Q: Now that she’s getting older, my dog’s health is really starting to decline. I discussed this briefly with my vet, but stopped short of talking about what comes next because I just couldn’t handle it. How do I know when it’s time to say goodbye and how do I help my family deal with the loss?
A: My precocious pooch brings so much love and laughter to my home, that it’s hard to imagine a day without Lulu or her antics. But the joys of pet ownership also eventually lead to the loss of a beloved pet. Having a heart-to-heart with your veterinarian now will help to prepare for the tough questions that will come later.
Dr. Karen Jordan practices veterinary medicine in a bricks-and-mortar clinic and in clients’ homes. Often, those routine house calls involve discussions about the next steps for her elderly pets. While the process can be difficult, she suggests that you honestly evaluate your pet’s current condition on a day-to-day basis, and share that info with your vet.
“I have owners assess whether the dog is eating, drinking, and getting up to defecate on her own,” she said. “Is she greeting you at the door? Does she wag her tail but cannot rise?”
Answers to those questions will give your vet an idea of how things are progressing. If your dog is very withdrawn, stops eating or drinking, or barely notices your presence, Jordan said it might be time to discuss the next steps, which may involve euthanasia. If you decide to have the pet euthanized, many vets are willing to conduct the procedure at your home, which can be less stressful for the pet and the family. If your vet does not offer this service, consider seeking a referral. It costs a bit more, but Jordan said that about 75 percent of her patients prefer at-home euthanasia vs. a sterile veterinary clinic.
“Owners are free in the home setting to let all of their emotions pour out,” she said. “Plus, I don’t worry about them having to drive back home while they are so emotionally distraught.”
Euthanasia: How it works
Your vet will sedate the pet prior to administering a euthanasia solution. This helps the pet enter a deep sleep. From there, the process lasts about 20 to 30 minutes. Jordan noted that it isn’t always a sweet slumber. Sometimes whiskers twitch, eyes remain open or fine muscle movements occur before animals will take a last breath.
“You never know how an animal is going to pass and so you can never quite be prepared,” she said. “Most times it is quite smooth. Whether they pass on their own or I assist in transition, the ultimate goal is for it to be peaceful.”
Keeping your pet’s remains
If you decide to bury your pet, check local and state ordinances first, or call your county animal control office for advice. If you live in a densely populated community, drainage, roaming animals and the possibility of hitting gas or power lines make backyard burial a bad idea.
Most veterinarians will recommend cremation, a process that reduces the animal to ashes and bone fragments. Clinics typically have partnerships with local pet crematories and will help make arrangements to process your pet’s remains. If you do not want your pet’s remains, request a community cremation, which typically costs about $75. With this process, several animals are cremated at the same time and the crematory disposes of the ashes.
If you prefer to keep your pet’s remains, ask for a private cremation. This can cost up to twice as much as a community cremation, but it is the best way to ensure that you leave with your pet’s remains and only your pet’s remains, said Christine Hunsaker, owner of Paws, Whiskers and Wags pet crematory in Atlanta.
Pets have become such essential family members that pet urns are readily available in materials ranging from marble to sleek, hand-crafted brass. To truly go green, consider a biodegradable urn made from paper or wood.
Give yourself time to grieve
Hunsaker opened Paws, Whiskers and Wags five years ago, after being horrified by the lack of caring service when she lost Casey, her teacup poodle. A 20-year veteran of the human cremation and funeral home business, she applied her experience and love for pets to a relatively new niche market. Results have been overwhelming, she said. To help her growing clientele handle the loss of a pet, Paws, Whiskers and Wags assists with grief counseling and annual events for clients to celebrate their pets.
"Even though [pets] are silent, you count on them for this immeasurable amount of company," Hunsaker said. "When they are gone, their absence is absolutely shocking to people and it makes it so hard."
Hunsaker’s company also links to resources such as the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, which provides a list of pet grief support groups and other tools to cope with the loss.
Pay it forward
My good friend buried his dog at the family's home (in rural South Carolina), surrounded by trees and a fresh crop of perennials. It was a lovely gesture that I’ll always remember. Jordan added that planting a tree or a garden in honor of your pet helps children participate in the process of saying goodbye.
Most pampered pets also leave behind a treasure chest of toys, beds, leashes and collars. When you are ready, consider donating those items to a pet rescue group in your area. You also can make a donation in the name of your pet.
Hopefully these tips will make the process a bit more manageable. All the best to you.
— Morieka Johnson