Animal lovers acknowledge the great joy that pets bring them. Two-thirds of American households have animals that live with them (45% dogs and 30% cats). In fact, April contains the celebration “National Pet Day.” Over the last 50+ married years, Debra and I allowed 30+ dogs and cats to adopt us. Their being a part of our lives has taken us on fun journeys. Their different personalities taught us a great deal about life as they were sent by God to be our faithful companions. Harvard University Medical School reports our animals are powerful allies that provide many benefits: (1) improve our overall physical health and immune systems, decrease cortisol (the harmful stress-related hormone), lower blood pressure, and enhance our cardiovascular condition; (2) improve our mental health by reducing stress and anxiety, decrease loneliness, and fight depression; (3) create social connections and form bonds with others; (4) soothe us through tough times; and (5) make us feel special by providing comfort and support. Greeting your pets after returning home or sitting with them and stroking their soft, furry coat can release oxytocin (the love hormone). Dogs win the category of greeting their owners with smiles and wagging tails. Our cats also miss us, but you can tell upon our returning home, their look says, “Well, it’s about time you got back! I’m ready for my buffet!” It’s amazing our pets realize their 5:00 happy hour has arrived to eat or play outside.
A pet’s love is pure. Human beings often have complicated relationships with one another. Even when we are loved deeply by partners, family members, or friends, there are things about our personalities that individuals wish they could change. Pets, however, love us exactly the way we are, with no complications. They just want to be around us and give us or receive affection, no matter our mood. It seems like their life’s mission is to make our lives blossom! They grow on you. Every pet has a distinct personality and unique habits, like humans, and the longer they stay with you, the stronger relationships become (if you think about it, our pets log more hours in our presence than most humans). After a while, you learn to communicate with your companions, sometimes without making a sound. They become members of the family, bringing comfort that can provide welcome distractions from even your worst days. Animals also stand by us through changes to our own lives and routines like finishing school, dating, getting married, and starting a family; experiencing a divorce, remarrying, and blending families; retiring; downsizing to a smaller home; weathering family members’ problems and deaths; or experiencing other important life events. Pets—and the loving support they provide—can be the one constant during times of change. It’s no wonder that the loss of this simple, powerful love is a devastating blow, especially to people who have difficult family or romantic relationships and few social contacts.
Of course, there are downsides to owning a pet since they can be expensive to maintain and are time-consuming like raising children. And not everyone is prepared for or desires to own pets. Selecting the right one is paramount to experiencing the many positive benefits previously mentioned. Pets can also have behavioral issues or problems that can be burdensome which can lead to unhappiness and unneeded stress. So, it’s important to take your time when adopting pets and seek good chemistry between them, you, and your family members. Columbia, SC-based Palmetto Lifeline is an excellent non-profit adopting agency and has staff or volunteers who can provide you with one-on-one time with different animals. You might consider fostering a pet to determine if they are a good match to live with you before formal adoption.
The hurtful part is that we will outlive our beloved pets which breaks your heart when they pass away. Of all the 100+ articles I’ve published, writing about losing pets is the most heart-wrenching. But regardless of if you own a pet or not, it’s important to follow, retain, and share this series since either you or someone you know will experience the tragedy of losing “their best friend!” And, you want to know how to proceed forward in life as you grieve for your lost one. In other circumstances, if you lost a pet in the past, use your experience by providing compassion, understanding, and comfort to those who have recently experienced the death of their “Best Buddy.” Unless you have a departed pet, you can never understand the suffering families go through.
Knowing When the End Is Near
Unfortunately, we will outlive our best friends. Animals leave our lives through a variety of ways such as tragic accidents or escaping and getting lost, while others succumb to diseases and injuries. According to research, while we often wish they would die a natural death while sleeping, few experience this peaceful path. Consequently, we are faced with making very difficult, often agonizing decisions when we have to decide how we help our loved ones leave us.
