Lifes Abundance posts created by dr. vogelsang

A Family Guide to Coping With Pet Loss

As a veterinarian, a person regularly tasked with the sacred duty of helping beloved family members pass over the Rainbow Bridge, you might think that I had lots of training in vet school about how to help people during such a challenging time. To be honest, I didn’t. Almost none, in fact, which is a shame.

Oftentimes, the death of a pet is the first major loss experienced by a person, especially children. We know now that for many people, the pain and grief of losing a pet is as profound as the death of a person, yet people are often expected to carry on the next day as if nothing has happened. Openly discussing grief makes others uncomfortable, mostly because they don’t know what to say.

Because of this, we are often ill-prepared for helping people navigate the complicated maze that is grief. After working in pet hospice for several years, I have a better understanding than ever before about how profound this experience is for people, as well as how often they are pretty much left to figure things out on their own. There is much we can do as a veterinary community to better prepare families for the death of a pet, and also much that pet parents can do as well.

How To Talk to Kids

How many of us grew up with parents who said, “Oh, Fluffy ran away”? For many years this was the accepted way of dealing with a pet’s death: Denial. Not only does this deprive children of the opportunity to mourn, many kids (myself included!) felt a deep sense of betrayal when we got older and realized our parents deceived us. Although it comes from a loving place, it’s always best to be honest with our little ones.

1. Be Direct. Children do not understand euphemisms such as “put to sleep”. Children under five may not understand that death is permanent. It is normal for them to repeatedly ask when their pet is coming back, even after you have told them that a beloved companion animal has died.

2. Be Reassuring. It is natural for death to cause anxiety in children, and they may even experience nightmares. By reassuring them and being there for them, children know that they can trust in their family even during sad times.

3. Allow Them to Be Present. Depending on your own comfort level, of course, I strongly believe that children benefit from being present during the euthanasia process. I find children to be curious, accepting and often a very big comfort to their grieving parents! It is healthy for them to see how peaceful the dying process can be, rather than relying on their active imaginations to fill in scary details.

4. Allow Them To Grieve. There are so many ways children can express themselves during the grieving process: talking, drawing pictures, having a ceremony. In our house we had a Celebration of Life for our dog, complete with a poem my daughter wrote. I know of other families who hold goldfish funerals. It’s good for kids to know that memories and love do not end when the body is gone.

How to Deal With Other Pets

For a long time, I was ambivalent about whether or not other pets in the family needed to be present when a pet passed. After all, most of the times I helped with a euthanasia, it was in the veterinary clinic. All of that changed when I started going to people’s homes and experiencing the death process with the entire family.

Dogs and cats understand death. Perhaps we tell ourselves this based on intuition, but having seen it firsthand I truly believe it. I have seen feisty dogs full of energy calm down and curl up next to their dog brother or sister after they have gone; cats may wander in for just a moment and wander off, but they still take note. Either way, they seem to be able to sense the change that has taken place, some moment imperceptible to us. Just like children are confused when a pet suddenly disappears, there’s no reason to think our fur kids are any different.

How Grief Affects You

Make no mistake, the loss of a pet is a terrible thing. There is no need to minimize that sadness or try to push it aside; deep sadness reflects the depth of your love. You need to allow yourself the time to mourn the loss of your friend, the loss of what they brought to your family, and the time in your life that they signified.

1. Be Gentle With Yourself. If you find yourself surrounded by people who say unhelpful things like, “It was only a dog! You can get another one,” or some other inconsiderate things, find new people to talk to! Many areas offer pet loss support groups; if those are not available, you can talk to one of many pet loss support hotlines or even jump on the daily internet Pet Loss Support Chats run by the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.

2. Know That There is No Timeline. Some people grieve for months or even years. Don’t let anyone tell you it is “time” to get over your loss.

3. Read Up On Pet Loss. One of my favorite pet loss resources for pet parents is The Loss of a Pet by Wallace Sife. This excellent book details the process of grief, specifically with pets, and also helps readers identify when grief is such that a professional counselor might be helpful.

4. Be a Good Friend. When a friend says goodbye to a beloved pet, remember how it felt for you and offer a kind word, a good memory and a big hug. Even if they say, “I’m OK!” it is often because this is what everyone expects them to say, and a compassionate ear can mean so very much.

