A 'last kind gift' to a pet

November 12, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Stephanie Bock cried when she got the call from the veterinarian's office. Oscar, the standard poodle she had loved and pampered for seven years, had four tumors. Although chemotherapy was an option, it would extend his life by only a few months.

Bock asked the caller to give her a few minutes.

She made the decision to have Oscar euthanized.

"It's a difficult decision to make," Bock said. But she knew it was the right one for the 112-pound dog she had adopted from a poodle rescue organization. She'd made the decision before, when Alex, another poodle Bock loved, was ill with a rare kidney disease.

There's a look in their eyes that says, "I'm too tired to go through this," Bock said.

"There is a really difficult process you go through when you decide to end a life," said Pat Miller of Fairplay, a certified dog trainer and author. Her pamphlets include "It's Okay to Cry, Pet Loss & Grief."


"Keeping an animal alive because you don't want to lose him is selfish," Miller said. Euthanasia is the last kind gift you can give to the animal you love, she added.

It's never easy, but knowing with conviction that you're doing what's best makes it bearable, Miller said.

"It's a guilt-ridden time no matter what you do," said veterinarian Virginia Scrivener of Animal Health Clinic of Funkstown.

There's a lot of denial. People want their pets around as long as possible. Some don't want to make the decision to euthanize their pets.

It's a tricky role for the veterinarian.

"I talk about the quality of life," Scrivener said. That's much more important than quantity, she added.

"The human-animal bond is so strong," said Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County. Paul and Pat Miller, husband and wife, have had to have two pets euthanized since April: an old cat and Dusty, an 18-year-old Pomeranian who was a therapy dog.

"It's very tough. It doesn't get any easier," he said.

Humane societies, Washington County's among them, offer euthanasia services - at the shelters, or in the home.

"We allow people to be with the pet," Paul Miller said.

But that option might not be best for every situation.

"Don't let anybody tell you how you should do it," Pat Miller said. "If you're going to be so distraught that you'll distress the animal, don't be there."

Scrivener sometimes gives the animal a sedative, comparing it to a human getting a little Valium before going into the operating room.

The two pets she recently euthanized sat on their owners' laps while she gave the injections.

It's hard enough for adults to cope, but what should children in the family be told?

"It depends," Pat Miller said. "What you don't want to do is lie. Don't tell them the pet has gone off to a farm."

Pat Miller said she thinks pet loss is a healthy way for children to learn the grieving process.

"There's a big fear of death in our culture," she said.

Terry Martin, associate professor of psychology and thanatology at Hood College in Frederick, Md., agrees. He facilitates pet bereavement sessions every other month at the Frederick County (Md.) Humane Society.

The sessions draw a few to more than a dozen people and operate the same way as other bereavement support groups. People share their stories, and it helps them, Martin said.

"Pet loss is disenfranchised grief," he said.

Society does not value that loss, but people need help to cope with it.

It's not uncommon for some to say, "It's just a dog," to belittle others' grief at the loss of a pet.

Pat Miller recommends dismissing such people. "Feel sorry that they've never had the wonderful connection that is possible," she added.

No one has told Stephanie Bock, "It's just a dog." She's received support and understanding for her loss - a few sympathy cards, flowers from her boss.

It's the loss of the relationship with the pet that people mourn, Martin said.

For some, a closure ritual can be helpful, Pat Miller said. Some choose burial or cremation and a marker or memorial.

The decision to have another pet also is individual. Paul Miller said people often come to the shelter to find a "replacement" - the same breed, a similar-looking dog or cat - for a family member whose pet has died.

It has to be the person's decision.

"There is no other one just like that one," he said. "We want to talk to the person (who will adopt the pet)."

Bock will wait until spring, but then she'll look for another pet.

"I have to have a dog," she said.

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