After a lifetime of love, joy and companionship with a beloved pet, the hardest things to do is to say goodbye at the end of their life.
Recently, Dr. Joy Davy spoke on the subject of the human-animal bond at the Naperville Area Humane Society. She believes it is natural for us to feel the loss so deeply because of what animals bring to our relationship with them.
Animals can meet many of our basic human needs in a very real way by offering physical affection, routine everyday togetherness, communication, unconditional love and complete dependence.
The phenomenon is even scientifically documented. The physical touch we enjoy from our pets releases the hormone oxytocin, often present in nursing mothers, which produces a feeling of connectedness, relaxation and peace.
It’s therefore no wonder that regardless of the circumstances surrounding the pet’s death, whether the pet was euthanized or died of natural causes or an accident, pet owners often face a considerable grieving process.
Michelle Lenz, animal care manager at NAHS, said they often receive calls from pet owners who are either having a difficult time with a loss or the decision whether to euthanize their pets.
For the pet owner who just lost a very special friend, NAHS offers referrals to grief counselors and has held seminars on the subject.
“In terms of dealing with the loss, every owner is different,” Lenz said.
“Some people don’t want to come home to the deafening quiet of a home without their pet, so they bring home a new puppy or kitten so they won’t have to face it.
“Others would look on that as a betrayal of loyalty to their beloved pet. There is no right or wrong, just whatever helps.”
Lenz also said that the humane society encourages pet owners to talk with friends or family members about their loss or try to keep the pet’s memory alive by journaling, scrapbooking or sharing their memories with others.
There are also online resources, such as the Facebook page called “Letters to Pushkin,” which began as a memorial for a beloved beagle, and now hosts thousands of pet memorials and shows of support.
Coping with a loss can be even harder for the pet owner if they had the pet euthanized.
The heart wrenching decision is full of questions and second guessing. Is it too early?
Shouldn’t I wait? Is this really the right thing to do? A veterinarian can be most helpful to pet owners facing the decision.
Lenz, who chose to euthanize her beloved dog diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, offers a guideline to evaluate the situation objectively.
“I tell people to think of three things your pet loves to do. When they cannot do any of those anymore, you know their quality of life is being affected by their condition,” she said. “As pet owners, we want to keep them as long as we can, but ultimately the best thing is to figure out what’s best for your pet, not for you.”
The death of a pet not only affects the owner closest to the pet, but everyone in the family.
Children who do not understand the loss of the pet also will grieve in their own way and may exhibit behavioral changes.
“We have a library of books and videos that people can borrow that are geared towards children to help them after the loss of their pet,” said Terri Hancock, NAHS humane education manager.
If there was another pet in the home, owners also might see changes in the surviving animal’s behavior.
“Some animals don’t grieve for the lost pet, some take it hard,” Hancock said. “For owners of grieving pets, we offer an animal behavior help line.”
Of course when the time is right to bring a new pet into the home, NAHS always has many animals ready to ease grief with love and companionship.
Angie Wood is executive director of the Naperville Area Humane Society, a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1979 to develop and implement animal welfare programs and services within Naperville and surrounding communities. Contact her at 630-420-8989 or visit www.napervilleareahumanesociety.org.