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Tammy Swift, Published March 29 2009

Losing a leash on love

Pet owners mourn the loss of animal as they would a longtime friend

For days afterward, Peggy Nathan kept expecting her buff-colored cockapoo, Bailey, to greet her at the door when she came home from work. She swore she could hear the happy jingle of Bailey’s dog tag. And she missed the warmth of Bailey’s little body as the dog snuggled next to her in bed.

But Bailey was gone. After a mysterious neurological problem appeared two years earlier, the dog’s kidneys gave out. With great difficulty, Nathan decided to have the 11-year-old dog euthanized last fall. “I realized ah-huh, I’m keeping her alive for me, and it’s harder on her,” says Nathan, still tearing up at the memory.

For dedicated pet owners like Nathan, the loss of a pet can be unexpectedly traumatic. That’s partly because the owner often has to make the decision as to whether the pet should be euthanized. And pets, which offer so much playtime and unconditional love, can be especially important to children in the family. (See sidebar for tips on ways to talk to your kids about the loss of a pet.) Pet owners may also find themselves embarrassed

to admit how much they miss their

four-legged friends, especially when surrounded by people who don’t like or value animals.

Which is where Tenille Larson comes in. Larson facilitates a support group for grieving pet owners the third Thursday of each month at the Red River Animal Emergency Clinic in Fargo.

Larson was invited to start the group by a veterinarian involved with the emergency clinic. She the perfect pedigree for such a venture: She’s a licensed social worker/animal lover who trains therapy dogs on the side and once interned with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

“I thought, why not put it all together: My love of animals and the bereavement piece?” Larson says.

Now, vets affiliated with the emergency clinic can refer people to Larson if their clients need someone to talk to. “I definitely do think it’s an important service,” says Dr. Tammy Ness, a veterinarian with the Animal Health Clinic of Fargo.” “People sometimes don’t feel like they should be grieving because it’s ‘just an animal.’ And sometimes their friends and family don’t get the strength of that bond.”

In fact, pet owners will go through the same stages of grief – anger, depression and so on – that you’ll find in anyone who has experienced a loss, Larson says. One of the most common emotions is guilt – especially if the owner had to make the decision to euthanize the dog. Some will wonder if they should have done more to keep Sparky alive, even if that means a lot of additional cost for the owner and discomfort for the pet.

But both Larson and Ness remind pet owners that the decision to prolong a pet’s life is meant more to postpone our own grief than it is to end the animal’s suffering. “Sometimes we have to let people know it’s the most unselfish, loving thing you can do for your pet in their biggest hour of need, to prevent them from weeks of suffering,” says Ness, “I tell people that you should really feel good about the fact that you were able to help. Keeping them alive is more for us than it is for the pet.”

Pet owners are sometimes reassured to know that animals don’t appear to fear death as much as we do; they seem to be much more accepting about the natural cycle of life and death and be more attuned to when it’s “time to go.”

“I think they just kind of know this is the next phase,” Nathan says.

Owners may also feel a little embarrassed over their grief, particularly if the people around them aren’t supportive.

“There are people who think you are absolutely nuts,” Larson says. “They say, ‘It’s just a dog. You can get another one.’ ”

She urges friends and family members – even those who aren’t animal fans – to try and be sensitive to the owner’s grief. Remember that some people view their pets as members of their families, and would appreciate a kind word or even a card.

“Don’t judge them,” she says. “Even if you don’t necessarily share their view, try to validate what they’re saying.”

Besides giving her clients plenty of opportunity to process their feelings, Larson encourages them to honor their pet through a positive symbol or act, such as making a memory collage or sharing favorite memories about the pet with other fellow memories. There are also many meaningful ways to memorialize your pet, whether that means planting a tree in his honor, hanging up a favorite photo and plaque in a special place or keeping his ashes in a beautiful, hand-built box.

One thing you shouldn’t do: Rush out and buy a new puppy or kitten in hopes of “replacing” a beloved pet. Larson knows this from first-hand experience. She was absolutely devastated when her Golden Retriever, Riley, was hit by a car last April. But rather than hurry to find a new Riley, she waited. When the time seemed right, she found another Golden named Cash. He has a wonderful personality all his own, but is completely different from Riley.

“You have to do it when it’s the right time for you,” Larson says. “Your heart has to be open to that new dog. Otherwise, it can be devastating if you’re constantly comparing that poor puppy to your old dog and feeling disappointed.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525