After adopting your pet, either through a formal non-profit agency, like Pawmetto Lifeline (Columbia, SC), or they show up at your back door, you want to develop relationships with veterinarians early on before you need them. Vets can provide preventable care, maintain your pet’s history, guide you through the animal’s life, and treat them as needed. Your veterinarian is dedicated to providing all means to keep your pet well. They will also be your final expert when the painful moment occurs, and a decision is needed to extend your pet’s life or peacefully end suffering due to poor quality of life.
Based on our experience and interviews with many animal lovers and Vets, the process of deciding when to end your pet’s life is extremely difficult and uncertain—There is no right time. Ohio University School of Veterinary Science reports “The quality of animals’ lives is defined by their overall physical and mental well-being, not just one aspect of their lives. It is important to remember that all pets are different. What may be considered a poor quality of life for one may be different for another.”
And, extending the animal’s life when the end is near, you will be presented with different options such as (1) Evaluation by your Vet using ultrasounds, X-rays, blood tests, and various treatments; (2) Referral to specialists like internists, oncologists, etc.; (3) Hospice-care programs that will allow family members time to say goodbye and ease their pet’s pain; and (4) Euthanasia (many refer to this procedure as “putting your pet down”).
The ability to pay for advanced evaluations and treatments can be expensive. One must carefully assess if the goal is for your benefit of not wanting to part with your beloved pet and buying additional time. Are you focusing on the animal’s quality of life which is deteriorating? Most of the time, it’s a combination of both. Animal lovers will often mortgage their homes to keep their pets alive and well. But when do you finalize your decision that the end is nearing?
Vets often have different perspectives on guiding patients on end-of-life decisions. Dr. Alice Villalobos, the veterinarian who started Pawspice, a program for terminal pets, published an excellent online scoring system for life quality called “The HHHHHMM Scale.” You can type the assessment’s name into your computer Internet browser to obtain the free chart. The letters stand for Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility, and “More Good Days than Bad” on how to assess your pet’s well-being. Her research guides animal owners to rate their pet in 25 categories. We witnessed some of the behaviors by our pets as their lives were declining which include the animal: (1) Doesn’t want to play; (2) Interacting abnormally; (3) Doesn’t enjoy some of its past activities; (4) Hides as if it’s in pain; (5) Appears to not enjoy living; (6) Sleeps more than usual; (7) Seems depressed, inactive, and lethargic; (8) Experiences digestive problems such as vomiting and diarrhea; (8) Isn’t eating well or dehydrated; (9) Losing weight; and (10) Isn’t cleaning its coat which is matted, greasy, and unkept.
Our cat, Jett, recently experienced some of these symptoms and we thought his time was up. Our two Veterinarians (Drs. Mundell and Hurst) put their heads together and didn’t give up! Through a variety of evaluations, treatments, medications, and prayer, his normal life was restored.
Dr. Marty Becker summarized our thoughts with her excellent comments: “We are so fortunate that our dogs and cats are living longer than ever before and have access to the highest levels of veterinary care. At some point, though, just as with people, nothing more can be done. That doesn’t mean that euthanasia must be the next step. More people are turning to end-of-life programs that help to ease a pet’s journey out of life that maintains comfort while giving the family extra time with him. Pet owners and veterinarians should work together to increase survival time, ensure the quality of life, relieve pain, and recognize when it’s time to say goodbye. That philosophy of maintaining quality of life honors the human-animal bond.”
There are many variables one has to weigh when their beloved animal enters its final stages of life. Pet owners should carefully explore different options with their Vet. When Veterinarians say, “We have done everything we can do,” prepare everyone to say their “Final Goodbyes.” We recommend that you spend quality time with them, ensure they are without pain, and love them. And, yes, it’s OK to cry and grieve with your best friend during this sad time.
Preparing to Put Your Beloved Pet Down—Euthanasia
We now turn our attention to a sad part of our series—euthanasia—which in Greek means “Good Death.” Deciding to euthanize our beloved pets—even with a poor quality of life due to disease or an injury—is one of the hardest choices animal lovers will ever have to face. Even more dreadful is deciding—“When?” Many owners ask themselves, “Was it really time?” In most cases, we have done all we can to give our pets happy lives. Yet, we still wonder if their loyalty was violated by “putting them down” too early or too late. This uncertainty makes it even harder to cope with devastating losses. Many of us look back with guilt and regret waiting too long. Euthanasia is a serious human trauma but waiting for the end to occur is the worst part of the horrific trip. Many animal lovers find themselves going to the Vet multiple times before making the final decision. Unfortunately, our animals cannot communicate with us when they are suffering, but their declining behaviors and poor physical well-being often will tell you “It’s time.” Though better to make the decision a week early than a day late, we struggle with the thought of “How can we go on living without our pet?”
