Support groups help grieving pet owners
Jan. 24, 2004
When Carolyn Macdonald's shih-tzu bit her on the face, sending her to the emergency room with a serious gash, a veterinarian recommended having the dog put down.
"They're like a person in your life," Macdonald said of her dog Max. "I just couldn't."
What followed was four more years of troubling behaviour, including threatening growls that kept Macdonald out of her own bed at night.
When her daughter's family briefly moved in to her home, matters grew worse. Max would frequently make aggressive moves against Macdonald's grandson, a toddler at the time.
"I realized I had to put him down before I was in a newspaper article with him attacking someone."
Having Max euthanized in the fall of 2001 left the retiree heartbroken. Living alone again after having been divorced for more than 30 years, Macdonald decided to reach out to others experiencing similar loss.
"I went for my own sanity for a year," said Macdonald of her once-a-month meetings with the Metro Toronto Animal Loss Support Group. "Sometimes friends and relatives don't understand what you go through when you lose a pet."
For Macdonald, who is in her 60s, that included overpowering feelings of guilt and sorrow for having to put down Max, a dog she'd raised from a pup and had for 10 years.
She's not alone.
"Guilt is almost universal with pet loss," says Ottawa veterinarian Lianna Titcombe. "Not only are you responsible for their every need, you're even responsible for choosing the time they die. That adds a whole other layer of guilt and grief."
For the past three years, Titcombe has led monthly sessions to help pet owners overcome their loss. "A big part of it is just people sharing their story, having a forum where the can be heard and supported," Titcombe said.
In some instances people are so distraught that Titcombe finds it necessary to send them to a psychologist.
"I often have clients who will come struggling with grief over the loss of a pet," says Dr. David Baxter. "They're almost apologizing for the fact that they're doing it."
Well meaning but misdirected advice from family and friends, like "You can always get another dog," leads some people to question if it's normal to grieve for an animal.
"My message to them is that grief is grief," says Baxter.
"When you've been with an animal for a long period of time, the loss of that animal triggers a full-blown grief reaction which is every bit as intense as anybody else's grief reaction."
He believes pet loss support groups are instrumental in helping people deal with their pain.
"I've worked with a couple of individuals who have found a lot of help in animal support groups," Baxter says. "I think the major reason is they can go there and not be told 'Look, it's only a cat, get over it.'"
He says the healing process is not unlike what people go through when a person dies. First, one must face the loss before they can begin to talk about what it means to them. Eventually, they'll get to a point where they feel okay about remembering the positive experiences they had with the animal. And how long that can take depends on the person.
"Grief is a very individual process and can extend for years," says Baxter. "What helps them get through is having the opportunity to talk about it with somebody who will listen and not try to fix it immediately."
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