By Dr. Beth Leermakers
In early July, I said goodbye to Sparky, my 10-year-old dog whom I adopted in 2011. Sparky was having difficulty walking and standing up, and he was no longer eating well. He wasn’t wagging his tail and just wasn’t happy anymore. I gave him the highest dose of pain meds, but it just wasn’t enough to make him comfortable. My vet agreed that we had done everything we could for Sparky, whose quality of life was no longer good enough. Three months later, I can’t type this introduction without crying for my sweet boy. My dogs are my children, and I suffer deeply when I lose them.
Research has shown that, for some people, losing a beloved pet can be as difficult — if not more so — than losing a relative. The death of a pet can be an emotionally devastating experience that takes its toll on physical and mental health. According to a case study in The New England Journal of Medicine, one 61-year-old woman was admitted to the ER with severe chest pains shortly after her dog died. She was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy — aka “broken heart syndrome” — a condition that mimics heart attack symptoms.
Social support is essential to recover from grief. While people often comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a person, they may not offer the same solace to someone who lost a pet. “It’s just a cat. Get over it,” thinks (or says) the non-pet-lover. This lack of support can increase emotional distress and create a sense of shame and isolation. The death of a pet is particularly difficult for children and the elderly. Roxanne Hawn, author of “Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate,” suggests that families engage in memorial activities to grieve the loss of a pet. Have everyone write down positive memories about the pet on colored paper, and place those happy thoughts in a bowl.
Losing a pet can be devastating to seniors, who have already experienced so many other losses. Pets give seniors companionship, a sense of purpose and a reason to exercise and socialize. When a beloved pet dies, the elderly lose all of those benefits.
Guilt and shame can make mourning a pet even worse. If the pet gets attacked by a coyote or hit by a car, the person may blame himself for not doing enough to protect and save his pet. People who make the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize their ailing pet may be wracked by guilt. Although I firmly believe that I made the right decision for Sparky, I still second-guess myself.
The best way to cope with the loss of a pet depends on the person. If you’ve lost a pet, be compassionate with and forgive yourself. Spend time with supportive people who understand how painful it is to lose a fur baby. Individual counseling and/or grief support groups may be helpful. The SPCA offers pet grief telephone counseling and support groups: spca.org/petgriefcounseling.
When I came home after saying goodbye to Sparky, I was greeted by three foster dogs. I can’t imagine how awful it would’ve felt to return to an empty house. I will never be able to “replace” Sparky, and I don’t want to, but I can open my heart and home to save other dogs who need me. If you’re not ready to adopt a cat or dog, consider fostering one until your heart heals a bit. Several local rescue groups and shelters need short-term fosters, sometimes for just a few days. Passport For Paws (passportforpaws.org) needs foster homes for cats and dogs for a few days up to a few weeks — until they leave on transport up to Minnesota. Society for Companion Animals (societyforcompanionanimals.org) needs people to keep a dog overnight for one night and drop the dog off at DFW Airport the next morning — usually very early so you can get to work on time. Dallas Animal Services also has short-term foster opportunities. Visit petfinder.com to find a shelter or rescue group in your area, or contact me and I’ll share a few possibilities.
This column is dedicated to Sparky and the other dogs I’ve loved and lost: Laredo, Snowie, Betty White and Zane. You’ll always hold a special place in my heart.