Your Vet may initially suggest a hospice program that can provide extra time for you and your family to say your “Loving Goodbyes.” They can prescribe pain and other medicines to make them comfortable in their final days. Sometimes, a pet’s end-of-life treatments can be managed but for other animals, the time has run out, especially with tragedies or major diseases. Eventually, when a decision is made to end your pet’s life, with input from your Vet, the following are some suggestions to consider: Ask that your appointment be the last one of the day. Inquire if your Vet will come to your home and the costs. Dr. Hurst noted, “There are mobile veterinarians who provide private, in-home care, including palliative support and euthanasia (Estimated $300).”
When making an appointment, think carefully in advance about how you want your animal’s remains cared for. Some pet parents take their animals home after the procedure and spend time with them. Afterward, if government restrictions permit, they bury their pets on their property. Others plan formal burials in pet cemeteries. If you decide on a home burial, the Vet will place your loved one into a box to take home with you. If cremation is your choice, ask the Vet ahead of time for you to select a special ash container since there are options that will have your pet’s name on it. Others who cremate their animals spread their ashes in special places or keep them at home. Vets can recommend other options. You don’t want to end your animal’s life and try to make all these decisions immediately before or after the procedure while in the waiting rooms. You cannot donate your pet to science. However, you can request a professional autopsy for approximately $300 through your Vet if the death is suspicious.
Decide if you and your family members want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. No one is comfortable with death. Vets report 50% of animal lovers don’t desire to be present, yet many family members later regret not being there in the end. Other Vets note that your pet will be frightened and a family member should consider being present. Remember that your pet has been a significant part of your life for a very long time. You want to look them into their eyes before their procedure and say, “It’s OK to leave us. We love and will miss you!”
If you decide to end your animal’s life at the Vet’s office, we suggest waiting in your car with your pet until the last minute. Ask the receptionist to call when it’s time and inquire if there is a side door you can enter and exit versus going out into the general lobby. Be prepared that when you enter the office, grieving, along with your pet, there may be laughter and chatter from other animal owners. The patients don’t realize that you are about to end your best friend’s life. You want to enter the waiting room quickly. Ensure to pay your Vet bill before the procedure versus painfully standing in line crying afterward. Be prepared for there to be crying from you and the staff. They love pets just as much as you do. Your Vet will explain the euthanasia process. Usually, they’ll take your animal to the back area to insert an infusion site. Initially, your pet will receive a sedative. Once they are relaxed, a final solution will be injected and within seconds, they will drift into what appears to be a peaceful, deep sleep. Afterward, the Vet will check the pet’s heart to verify that they have passed. Our recommendation is don’t rush to exit after the procedure and leave your beloved pet. Spend some quality time holding and caressing them.
Recovering from Your Beloved Pet’s Death—There’s Hope!
Animal owners will go through horrific grieving when their furry companions die—sometimes multiple times with different loving companions. The Journal of Mental Health Counseling documents that the deaths of pets can be equally traumatic or worse than close friends and family members dying. University research verified 30 percent of pet owners reported grief from the loss of pets lasting six or more months. Some never completely recover from losing their beloved “Best Friends!” Grieving pet parents often don’t know how or when to express their sadness. Many hide or repress their guilt, grief, and even shame by “tidal waves” of unpredictable emotions that overwhelm and ambush them.
