Why It’s So Hard to Let Go of a Beloved Pet
The unique grief of euthanasia.
Posted May 31, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Pet loss grief can be hidden and complex.
- Neurochemistry affects people's emotional connection with dogs.
- Euthanasia and behavioral euthanasia challenge the human caregiving impulse.
Owning and caring for a dog has its costs. Financially, the average dog costs $23,000 to feed and care for over its 8- to 15-year life span.
Emotionally, the hard reality is that most of us will outlive our dogs. The day will come when we have to say goodbye to a cherished canine companion.
Why Do People and Dogs Bond?
Humans and dogs are social species. We survive and thrive better by connecting and bonding with a group that shares shelter, food, resources, and companionship.
Because social relationships are vital to our well-being, nature encourages them through our biochemistry. One simple example is that of two people smiling happily at each other. This simple interaction triggers the release of “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters into the bloodstream that give us a feeling of warmth and joy. It’s nature’s way of rewarding us for being social. Similar neurochemical feedback can bond us to our pet dog. It’s why we feel a rush of happiness when handing them a treat.
Because social connections are inherently rewarding to both people and dogs, it’s natural that our species have been drawn together.
Why Does It Hurt to Say Goodbye to Our Dogs?
The neurochemistry of social bonding is a mixed blessing. On the positive side are feelings of love and attachment that cause us to savor and seek social connections. This is the mechanism that fosters parent-child connections, friendships, communities, and romantic relationships—ultimately ensuring our collective survival.
On the flip side of this neurochemical feedback loop are the fear, grief, and sorrow we feel when a member of our group is at risk. These sensations serve as a warning alarm. For example, we become distressed if a family member is hurt and our hearts can "break" when a loved one dies. These emotional costs are also part of any deep attachment bond with an animal.
Losing a cherished dog can feel especially devastating to people with a history of trauma or adverse early life experiences because they relied on their dog as a protector, safe companion, and confidante. Others may view their dog as a surrogate child, and losing that treasured connection can feel especially painful.
When a beloved dog dies, we grieve the loss of companionship, affection, physical protection, playfulness, and nonjudgmental acceptance. Losing a special animal disrupts our emotional balance.
Facing Hard Choices
When we take home a pet dog, we assume a parental role. We provide food, exercise, veterinary care, and social connection. In return, we gain a joyful companion who stimulates those “feel good” neurochemicals that reinforce our caregiving behavior.
If a cherished pet becomes deeply ill or hurt, our internal neurochemical alarms go off. We hurt because they hurt. In time, we may consult with a veterinarian about the animal’s quality of life and weigh the pros and cons of euthanasia. These decisions typically occur at the end of an animal’s natural life span—for larger dog breeds that life span may be 8 years and for smaller breeds, it may be closer to 15 years.
If our dog’s organs are shutting down, do we choose to stop their pain? Or do we let them continue suffering so we can enjoy a few more days of their sweet presence? The difficulty inherent in considering euthanasia reflects the underlying tensions of our basic neurochemical feedback loop.
A Hidden Heartache
Taking the life of a creature we love is uniquely painful. As a caregiver, our urge is to preserve their life and protect them from suffering.
But what happens if we cannot meet a young animal’s needs humanely or rehome it safely?
Veteran dog trainer Trish McMillan learned through heart-wrenching personal experience that not all behavioral problems can be solved with training. Certainly, the right handling, training, and expectations can improve outcomes for many dogs that show aggression, but these methods do not always solve the problem. For some animals, their brain chemistry simply prevents happy solutions.
Behavioral euthanasia is among the most fraught decisions a caring pet guardian will ever face. In this case, after having exhausted all other reasonable options, a veterinarian recommends a humane lethal injection, not because the dog faces a life-threatening medical condition, but because the animal exhibits ongoing, profoundly unsafe behavior that poses a danger to them, to us, our loved ones, or the community at large. For individuals who care deeply about an animal’s well-being, this choice can feel like a Gordian knot.
McMillan describes behavioral euthanasia as “one of those things you just can't talk about. It has happened to more people than you think, but we do not talk about it. And a lot of people are holding this profound, complex grief.”
To give people a safe place to process the heartache of having chosen behavioral euthanasia, McMillan and others launched a private Facebook group called “Losing Lulu.” Now 3 years old, the group has nearly 20,000 members.
Healing From Pet Loss Grief
Losing or making end-of-life decisions about a beloved dog can rock our world. Sometimes, the heartache or guilt feels crushing. The more powerfully we’ve bonded with an animal, the more the neurochemistry of attachment affects our experience.
Finding a support system and outlet for grief are vital for moving on. Increasingly, veterinary practices and pet crematoriums offer help in the form of condolence cards, commemorative items, and support groups led by grief counselors. Additional pet loss grief resources, such as "Losing Lulu," can be found online.
Research suggests that getting stuck in embarrassment, guilt, or hiding feelings of sorrow can actually make it harder to recover. Finding ways to acknowledge and work through grief is vital to healing from the loss.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: WH_Pics/Shutterstock
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