Grieving the loss of a pet after euthanasia (’put to sleep’) and coping with the loss
Pets rely on their owners for everything. And in some cases, this means they rely on you to know when it is the right time to let them go. So giving your vet permission to euthanise your pet – also known as putting them to sleep – can be incredibly distressing for any owner.
Pets are more than just animals. They are part of your family and are involved in every part of your life. From the moment you get up in the morning to the moment you go to sleep, your pets are there offering comfort, companionship and often a lot of comedy.
If your pet is sick or suffering, you may have to make the tough decision to put them to sleep. When a pet dies naturally of old age, it’s easier to come to terms with your loss as it’s easier to accept that they reached the end of their life. But euthanasia often feels premature and can lead to feelings of guilt for the owners.
Why didn’t I notice something was wrong sooner?
Why didn’t I ask for a second opinion?
Why didn’t I fight harder?
What if another vet could have cured them?
These are all common questions that can prevent you from moving on. If you are struggling with the decision to let your pet go, or if you are still grieving the loss of your pet, consider the following steps to help you find closure.
Remember that everyone grieves differently. There are no wrong or right ways to accept the death of a pet. Go at your own pace and remember that everything will get easier with time.
Talk about it
It can be challenging to talk about losing a pet because of guilt or fear that others won’t take you seriously. Instead, find comfort in other pet owners who appreciate the bond you have with your pet.
People who don’t own pets might be tempted to dismiss your pain or ask you to look for perspective. While it’s true that you shouldn’t wallow in your pain, it’s still essential to process your valid feelings.
Finding a way to talk about your loss will help you deal with any feelings of guilt, anger or fear. Consider speaking to a professional if you don’t know any fellow pet lovers who you can talk to. Counselling can help you to come to terms with your loss and find practical ways to move on.
Grieving happens at different rates for different people. Some people can shake off the loss of a pet faster than others. And some are better at hiding their grief than others. However, one thing is sure; if you’re struggling with your feelings following the loss of a pet, it’s always best to talk about it.
Be kind to yourself
If you feel triggered by memories of your pet, be kind to yourself by cancelling things like pet insurance, food deliveries and pet subscription boxes. Receiving a reminder to order your next bag of dog or cat food could plunge you back into depression and reverse all of your progress.
You can also ask social media sites to stop advertising pet products to you. Facebook’s “On This Day” notification can also be very troubling. You can choose not to receive these notifications, which can be helpful if you often share pictures of your dog or cat on social media. You can access these settings by going to facebook.com/memories and then toggle notifications to “off”.
If you want to remove all reminders of your dog or cat from your home but are worried about letting these items go for good, ask a close friend if they can store them for you. You might not want your dog’s collar hanging behind the door while you grieve, but you may want this back in the future.
Remember what is best for your pet
It’s common to feel that you should have done more to help your pet. Speaking to your vet can help you to understand why this likely wasn’t an option. Ask them to outline what happened and what could have happened if you had chosen not to euthanise your pet.
Euthanasia is always the last resort for a vet. Their primary goal is to ensure that pets don’t suffer for longer than they need to. However, if your pet is in pain or has no further treatment options, the best option may be to let them go.
Pets can’t tell us what hurts, so we have to make decisions for them. This can be especially difficult for their owners when the illness is unexpected and fast progressing. It can feel like your pet is healthy one moment, and then you are being told it’s time to let them go.
Try to keep in mind what is best for your pet to ensure they don’t suffer and don’t have to have their quality of life compromised. Letting a pet go instead of allowing them to continue suffering is often the kindest thing you can do.
Honour their memory
Finding an appropriate way to memorialise your pet is often an essential part of letting go. If you want to keep them close to you, it’s always an option to turn their ashes into a treasured keepsake. This could include a dog ashes necklace or a stunning piece of glass art.
Letting go can sometimes mean literally letting go. In this instance, you might scatter your pet’s ashes in a place they loved to walk or bury their ashes in their favourite spot in your garden. You could keep some of their ashes to create a glass Christmas ornament or a small piece of jewellery.