We blame ourselves for their deaths. Because animals can’t communicate, it’s difficult to tell when they’re sick or in pain. When owners finally notice illness symptoms, like cancer, it may be too late. We re-live the time before learning about the animal’s disease, berating ourselves over clues we feel should have been identified earlier. Pet deaths can be tragic accidents (being hit by cars, wandering and not finding their way back home, or owners not being there to protect them.). As a result, individuals often chastise themselves, experience deep guilt, and have nightmarish regrets. They constantly replay painful memories, telling themselves, “I could have saved my cherished baby if only I had.…!”
Individuals who don’t have deep animal bonds may respond to your grief by saying insensitive, harsh words: “Why are you so upset? It’s just an animal! Go buy another one! Get over it!” Forgive them and ignore their painful comments since they haven’t walked in your depressed shoes without your “Deceased Baby.”
Many inaccurately believe that grief comes in organized stages. There’s simply no “right way” to grieve nor a cookie-cutter template for traveling through the painful thunderstorm. Recognize your sadness—Grief is an intense emotion and everyone must work through it in their personal ways and own timelines. Be patient with yourself and others. Don’t try to suppress your feelings or set limits on the amount of time you grieve in your pet’s absence.
Gently share the news with others. Sometimes, we’re so sad ourselves that we delay telling relatives and friends about our pets’ absence, especially with small children or grandchildren who may not understand. You want to spare them painful details but don’t try to keep the death a secret. Our grandchildren seem to understand when we told them: “They’re in Heaven now…. waiting on us.” Of course, prepare for them to ask, “How did they get there?”
Serve in positive ways to honor your pet. Begin the healing process by making financial donations to local animal ministries in your beloved pet’s name, helping other animals find new homes. Volunteer with local adoption non-profits like Pawmetto Lifeline (Columbia, SC). Celebrating the times with your pet by positively giving back can be purposeful and therapeutic.
Focus on happy times. Following your pet’s death, it’s difficult to look at your loved one’s memories like photos, beds, eating bowels, play toys, etc. However, don’t delete or trash them; rather, move them to a computer folder or store items out of sight until more time has passed. Once the emotional wound is not so raw, you can decide which items to keep in remembrance or consider donating like carriers. Think about the good times and mentally replay happy events. While it’s difficult, don’t allow your mind to drift into darkness and re-enact the end events when negative thoughts surface.
Take care of yourself. Many pet owners exercise, like walking and running with their dogs, so continue performing these good habits. When you’re suffering through grief, your immune, physical, and mental health systems often deteriorate. During stress, the Cleveland Clinic reports harmful hormones, like Cortisol, which affect every organ and tissue, are excessively pumped into our bloodstreams. This can promote illness, seclusion, sadness, and depression. Exercise, such as brisk walking in good weather while admiring nature or inside the mall, is “potent medicine” that releases healthy, positive-mood chemicals (Endorphins).
Don’t rush to adopt. Some pet parents mistakenly believe they can quickly “replace” their lost loved ones. However, no two pets are alike. Your new animal won’t have similar characteristics you found so endearing in your deceased one. You may feel disloyal towards your absent loved one and sense guilt about adopting another pet. But it’s important to note that adding new family members doesn’t negate that you’ll always keep a reserved spot in your heart for your deceased friend(s). Ensure you, family members, and potential new animal companions have mutual positive, loving chemistry!
Seek help and stay busy. Talk with like-minded animal lovers, but also consider attending classes with others who are grief-stricken (some churches offer them), joining a grief recovery and share group, and seeing professional grief counselors (visit www.griefshare.org for local resources). Keep your mind occupied and body challenged to avoid dwelling on your loss.
Pray. Seek God for comfort. Life is filled with pain, grief, and suffering, but also many blessings! Your faith can guide you through dreadful, intense storms. If God created the universe, He’s there to help you!
While it seems the pain from losing our beloved pets will last forever, time will slowly heal. Eventually, you’ll look back on fond memories of departed companions with smiles and thanksgiving.
Will We See Our Pets in Heaven?—A Christian Perspective
What happens when our loving animals die? Many children and adults mourning the death of their beloved pets have asked about seeing them again in Heaven. We interviewed seven senior ministers to explore their beliefs on whether we will see our pets again after their deaths. Opinions varied widely because the Bible didn’t specifically address this question and there were conflicting opinions. All the pastors agreed that the answer lies in how one interprets the Scriptures. We posed the same question to Columbia International University’s seminary staff, but there was no consensus amongst the theologians.