It may sound strange to say this, but memorializing a loved one can be a truly life affirming moment. It teaches children (and ourselves!) that what is gone is not forgotten, that death is sad but it doesn’t have to be scary, and that we can get through anything when we support each other. The lessons we learn by saying goodbye to our fur kids carries over to other losses in our life, and helps us process grief in a healthy way so that we can move to a place where we are able to remember our loved ones with peace and joy.

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM

Canine Communication & Kid Safety

Zach & Brody

The first time he came to our house, my son’s friend Joey announced he hated dogs.

Given that we have a dog - and a cute one at that, a goofy Golden who loves any and all people - this is a bit of a problem. Joey was nonetheless fearful, so I had my dog in the yard for a bit. When I asked Joey why he hates dogs, he said it was because every dog he had ever met, starting with his own min pin when he was younger, bit him.

To be fair, if every dog I met bit me I might be nervous around them as well. But it’s indicative of a much bigger problem.

Joey is not a rare case. In the United States, 900,000 people a year require medical attention due to a non-fatal dog bite; half of them are children, whose small stature and lack of inhibition make them more prone to these sorts of incidences. We all hear about the tragic cases in the news of dogs killing people who were minding their own business, and it is horrifying and heartbreaking. But it is also, thankfully, rare. The vast majority of these bites are preventable.

My fellow veterinarians like to joke that we have a harder job than MDs because our patients can’t talk, but that’s not entirely true. Dogs may not speak our language, but they sure as heck communicate. It’s just that we aren’t listening properly.

If you want a perfect example of what a distressed dog looks like, just hit up your local veterinary clinic. All those picture memes of dogs going to the vet are a perfect list of all the things dogs do to broadcast when they are feeling uncomfortable …

• Hiding behind their owners
• Shaking
• Lip licking
• Yawning
• Tail tucked
• “Half moon” of the eye showing
• Turning away from you

And take growling, for example: how many times have you seen a dog get scolded for growling? We should be rewarding them! This is them shouting, loud and clear: “I am really unhappy right now. Whatever is going on here, please stop. Don’t make me escalate things.” It’s scary when you see it, especially when a dog is growling at a young child, but it is an immediate signal for you to intervene and make the situation safe.

Some signs are more subtle than others, and can be easy to miss if you don’t know how to look for them. It is extremely rare for a dog to jump right into bite mode without giving at least one or two of these signs ahead of time. We just don’t recognize it.

Time and time again, I see people - often kids - go right up to a dog exhibiting these behaviors and start patting them and talking to them. Do you remember when women in department stores used to walk up and spray you with perfume without asking first? They stopped because too many people were snapping at them. It’s kind of like that.

I imagine most people on the Life’s Abundance site know a lot more than the average bear about doggie body language, and if you have kids they probably do as well. From the time my kiddos were toddlers, we worked (and worked and worked, because it takes time) to teach them about respecting animals’ space. In some respects, kids comfortable with the family dog are even more at risk for bites, because they are used to approaching dogs who are very comfortable with being handled and may be overly familiar with strange dogs.

So we practice, and just as importantly, we make other kids practice with us too. When my dog is showing classic relaxed body posture (wiggling, leaning into people for pets), I take this as an opportunity to show kids who may have never been taught how to approach a strange dog …

1. Use your EYES to see if the dog wants to be approached
2. Use your MOUTH to ask for permission
3. Use your HAND to hold it out and let the dog approach you
4. Only then can you pat the dog, gently, on its side … not its face!

So many times when a dog bites, the owner says, “We never saw it coming!” That doesn’t mean the signs weren’t there. I’d encourage every pet parent out there to make it part of their daily life to teach those they encounter about how to approach a dog. You just might save them some trauma down the line.

As for Joey? Over time, he began to feel empowered as he understood how to evaluate dogs and when to walk away. The last time he came over, he asked to take Brody for a walk. It doesn’t take much to keep people dog safe, just a little time and effort. Are you in?

Doggie Language
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Photo by lili.chin / CC BY

How Not To Greet a Dog
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Photo by lili.chin / CC BY

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a graduate of the prestigious UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine with experience in both emergency and general practice. Quickly recognized as an entertaining and informative voice in the pet world, Dr. V is one of the most widely read veterinarians on the web and has become a much sought-after contributor in print, television and radio. Not only that, but Dr. V is one of a small group of veterinary and journalism experts to have earned the title of Certified Veterinary Journalist through the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Dr. V is currently featured in the series "Animals Gone Wild" on Nat Geo Wild on Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.