Death and Grieving

April was one of he prettiest cats I have ever seen. She was a tall, long haired calico with mostly white markings. She belonged to Doug, the director of the humane society where I worked. She used to love reclining on the top of Doug's refrigerator to get the best view of the household action.

When she was about eight years old, she developed diabetes. Doug started her on insulin injections and took meticulous care of her condition.

One day Doug showed up unexpectedly at the shelter. As he got out of his car he held a small bundle in his arms.

He was obviously stifling his emotions as tears streaked his face. He choked out the word "April" as he handed me the bundle. He left as suddenly as he came. April was dead.

Death is the part of the human-animal bond that we often over-look. It is easy to forget that Duke and Tigger run on different time schedules than we do. Their natural lifespans rarely exceed fifteen years. The playful puppy leads to the healthy, robust adult. Soon gray tinges the hair and stiffness infiltrates the bones. The graceful lines of youth become the gaunt angles of age. Duke doesn't walk so well anymore. One day Duke doesn't move at all. His owner will be shattered, despite the natural warnings.

The loss of a pet can be even more devastating by its suddenness. Accident or sudden illness deprives the owner of the anticipation that accompanies old age. Grief and shock mix together at an alarming rate. As the numbness wears off, doubt and guilt will creep in. "Was there anything I could have done to prevent this?" "How could it have happened so fast?" or "I only left the door open for a second..."

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Lingering illness and old age have their own special torments. Some owners refuse to accept the inevitable end of their pet's life. They proceed with any treatment that could forestall death. Great cruelty can be done in the name of love. Dogs and cats have no voice to ask for the peace of euthanasia. Ironically their life of devotion may be rewarded with the ultimate cruelty of artificially prolonged suffering.

The aftermath of losing a pet can also prolong the grief of the owner. Seeing a favorite resting place, a monogrammed leash, or the suddenly erratic behavior of another pet can cause the emotional wounds to reopen. Each owner's reactions are different. Some try to block any memories of their pet, while others try to enshrine the animal.

While death is not a pleasant part of owning a pet, it is certainly inevitable. Taking responsibility for your pet's life includes responsibility for the end as well.

* If you pet is aging, resolve your attitudes about death and euthanasia before your pet is actually ill. It will be difficult to decide your pet's fate at the last minute without some guide-lines.

* Ask your veterinarian about the consequences of surgical procedures on older animals. Try to weigh the possible benefits against the probable success of the procedure.

* Some veterinary clinics provide counseling services for grieving pet owners. Other alternatives include discussing your grief with relatives and friends who may share in your sorrow.

Gary WilkesCopyright 1991-2003 Gary Wilkes

All rights reserved.

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What a dog I got, his favorite bone is in my arm." - Rodney Dangerfield