Randy Alcorn, the leading expert on the Christian afterlife and author of the bestseller, Heaven, believes that this extends to animals. He writes, “Horses, cats, dogs, deer, dolphins, and squirrels—as well as the inanimate creation—will be beneficiaries of Christ’s death and resurrection.” Indeed, the Bible confirms there are animals in Heaven. Isaiah 11:6 describes several types (predator and prey) living in peace with one another “and a little child will lead them.” If God created animals for the Garden of Eden to give us a picture of His ideal place, He will surely include them in Heaven—God’s perfect new Eden! If these animals live in Heaven, there’s hope that our pets could be there too. Dr. Wendell Estep, retired pastor of First Baptist Church, said, “In Revelation 19:11, Jesus is riding on a white horse. So, if a horse is in Heaven—why not my dog ‘TEX?’” Another pastor proclaimed, “We often forget, God can do anything He wants to!”
Martin Luther, “Father of the Protestant Reformation” and founder of the Lutheran church, outlined, “In Paradise, there was complete harmony between man and animals; one day again that harmony will be restored and all creation will be made anew.” New creations—man and animal—will live together in peace. Other theologians insist that certain Bible passages indicate that animals do have souls (the same word, nephesh, which translates to “soul” is used in reference to both humans and animals) though not of the same kind that believing Christians have. While the Bible doesn’t clearly state whether or not animals have souls (and thus can be reborn), growing numbers of religious leaders are considering the prospect. Pope Francis comforted a boy whose dog had just died, saying, “One day, we will see our animals again in eternity. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” Pope John Paul II later expressed, “Animals possess a soul and we must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren.”
Several ministers commented, “We know that in the Bible, ultimate redemption will extend to the whole of creation: i.e., Romans 8:21—‘that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We don’t know of a reason it would not extend to animals.’” They also referenced Luke 3:6, which says, “…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
People find companionship and happiness in pets because they add joy and fulfillment to our lives. Billy Graham noted, “We know that God gave animals to mankind for a purpose because before the great Flood, God preserved every species—male and female—on the ark so they would inhabit the land again. Animals are among God’s many diverse gifts.” He referenced Genesis 1:25 which states that God created animals and “He saw them as good!” God is known for giving “blessings” to His children—animals are one example of this. Alcorn notes, “It would be simple for Him to re-create a pet in Heaven if He wants to. He’s the giver of all good gifts, not the taker of them. If it would please us to have our pets restored to the New Earth, that may be sufficient reason. Consider parents who’ve acquired a pet because of their child’s request.”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw human beings as God’s representatives, responsible for passing on God’s blessings to the lower creation. When humankind sinned in the Garden of Eden, that blessed relationship suffered along with everything else. He believed that our animals would be resurrected beings able to reason, feel, and relate to us in Heaven! In a new Heaven and Earth, all will be perfect. This will certainly include a delightful animal realm. But what about our current pets? Based on how you interpret the Bible, there’s strong evidence that we will meet our former pets and new animals…which may talk! Now, that’s an interesting thought!
We believe that God will restore our beloved pets in Heaven, not because they have souls, but as gifts for our pleasure. As Alcorn writes, “If we believe God is their Creator, that He loves us and them, that He intends to restore His creatures from the bondage they experienced because of our sin, then we have biblical grounds for not only wanting but expecting that we may be with them again on the New Earth.” Jesus said, “All things are possible!” Based on His declaration and that our all-powerful-God created the universe, then we should anticipate a joyful celebration and reunion with our pets, friends, and family in Heaven—a wonderful, exciting place beyond our wildest imaginations!
About the Authors
Dr. Hurst is a licensed veterinarian with Friarsgate Animal Hospital in Columbia, SC. He is a graduate of Newberry College and the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Mike DuBose has been an instructor for USC’s graduate school since 1985 when he began his family of companies. He is a contributing guest author for Midland's Biz and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Please visit our blog for additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.