Keeping a memory box is also an excellent way to process your feelings and start to let go. You can always return to the box when you want to enjoy your memories. This can be very helpful for children as it can be a creative exercise that allows them to process their feelings.
The memory box allows them to feel relieved of the burden of their grief, but it’s always there waiting for them if they need it. Creating the memory box will also be a very cathartic experience. You can go through old pictures, reminisce about the good times and then close the lid on your grief while still keeping the precious memories close.
Take your time before getting another pet
It’s tempting to quickly fill the void in your life with another pet, but this is rarely a good idea. Experts will tell you that it’s best to wait until you have processed your feelings before bringing a new pet into your home.
You may put far too many expectations on a new pet, and you could even find yourself unhappy if the pet isn’t similar to the one you have lost. You might get a very distant pet that doesn’t like to be fussed over.
It’s also possible that you could create an unrealistic bond with your new pet, and they may suffer separation anxiety once you have adequately grieved and start to fill your days with other activities. This will leave the pet feeling unhappy when they learn that they won’t always be the centre of your world.
You may also find that you don’t want another pet once you have had time to process your feelings. Every pet is different, and you can’t expect a new animal to fill a deceased pet’s paw prints perfectly.
Once you have grieved the loss of your pet, you might find that you enjoy the independence that comes with not owning pets. You’ll be able to travel and go out for long day trips without worrying about coming back to your pet. You might also sleep later, and you won’t have to clean your house as often.
You don’t have to get another pet to fill the gap in your life. You could also put your time to practical use and volunteer with an animal shelter. This would allow you to be surrounded by animals without feeling the need to get attached to one particular animal again.
Understand your feelings
Grief follows a different pattern for everyone. Some people feel consumed by it, and it gets lighter every day, while others feel it comes and goes in waves. In some cases, you might feel guilty when you notice yourself feeling happy or having a good day. The memory of what has happened comes flooding back, and suddenly, your good mood goes away.
The most common stages of grief are denial, anger, depression, bargaining and then acceptance. But you might not experience them in this order. And it might not be linear. Instead, you might find yourself trapped in a cycle, swinging between anger and depression, particularly if you had to decide to let your pet go.
Try to find a way to accept your feelings and even understand why you are going through this. It is painful to decide to euthanise a family pet, so don’t listen to anyone who might try to dismiss your pain. If you feel you are to blame for the situation, you will need to learn to accept that there was nothing you could have done, and you acted in your pet’s best interests.
Give yourself time
Everyone grieves at a different rate, and it can be difficult for those around you to understand how you feel. Never let anyone tell you that it was “just a pet” or “it’s time to move on”. Only you can know when it is time to move on.
Some people may feel okay after just a week, while others can take up to a year to properly grieve the loss of a pet. The elderly, in particular, may feel a loss the hardest, especially if the pet was their only companion.
The elderly may also be reluctant to get another pet to replace their lost pet as they fear they will not outlive the animal. It can also be challenging to rehome a puppy as they will need a lot of stimulation and exercise. However, rehoming or fostering an older animal could help to fill a gap in their life.
Another critical decision you will need to make is deciding what to do with your pet’s toys, food bowls and other items. Some people take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach and clear away their pet’s items such as their bed and blankets. Others will hold on to them as a reminder. Whatever you choose to do is absolutely fine. Take your time to decide the next step, and don’t feel rushed to act.
The last step for grieving is to forgive yourself for letting your pet go. This can be the hardest step, and you will likely have to go through every stage of grief before you can achieve this step.
Your pet isn’t around to forgive you, so it’s down to you to forgive yourself. Remember all of the good times you have with your pet, and never let these memories go. When euthanising a pet, you are doing the right thing for them one last time. You will have to find a way to forgive yourself so you can move on and put your grief behind you.
This step is easier said than done, but at some point, you have to be ready to move on. This could mean something different to every person. It could mean finally removing their food dish from the kitchen floor. Or it could mean giving their crate and basket away to an animal shelter.
If you have chosen to memorialise your pet, you will have a small keepsake to remember them by. Some go one step further and have a tattoo of their pet or plant a tree in their honour. Eventually, you will be able to look back at these small reminders of your pet and feel joy instead of sadness.