Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet (excerpt)

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Chapter 1 – The Final Journey: Natural Death and Euthanasia

Chico died as he had lived, his fourteen-year-old Chihuahua features frozen into one last vicious snarl for all eternity. Anita Jandrow stood with her eleven-year old twins, Jason and Katie, gazing down at the furry gargoyle stretched out on the stainless steel table. Jason’s stony expression reflected no emotion at all. Katie looked like she could throw up at any minute. Just as Anita reached out to give the little dog’s head one farewell pat, his body suddenly twitched.

“Oh, my God, he’s still alive!” Katie shrieked and bolted from the room.

“That’s only a reflex,” the veterinarian, Dr. Cramer, murmured soothingly to Anita and Jason. “Trust me, he’s gone.”

Still stunned by what she’d just seen, Anita barely heard Dr. Cramer ask, “What do you want done with Chico’s body?” In that instant it dawned on Anita that some wild impulse hadn’t suddenly convinced her workaholic husband, Paul, to go on a wilderness camping trip for the first time in his life. No, the founder of the area’s largest, most successful company and solid family man had run away because he knew his dog was going to die.

In answer to Dr. Cramer’s most practical question, Anita could only sigh and confess, “He’s my husband’s dog. I haven’t a clue.”

Even though most of us would feel selfish admitting it, what pet loss will mean to us rather than our pets looms as our primary concern. However, because much of the agony we feel at these times springs from our fears of all the horrible circumstances we think might befall a dying, given up, or lost pet, an understanding of what actually happens to our pets at these times—and why—can do much to alleviate those nameless fears. Admittedly, some of you might find the sometimes graphic descriptions ahead difficult to read because the idea that such could happen to your own pet so terrifies you. Nonetheless, countless studies prove that whether we speak of physical or emotional pain, fear of the unknown always magnifies those feelings tremendously. Thus the more we know, the less we fear, and the more we can respond to pet loss in a meaningful way. As we’ll see, in some cases the ability to do so could save your pet’s life and/or your relationships with it. In others, that knowledge will enable you to let go without regrets.

To that end, the next four chapters will explore the different ways people lose their pets, primarily as these effect the animal, beginning with a close look at death itself. In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes. And while our pets may escape the scourge of taxes they, too, inevitably die. Nonetheless, just as many of us resist contemplating our own deaths, we’d just as soon avoid this aspect of pet ownership, too.

“Like Paul!” Anita puffs up with indignation. “What a coward to run off camping instead of taking care of Chico himself!” While Anita might be right, let’s consider her judgement in the context of her own relationship with the family cat, Adagio. How does she feel about him dying?

“What do you mean ‘How do I feel about him dying?’ He’s only two years old, for Pete’s sake!”

As understandable as both Anita’s and her husband’s orientations may seem, neither addresses two of the most critical aspects of all human-animal relationships:

  • Given the shorter life spans of many companion animals, many owners will outlive at least some of their pets
  • The nature of the human-animal bond dictates that the death of a pet, by any means, will affect the owner, no matter when and how it happens.

Given those two realities and the awareness that fear of the unknown often leads us to make decisions we later regret, it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the nature of pet death. To that end, let’s first consider what death means in terms of the animal’s physical body.

The Physical Signs of Death

Even though most of us would rather not think about the subject, we also believe that we’ll somehow know death when we see it. Moreover, we automatically assume that others share our views. However, the more and more sophisticated medical technology becomes, the more resistant to definition death becomes, too.

“I don’t understand.” Confusion furrows Anita’s brow. “Isn’t dead, well, dead?”

Not necessarily. Let’s compare how the typical pet owner and the experts view death to see where they might agree and disagree.

The Owner’s View of Death

In spite of the fact that most of us insist we’ll recognize death when we see it, when death actually occurs, we tend to greet it with shock rather than any sense of recognition. Owners asked to describe the aspects of a pet’s death that most upset them typically mention the animal’s:

  • vocalization
  • gasping
  • urination and/or defecation
  • wide open, staring eyes

What physiological changes account for these often highly unnerving responses? Dying cats, in particular, may emit a peculiar howl unlike any other and, unfortunately, no satisfactory explanation exists for its cause. Other animals may whimper, sigh, chirp softly, or snort. The gasping, sometimes inappropriately called “agonal breathing,” occurs as a post-mortem reflex when the respiratory and circulatory systems no longer function at a level capable of sustaining life.

Other death-related physical changes result because it takes energy to contract muscles and without that energy the muscles naturally relax. Relaxation of the circular muscles that normally prevent the passage of urine and stool from the bladder and rectum may lead to spontaneous urination and/or defecation at the time of death. Similarly, because it requires muscle contraction to close the eyelids, the eyelids remain open. The pupils of the eyes become fully dilated (or wide open) following death because it requires muscle contraction to close these structures, too. When we combine these two changes with the post-mortem drying and dullness of the normally clear and moist outer covering of the eye, the cornea, we get that characteristic fixed stare.

“What about Chico’s spooky jerking when he died?” Katie pipes up, wanting a solid explanation for that troublesome event. Involuntary muscle activity explains that and other spontaneous body movements, such as pets stretching their legs out at the moment of death. A fair number of animals also may move their tails, a reflex dog owners often interpret as a farewell wag whereas cat owners may see it as evidence of their pet’s anger or distress. When this happens, the dog owners’ projected views definitely serve them much better than those of their feline-owning colleagues.

