Pets have become an important part of our lives and are often deeply missed when they die. 'A lot of people grew up with a dog living in a kennel in the back yard; but nowadays a dog is invited on to our sofa or bed. We can't help but develop an attachment to the animal,' says Bruce Fogle, a veterinary surgeon working in London. 'The longer someone owns a pet, the more likely they are to experience deep, even pathological grief when it dies.'
The death of a pet can trigger feelings of guilt, anger and, in extreme cases, clinical depression. Whether the animal has died naturally in its sleep or been given an anaesthetic by a vet, the depth of grief can take an owner by surprise. Some people even feel guilty for mourning an animal, fearing others will view it as inappropriate.
A small network of counsellors specialises in helping bereaved pet owners. Lesley Scott-Ordish, founder of Pro-Dogs, a charity for dog owners, began a scheme four years ago. 'People find it hardest when an animal has been put down,' she says. The attitude of the vet in cases of animal euthanasia is often crucial. 'Some people would have felt better if they could have been there with their pet.'
Maureen Hennis, one of the Pro- Dogs counsellors, says many people do not realise that their emotions are perfectly normal. 'A recurring question is whether they should get another pet straight away; they sometimes feel it's disrespectful to the pet they've just lost.'
Eileen Steinitz is a bereavement visitor in Harrow, Middlesex, whose clients include people grieving over dead pets. She feels many people do not express their grief for fear of ridicule. 'One of the major problems is other people's attitudes,' she says. 'Often they're told: 'It's only a dog.' It may only have been a dog, but for some people it's probably many years of friendship, companionship, loyalty and trust.'
Bereaved pet owners often need to acknowledge that the animal was a major part of their life - perhaps as important to them as any human being, she adds. Guide dog owners can be particularly affected by death or separation. Jill Nicholson, a psychiatrist at Reading University, recently conducted a study for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) into the emotional reactions of owners whose partnership with their dog had ended, whether because of the animal's death or retirement, or because of a lack of bonding.
'Just over a third of those in the study said losing their dog was as bad as losing their sight all over again,' she says. 'Some guide dog owners were sufficiently upset for the loss to affect their health.'
In response to Dr Nicholson's findings, the GDBA has agreed to pay for individual cremations and now keeps a book of remembrance for guide dogs at each of its seven regional training centres. The centres also have links with professional counsellors who can help bereaved guide dog owners.
Veterinary schools, too, are moving towards teaching students to be more sympathetic to bereaved pet owners. Mary Stewart, lecturer at Glasgow Veterinary School, points out that if animal euthanasia is handled well and sympathetically, many pet owners would not have so much guilt and anger to deal with. 'The focus should be on preventing unnecessary angst,' she says.
'Death of an Animal Friend', a booklet dealing with bereavement for pet owners, is published at pounds 2.50 by the Society for Companion Animal Studies, 1A Hilton Road, Milngavie, Glasgow G62 7DN. For a free leaflet on pet loss, contact Pro-Dogs, Rocky Bank, 4 New Road, Ditton, Kent ME20 6AD.
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