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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Euthanasia, Pet Loss, and Grief for Owners and Veterinarians

By Lynette A. Hart, PhD, Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California ; Mariko Yamamoto, PhD, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

When a beloved animal companion dies or is ill, people are likely to feel stress, sorrow, and grief. This may include the animal’s family and neighbors in the community, as well as the veterinary team that provided care. The significance of pets dying and the consequent emotional impact on owners is clearly profiled within the veterinary profession, and educational materials and support groups, hotlines, and counseling are available. The relatively short life span of dogs and cats means that owners face losing several animals during a lifetime.

An extra burden comes in assuming responsibility for the moment of death by euthanasia. The desire or perceived duty to relieve pain and suffering may need to be weighed against the feeling of some owners about the wrongness of killing or a religious argument for reverence for life. The difficulty of this decision overlays the loss with feelings of guilt and the thought that there must have been some other step that could have been taken. Even with family support, these feelings may not be assuaged. Among married couples in one study, approximately half of the wives and more than a quarter of husbands reported they were quite or extremely disturbed by the death of the family pet.

As an alternative to euthanasia, it is important to offer instruction in palliative care for owners prepared to provide it. Procedures developed in hospice care can assure high-quality, end-of-life care with pain relief for animals, and help the family as well. The technical aspects of treatment no longer override the compassionate care, as a specific approach is often offered to deal with the family’s and pet’s distress.

Owners are also concerned about the care of their pet's remains. Veterinarians offer the available choices, with information about the final disposition of the pet's remains. After a cremation, some owners are concerned to know that the ashes they receive are, in fact, those of their own pet. Veterinarians' communication with clients concerning questions around euthanasia and the care of pet remains is especially important, as is providing support during the mourning process.

Compassionate veterinarians include themselves in the circle of remembrance of their clients’ animals and respect the families’ regard for the animal throughout the relationship. Many grieving owners need a year of recovery to pass through the holidays and family traditions before somewhat accepting a loss, and veterinarians may consider sending a remembrance card to the family after a year.