Grave Grief

Feelings after killing our pets

Posted Jan 11, 2014

My buddy Ody, a few days before his death

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy. -Inuit saying

My buddy Ody, a few days before his death

When it comes to heartache, the decision to euthanize a companion animal sits somewhere very near the top of the list. Yet even though euthanasia of companion animals is something that a vast majority of pet owners will face, there hasn't been a whole lot of research into how people make these grave end-of-life decisions and what the emotional fallout is for human caregivers of dying animals. A new study by researchers at Ben Gurion University, published in the February issue of Death Studies, sheds some new light on this common but under-researched experience.

The researchers interviewed 25 bereaved dog owners during the two weeks following the death of their animal. They asked participants questions about how they prepared themselves for the euthanasia, why they ultimately decided to euthanize, whether they felt guilty, how they handled the body, what memorial objects they had in the house to remind them of their dog, whether others understood and supported them, and whether they would get another dog in the near future.

One of the most common emotional reactions was a sense that there was a void or emptiness without the canine companion. The house seemed too quiet, or regular patterns—getting up and letting the dog out and fixing his breakfast, or going on walks together each night—were disrupted. Another common response was a feeling a guilt, both over the decision to euthanize and more generally about what you might call “lost opportunity” (“I was so involved with my job these past couple of years that I didn’t give my dog the attention she deserved.”) A number of people also reported “personification”: their dog was their confidante and they missed having someone with whom to share their joys and sorrows and secrets.

Most owners reported that they felt euthanasia was appropriate and prevented their animal from suffering. But 17% expressed feelings of doubt or regret about the euthanasia—which seems a rather high number. This suggests an important area for future research: delving more deeply into why some pet owners regret choosing euthanasia and what could be done to make sure nobody feels this way. 

The researchers identified five common emotional and behavioral phases—or points in the grief period—experienced, to one degree or another, by all the study participants:

1.         Decision to euthanize

2.         Anticipating death and preparation

3.         Burial

4.         Mourning

5.         Replacement/substitution 

One interesting finding is that owners who took their deceased dog’s body home and performed a burial felt calmer than those who opted to leave the body at the veterinarian’s office to be cremated. In my opinion, this finding has less to do with actual method of handling the body (bury or cremate) than with the feelings of closure and celebration and memorialization that an after-death ceremony can provide.

The authors argue that grieving is not affected by the way a pet dies—whether by euthanasia, accident, or the natural progression of an illness. But I don’t believe we know enough to support this claim. The authors didn’t mention alternative approaches to animal end-of-life care, such as hospice-assisted natural death. I would like to see a comparison of grief reactions to these three possible end-of-life scenarios: euthanasia without hospice care; hospice care ending in euthanasia; and hospice care ending in natural death. I also think we need to continue exploring how the larger context within which dying takes place influences grief reactions and feelings of guilt. Some anecdotal data from the U.S. suggest that in-home euthanasia is less traumatic for dog owners (as well as dogs) than clinic-based euthanasia.

As the authors note, attitudes toward animal death are different from one culture to another. Their study was conducted in Israel. It would be interesting to see similar studies conducted in other countries and to find out whether there are significant differences in the way people grieve for animals around the world. 

Here is some of what we know about pet loss: We know that many people grieve for their pets like they grieve for lost human loved-ones, though generally for a shorter period of time and with less intensity. We also know that a number of people suffer more intense grief over the death of an animal companion. Some percentage of people (about 20-30%) experience intense sadness, crying, and even depression, and in a small number of cases, the grieving process becomes so intense that a person cannot function well and sometimes even requires hospitalization. Although it makes sense that studies of pet loss and bereavement focus on those pet owners who are grieving, the research on pet loss has neglected what I think would be a very interesting group: those who do not grieve, who might fall into two general and very different categories: those who feel nothing because they had little to no attachment to the animal, and those closely bonded pet owners who feel a sense of calm acceptance, even joy (reminding us that not everyone views death as loss).

Reference: Tzivian, L., M. Friger, and T. Kushnir. "Grief and bereavement of Israeli dog owners: Exploring short-term phases pre- and post-euthanasia," Death Studies 38:109-117, 2014.