Thursday, March 5, 2009

Loss of a Pet

My dog Kirby - the flash setting makes his brown eyes blue.

A few days ago, my dog Kirby got deathly ill. He couldn't hold down food or water, and vomited most of the night. When I gave him water in the morning, it all came back up. I took him to the veterinarian, and he treated Kirby for pancreatitis. If I hadn't taken him, Kirby would have died within days. I am glad to say he is getting better each day. He's been going to the vet during the day, where he gets medicines and IV fluids, and I bring him home at night. Kirby can now drink a little water and hold down some food, and has a lot more energy. The vet thinks he'll need one more day of treatment, and then he can stay home with oral medications.

My dog Kirby is a miniature schnauzer, about 8 years old. We got him 7 years ago from an animal shelter. For most of my time in the Dallas area, we lived in apartments or duplexes. When we finally moved into a house with a fenced backyard, I really wanted to get a dog. I like a lot of different furry animals, but member of my family, including me, have asthma and allergies, which limited the pets we could have. Some have had allergic reactions to cats, so I knew we could not have one of those. When we visited my brother's house, my family didn't react to his miniature schnauzers, so I wanted that breed of dog. Miniature schnauzers don't shed, which is really helpful for allergy sufferers. And they are very smart, sweet, loving dogs.

I've realized before how much my dog means to me. There have been times he's found a hole in the fence and disappeared. Fortunately, he's never gone far, and sometimes has found his way back to the front door, where he stands and barks. But in those times where I've had to look for him for a while, I realize how much I would miss him if he were gone. This week, when he was so sick, I started thinking about it again.

Much of my time at home, I'm by myself now, a big change from when my children were smaller. But I am not really by myself, because I have a small animal that keeps me company. He needs my care, and he rewards me with his unconditional love. He's always happy to see me, doesn't get angry or criticize, and is patient. He helps me feel protected, since he'll let me know if a stranger is at the door. I have become very attached to Kirby.

I've had a few dogs before. When I was growing up, we had a mixed breed dog name ZsaZsa. She was a great comfort to me after my mother died, and it seemed like she was the one who listened best to me when I needed to talk about my grief or wanted to cry. I was devastated when ZsaZsa was hit by a car almost two years after my mom died. I didn't see her after she died, but she left a great absence in my life. Years later, my parents got two springer spaniels, which I really liked, but I was almost in college when they became part of the family. They were not part of my everyday life for a number of years when they died of old age, and my grief was much less than with my first dog.

So many times, when I work with grieving people, they say something like “I thought was doing pretty well, and then my dog died, and I fell apart.” Companion animals can be great comfort when we lose family members, and they will often stay with us when we cry, and offer their sympathy in loving ways. Dogs or cats share our grief when the person who's died lived in the house with us. When the dog or cat that has been the pet of a loved one who died then needs to be put to sleep or dies, grief can be surprisingly deep. Animals loved by those we lost often link us to the ones who are gone, and when those animals die, our old grief is resurrected, along with the new grief. Dogs who have kept us company through the ups and downs of life leave a deeper void than we expect.

Loss of a pet is terribly difficult. It's not unusual for people to have more acute grief for the death of a pet than they have for a blood relative, especially if the person who died is someone they don't see all the time. I've known people who work in hospice that can face death every day, but when a dog or cat dies, they need to take some time off to get through the first days of grief. We grieve for those we love, and the more we are involved with them, the bigger void there is when they are gone. Most of us who live with dogs or cats are involved with those pets in many ways, taking walks with them, making sure they have food and drink, keeping them healthy, playing with them. A lot of us sit with small animals on our laps or bigger ones by our feet, and many of us sleep with our pets at night. There's a huge absence when pets die. Grief is a normal, natural response to that loss. People sometimes feel ashamed or awkward talking about their grief over the loss of a pet. The things that are helpful when we lose a loved one also help when we lose a pet: crying, journaling, talking about the loss, finding ways to remember the pet or honor its memory. It's not an easy loss, and it takes time to get through it.

I have a support group listing that I give out on a regular basis to grieving people in the community. The last group I have on the list is a pet loss support group, here in Dallas at the SPCA, Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They have a counselor available that people can call for grief support.  One of our hospice bereavement volunteers used to work at the Dallas Zoo, and he has found the SPCA group very helpful. Those who work with large zoo animals have long-term relationships with those animals, who sometimes live as long as a human. When a zoo animal dies, especially if that animal died suddenly in the prime of life, that can devastate staff members. My friend the bereavement volunteer has held some grief groups at the zoo for his co-workers.

I've also collected a list of some pet loss websites that I give out to people who are struggling with the loss of a pet. Some of those I've found to be helpful are

I know the day will come that my dog Kirby will reach the end of his life. When he does, I will grieve, and I will let myself mourn. He's been a great little dog, and I love him. I'm glad that he's going to recover from this illness. I hope he stays healthy for a long time before he's gone.


  1. Amen to that! I remember when our shih-tzu died: he was almost 15 years old when he died, and in the year or so leading up to it, he'd been ill and we knew his end was inevitable. We found out that we still weren't prepared for the actual death, as all of us (my mom & dad and me) were all bawling as we buried him.

    Thanks for posting all of those links. I hope someone who is grieving the loss of a pet will take advantage of those.

  2. Hallo Sue, tonight I it was the right time to visit your wonderful blog again and what do I read - your dog is just recovering from some bad days. Now he on the way to get better and so I hope it will be going on. Your words are going deep in my mind becauce we lost three dogs before we got Aiko. Sometimes - it real true you mourne more about a dog. But love for an animal is - so I think - also good in gods rules.
    Thank you for sharing your dogs story and I wish you the best. All things will be good. I can´t write my whole thoughts becauce my english isn´t perfect. So sorry.
    We keep in touch
    It´s late in the night now, but I worked at the computer for my choir association.
    Wuff and a big and loud bark for your little dog from Aiko