Recent studies have shown that the grief we feel when losing a family pet is equal to, or greater than, the grief we feel when we lose a parent.
This seems staggering but, when you speak to anyone who has recently lost their pet about their feelings towards it, a whole world of grief is unleashed.
I have had clients who have broken down about their lost pet years after the event and one lady who guiltily confided that she cried more when losing her dog than she did when she lost her sister.
One thing is absolutely for sure, the owner will remember the euthanasia of their pet for the rest of their life. It will burn a scar on their heart and they will be able to recount every detail of the experience, good and bad, for ever.
It is critical for vets to be good at this task. When I speak to students, it’s the one thing I emphasise above all else: learn the art of euthanasia, which literally means “a good death”.
Coping with grief due to animal loss has become more widely recognised recently, as we are becoming more aware of the effects of mental wellbeing. From my experience in dealing with grief I have learnt that ignoring it will only make it grow; by talking it through with other people who have shared the experience you can help to ease your burden.
For this reason, I started a Facebook page called FigTree – Friends In Grief as a forum where people could speak about their loss with other like-minded people, without the fear of judgment or ridicule.
It offers support and ways in which to counsel your grief and hopefully make it a little easier day by day. People post photos of their pets on their birthday or on the anniversary of their passing as a living reminder of the love they shared. It is free to use and has been well received and I encourage anyone who is struggling to join the conversation.
But the owners are not the only ones who feel the loss and suffer the grief. We as vets are in a uniquely privileged position to be able to actually end suffering and I, for one, am extremely thankful we can. We can end the mental and physical suffering of the patient with a single injection, which painlessly drifts them off to eternal sleep. But in addition to that, we can end the owner’s anguish of watching their beloved pet struggle as death envelopes them. In the vast majority of cases, the animal is already dying so we are merely speeding up an event which is already in progress. This helps to give us peace of mind but doesn’t make the act any easier. Euthanasia weighs heavily on every vet. It is an enormous responsibility and it does, over the years, take its toll.
A smart vet told me early in my career that the minute you get used to euthanasia it’s time to leave the profession, and he was right. It’s not something you get used to. You do perfect your techniques, and master the art of word selection and scene building to smooth the process, but that does not remove the gut-wrenching feeling of taking a life, or the grief that comes thereafter.
So try not to underestimate the loss of a pet. It can be a life-changing moment for the owner; for them it was never “just a dog”.
Animals fill many varied roles in our lives – companion, confidante, friend, child – and the loss of them can leave a void which may never fully heal. There is help available and compassionate listeners if you need them. Don’t be afraid to reach out and find your “friends in grief”.
Lucy Richardson graduated from Edinburgh University in 2005. She started CedarTree Vets in August 2012 with her husband Mark. They live at the practice with their two children, Ray and Stella, and their dog, two cats and two guinea pigs. Dr Lucy is also the FEI national head veterinarian for Bermuda