When the Time Comes to Say Goodbye to Your Pet

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Several years ago I was asked to write the Foreword for a book by Sheryl Matthys, noted dog expert and founder of Leashes and Lovers, a dog lover’s online community, as well as a certified dog trainer. The title of the book is Leashes and Lovers: What Your Dog Can Teach You About Love, Life, and Happiness. The gist of my contribution to the book was the enormous change that has taken place in the relationships we have with our canine family members. In those pre-World War II days, the value placed on dogs was based on the work that each could perform. Sheep and cattle dogs helped protect the flocks and herds. Barn dogs protected the chickens and baby animals from foxes and coyotes, and yard dogs served as security to prevent skunks, rodents and other varmints from setting up housekeeping under the farmhouse porch.

The accelerated rate of the post-World War II urbanization of America has changed the purpose of the dog and has moved them inside the home as trusted companions of family members. Not only have they moved into the cozy environment of the home, but many now sleep in the same quarters as the family members. They are now family members! This increasing value placed on the family dog by society has brought with it the recognition of the term, “Human-Animal Bond.” Yes, sight and hearing service dogs were the norm for a very long time, as were police and military dogs that served a purpose beyond just being a best friend. I had clients in my veterinary practice who realized the value in their dog’s presence from warnings of oncoming thunderstorms to the unconditional love displayed by the family dog to a young recipient in a much deserved “time out.” The dog’s attention and love never wavered. And because of this unwavering love that went as much from the human to the dog as it does from the dog to the human, the human-animal bond has strengthened immensely over the past 35 years.

Both human medicine and veterinary medicine continue to discover the power of animals to influence the detection and healing powers of a strong human-animal bond. Thousands of articles and books from the perspective of pediatric medicine to writings for the aged have been written relating the benefits of a strong human-animal bond in lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, weight loss regimens, easing depression or healing minds from loneliness and emotional isolation, and detection of seizures and various types of cancers. Dogs have been trained to pick up toys and replace them on a tray for physically and mentally challenged toddlers, and dogs have been used to train prisoners and juvenile delinquents about the need for love and nurturing. In many of these scenarios the answer was found in the relationship formed between the family member and the dog. And scientists say the bond between people and their pooches may be deeper than one might think. Researchers in Japan recently found that oxytocin, a hormone that among other things helps reinforce bonds between parents and their babies, increases in humans and their dogs when they interact, particularly when looking into one another’s eyes.

It has long been determined that on average people’s lives outlast the average dog’s lives by approximately 6 to 7 times depending upon the breed, size and environment in which the dog lives. This difference in life span creates a conundrum for the family that has bonded with their canine family member. Too many times the life of the dog fails to keep pace with the stages of life of the family members. Dogs can die at any age due to illness or accidents; however, most live to be 14-16 years of age, again depending upon breed and size and the circumstances under which they live. It is never an easy decision to make, but perhaps the kindest thing you can do for a pet dog that is extremely ill or so severely injured that it will never be able to resume a life of good quality is to have your veterinarian induce its death quietly and humanely through euthanasia. A decision concerning euthanasia may be one of the most difficult decisions you will ever make for your dog. Although it is a personal decision, it doesn’t need to be done alone. Consult your veterinarian, your family and your close friends to help you to make the right decision. They will also serve as valuable support during the days, weeks or even months of grieving after the loss of your dog.

If your dog can no longer experience the things it once enjoyed because of accident, illness, age or experiences more pain than pleasure, it may be time to discuss the issue of euthanasia. Many times the financial or emotional cost of treatment is beyond your means. Ask yourself the question, “does my dog have more bad days than he or she does good days?” You might want to take two small containers, ½ pint glass jars work quite well, and mark them good days and bad days. Each day the dog has a bad day, place a coin in that jar and every day that is good place a coin in that jar. If the jar marked bad days fills up quicker than the jar marked good days, it might be time to take action. Talk the situation over with your veterinarian, family and close friends. Your veterinarian understands your bond with your dog and can examine and evaluate your dog’s condition, estimate the chances for recovery and discuss any potential disabilities, special needs and long-term problems. Because the veterinarian cannot make the euthanasia decision for you, it is important that you fully understand your pet’s condition. Ask questions and review the facts, and along with your family, make the decision for the best outcomes for the dog and your family.

Once the euthanasia decision has been made, you and other family members may want to say goodbye to your dog. A last evening with your pet at home or a visit to the animal hospital may be appropriate. Family members who want to be alone with the dog should be allowed to do so. Although I don’t recommend it for young children, some pet owners want to be present during euthanasia. This is a personal decision and you should do what feels right for you. Do not let others influence you into making decisions that do not feel comfortable to you. It is usually best to make arrangements for disposal of the body before the dog is euthanized. Your veterinarian can inform you about burial, cremation or other methods including a relatively new chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis. Again, the method you choose is a personal decision that should be made with all the information available and a decision made by the entire family.

After your dog has died, it is normal to feel grief and sorrow. For some people, spending some time with their dog after euthanasia is helpful. The grieving process includes accepting the reality of your loss, accepting that the loss and accompanying feelings are painful, and adjusting to your new life that no longer includes your dog. There are many stages to grief, but not everyone experiences them all or in the same order. The stages include denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance, and resolution. The grief can seem to come in waves, may be brought on more intensely by a sight or sound that sparks your memory, and may seem overwhelming at times. If you or a family member have difficulty in accepting your dog’s death and cannot resolve feelings of grief and sorrow, you may want to discuss these feelings with a person who is trained to understand the grieving process and can support and help you as you mourn your loss. Your veterinarian certainly understands the relationship you have lost and may be able to suggest support groups and telephone help lines, grief counselors, clergymen, social workers, physicians and psychologists who can help.

The decision whether or not to acquire a new dog must take the feelings and stages of grieving of all family members into consideration before a decision is made. I have seen a new puppy bring many families to resolution over grieving from a lost dog; however, it is possible the passage of time until the grieving process is satisfied will work best for some family members. Again, it is a family decision that usually works best. The period from birth to old age is much shorter for dogs than for people, and death is a normal part of the life cycle. It cannot be avoided, but understanding and compassion can help you, your family, and your friends manage the grief associated with it best. There may never be a good time to say goodbye when it comes to your canine family members.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back for more articles from Bruce W. Little, DVM on Veterinarians.com, and follow him on Twitter @DrBruceLittle!