loss, we all cope differently. Unfortunately, only about 5% of our pets will die peacefully in their sleep.

I’m a Registered Veterinary Nurse with 10 years of experience in veterinary practice and I have assisted the vet with the euthanasia procedure on many occasions. I’m also an animal lover and pet owner. I have been on the other side of the consulting table when it has been time to say goodbye to my own pets. It doesn’t get easier.
In practice I have always felt there is more we could offer to support pet owners at this heart-breaking time and I wanted to explore the options and support we have available before, during and after the death or loss of a pet.
First and foremost, we must always consider the five freedoms attributed to quality of life for any companion animal. Freedom from hunger and thirst. Freedom from discomfort and pain. Freedom from injury or disease. Freedom to express normal behaviour and finally freedom from fear and distress. We must never compromise on our loved one’s welfare.
I would love to see that Compassionate Leave be more commonly available by employers and businesses following the loss of a pet. It is slowly edging in to British and US employment contracts, but we still have a long way to go. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss for some time off, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and work is the last place you want to be. Even just a day or 2 can be helpful.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” – Vicki Harrison

Often in that difficult moment when you are with the vet in the consulting room it can be hard to fully comprehend the procedure you are about to bear witness to and be part of. Even when the vet talks you through it, I think at this moment your mind is not focused on the logistical processes of euthanasia. Would it therefore be worthwhile for the vet to provide something for you, the owner, which explains clearly in written format exactly what will happen and how, which can be read at home? For those that know the time is coming, I think being prepared could help alleviate some of the anxiety. Just an idea. I’m sure that most vets would be happy to provide something to this effect for an owner.
I would also hope that you never felt rushed and please don’t be afraid to ask for extra time. Your vet is there to discuss your options and that includes you sharing your thoughts and feelings with them too. At this point you could consider having your pet lightly sedated prior to the procedure, slowing it down and often making it more peaceful.
Home visits are becoming more common place and I think these are a highly valuable service that your vet can offer. Please discuss this with your vet if you feel it would be a good option for you, your family and your beloved pet. Often these will need to be booked in advance but in turn are much less stressful than transporting an elderly or sick animal in to a busy veterinary practice. You do have options. It is also worth considering other pets you have in the home who may suffer the loss of their beloved companion. I have discussed this on many occasions with pet owners, vets and nurses and believe that if another pet in the house is exposed to the body after the procedure, this can aid acceptance for them. We know that our other pets can suffer loss and heartbreak too and they don’t understand why their companion never came home. This can really help.

“Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love, they depart to teach us about loss. A new dog never replaces an old dog, it merely expands the heart. If you have loved many dogs your heart is very big.” – Erica Jong

Thankfully in the moments after, even days, weeks, months and years later we are in fact surrounded by support. I want to share some of these tools with you, according to my own knowledge, experience and research. In return, I would love to hear about your experiences and the resources you found most helpful and supportive during your loss that helped you to cope and heal. Services you have stumbled upon or have been referred to that have been a helping hand.
I offer a Pet Taxi Service in my role as an independent Mobile Veterinary Nurse and sadly this service most recently has been used by owners to take their pet to the vet for the last time. The journey we take back home afterwards is melancholy, quiet, reflective. I feel privileged to share this time with pet owners and try to offer light at this dark time. Now I work outside of normal veterinary practice I am fortunate enough to have time with bereaving owners that I didn’t have while working in the clinic.

A support service I refer to time and time again is The Blue Cross https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-loss Their service includes a telephone and email service. They are wonderful. They also supply a great range of leaflets including one specific to ‘Support for Children’.
The Animal Samaritans are a charity run organisation and offer a support line and memorial page on their website http://animalsamaritans.co.uk/Bereavement-Memorial-page
The Ralph Site offer a not-for-profit website, an active Facebook page and a closed discussion group for owners https://www.facebook.com/TheRalphSite/

Through conversations with grieving owners and owners recovering from pet loss, I have discovered the value of keep-sakes, tributes and memorialisation. There are a variety of cremation options, but did you know some crematoriums allow you to attend a service? Often the crematorium also has a garden of remembrance which you may visit.
Ask your vet or nurse for a small clipping of fur or a paw print in ink to take home. Try to remember to take your cat or dogs collar, this can offer some comfort in the immediate moments afterwards. Sometimes a vet practice may offer their own memorial options, for example a clay paw print (ask your vet if they offer any kind of tribute. This may need to be arranged prior to your appointment).
In time, it would be worthwhile going through your old photos and it can be therapeutic to possibly write down your thoughts, this can be hard but has fantastic healing ability. Create a memory board or pop your favourite pictures in a frame. Did you ever have a professional pet portrait?
Finally, a company that I have come across both at work and through personal recommendation can put your pets ashes in to beautiful jewellery, so you can always have them with you, close to your heart in a necklace or close at hand in a ring https://ashesintoglass.co.uk/the-details/pets-ashes-to-glass.html
There are several specialist Pet Bereavement Councillor’s, do some research and look for recommendations before committing to the sessions and consider the financial implications of counselling.
If you’re not coping, then don’t struggle on your own. Even a simple cuppa and a chat can make a big difference (this is my own best medicine!) We are social creatures, we all need support and comfort sometimes.