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Coping with the loss of a pet

When our 11-year-old dog, Izzy, died a few months ago, we were so, so sad. Anyone who’s lost a pet they loved knows exactly what I mean.

I was in Baltimore at a fundraiser for a project dear to my heart, eliminating tuberculosis in Tibetan children, when I got a call from Penny telling me Izzy had trouble walking. By the next day, he was paralyzed from the hips down, and I was on an airplane flying home, dreading what I was about to see. And, indeed, it was awful.

A couple of vet visits and scans later, we discovered our beloved pet had an incurable cancer. We had to, as the euphemism goes, put him down. But not before we connected with our out-of-town kids via FaceTime. They wanted to see Izzy, talk to him, grieve with us and cry. It was dreadful.

A lot of my patients who have dealt with a similar situation tell me they could never go through it again, that it was simply too traumatic. That is exactly what recent research in the British Medical Journal showed.

Losing a pet is a harrowing experience, fraught with stress, depression and anxiety similar to what we suffer when we lose a loved one. People who take care of chronically ill pets can suffer from the same “caregiver burden” we experience with sick relatives.

In the BMJ study, researchers at Kent State looked at the psychosocial function of nearly 250 dog and cat owners, half of them with healthy pets and the other half with terminally or seriously ill pets. They found that dealing with an ill pet just stinks.

Now, I do not mean to put caring for a sick pet in the same place as caring for an ill spouse or parent or child. But to say, “Well, it’s just a pet,” is equally unfair.

Grief has its own clock, whether for a loved one or a pet. For some, losing a pet is so traumatic that the pleasure of having a dog or cat in the first place just isn’t worth the sorrow. It feels the same as the loss of a spouse.

Over time, following the loss of a pet, you’ll discover your own feelings, gauge your response and take it from there. The scar of loss is always present – some never lose that pain while others are better able to turn the page.

If you know someone who is really suffering from the loss of a pet, step up to the plate and help them. First off is giving that hug, that kind word, that smile, that connection that always makes us feel better when we hear someone say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It might seem like a trite thing to say but it’s not. It’s comforting.

After Izzy died, Penny and I got a ton of cards, calls, emails and Facebook messages from our friends and family, even from people who hardly knew our special pet. Each one made us feel better. Did it erase the loss? Of course not. But we are social creatures – being part of a caring social community is in our DNA. In times of loss, launching your own personal “empathy app” can do a world of good. Try it. You’ll like it.

Still, if you, a friend or a family member are really struggling with the loss of a pet, seek help. Therapists and counselors can do a world of good. A short-term course of antidepressants also can allow your wound to heal so you can move on.

We decided to memorialize him by donating. Then Penny and I did what a lot of pet owners do: Get another pet.

We’ll never replace Izzy, but our new doggie Zyggy sure helps us cope, especially when he comes to door wagging his tail. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “ZorbaPasteron Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@doctorzorba.com.


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