When we think about death as portrayed by the media, we often think of rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body following death. (Hence all those fictional characters who refer to dead bodies as “stiffs.”) However when rigor mortis occurs and how long it persists depends on the temperature of the animal’s body as well as that of its surroundings. Consequently, owners may or may not encounter this phenomenon when their pets die.

The Experts’ View of Death

Even though it seems quite logical to Anita to define “dead” as “dead” because she can’t imagine anything more obvious, few contemporary experts share that view. During Franklin’s time and into the early 1800s, family members, clergy, or local government officials pronounced humans dead based on whatever criteria seemed to work for them (such as holding a mirror or lighted candle under the deceased’s nose to check for air flow), and pet owners did much the same thing.

However, this convention began to fall from favor in the middle of the eighteenth century when a French physician named Jean Jacques Winslow spearheaded a movement to make physicians the ultimate authority when it came to separating living humans from dead ones. Although you might imagine Winslow doing so based on his knowledge of physiology, personal rather than scientific motives more likely drove him: Twice during his childhood Winslow had awakened in a coffin destined for burial, a fate that befell about 2% of the “deceased” prior to the use of embalming (which then killed that 2% as well as preserved the truly dead).

The medical profession’s right to determine death remained unchallenged until the 1960s. Then, as organ transplants emerged as a valid solution to many human medical problems, physicians asked for a legal definition of death so that they wouldn’t inadvertently remove an organ from a living body. Needless to say, such a request coming from whom it did shocked everyone, and led to a survey of graduates from many medical schools, the results of which shocked everyone even more: None of the physicians interviewed remembered ever being taught how to diagnose death.

As bizarre as this sounds, two personal experiences during my stint in veterinary medical practice in the 1970s clearly illustrate that the inability to recognize death crosses species lines, too. In one case, a physician’s dog was hit by a car, he pronounced her dead, and placed her in a box outdoors, believing his young son would want to say good-bye to the animal before the father buried her. When the child arrived home that evening and went to the box, the “dead” dog wagged her tail weakly and licked the child’s hand. Later the physician expressed wonder that traumatized animals could go into shock and look dead, “just like a person.”

In the second case, a physician left a panicked message on my answering machine saying his Labrador had just killed his terrier. Because I knew both dogs, I found this difficult to believe and returned the call immediately. By then, however, the owner had found the terrier staggering around the yard “looking dazed,” most likely the victim of a seizure that drew the other dog’s attention rather than the victim of a murderous canine assault.

The awareness that physicians couldn’t define death created quite a stir, and scientists, theologians, philosophers, and lawyers have struggled to resolve this dilemma ever since. So far, everyone agrees that something irreversible happens at death, but few can agree on what. Among the possibilities under consideration, we find the irreversible cessation of:

  1. all body cell, tissue, and organ function
  2. the flow of air and blood
  3. heart and lung function
  4. spontaneous heart and lung function
  5. spontaneous whole brain function
  6. complete higher brain center function
  7. all but minimal functioning of the higher brain centers
  8. the embodied capacity for consciousness

Each one of these definitions of death carries its own advantages and disadvantages, and each reflects our beliefs in science and medical technology. For example, few of us consider an obviously decomposing body that still possesses one or two functioning body cells still alive, as we must if we adhere to the first definition. The third definition, which uses heart and lung function to define death, gave way to the fourth when it turned out that cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) could reverse this so-called “chest death.” Similarly, the fourth definition which described death as the loss of spontaneous heart and lung function fell prey to medical science, too, when pacemakers and respirators enabled people without this capacity to live, too.

Within the pet animal arena, most of us agree that a pet’s lack of a heartbeat or breathing doesn’t bode well, but these symptoms don’t necessarily signal an irreversible change for many owners, either. In such cases, CPR and/or other timely medical intervention can save an animal’s as well as a person’s life.

This lack of absolute physiological death-definitions led the experts to next focus on the brain as the definer of human life and death. After all, the heart can function without the brain, but we need a functioning brain stem to breathe. Not only that, most of us consider the brain the center of life because we view it as the source of our thoughts and emotions, those particular qualities that make us alive. However, brain-death raises its own problems. A hopelessly comatose individual can breathe, maintain body temperature and blood pressure, track light, and respond to pain. Thanks to modern technology, individuals in this state can now “live” for years.

For as much as the arguments about the nature of human death now focus more and more on the last three definitions, none of these offers much hope for pet owners seeking an official definition of animal death.

“Why not?” Anita wants to know as she and the twins relax with Adagio after their traumatic interlude with Chico and Dr. Cramer. “Like you said, most of us consider life the embodiment of all those unique qualities and behaviors that make our pets special to us. When Adagio drags my socks to the door to greet me, isn’t that evidence of his higher brain function as well as of his consciousness?”

As valid as Anita’s remarks may sound to most pet owners, the scientific, theological, philosophical, and legal community remains mired in an often bitter debate regarding whether animals can experience any thoughts or emotions at all, let alone those on the elevated plane to which most of us assign our pets’ behaviors and their interactions with us and other people. Further complicating matters, veterinary medical technology now enables us to sustain animals in some of the same gray life-death regions in which some people dwell. Consequently, it behooves us to work through all of our ideas about these higher definitions of death, too, so we can make our peace with any death-related decisions we must make about our pets.

Animal Minds and Spirits

When asked how she’ll know Adagio has died, Anita reaffirms her original position: “I don’t know how I’ll know, but I will!”

Admittedly some of Anita’s passionate certainty arises from the fact that she wants to believe she’ll know death when she sees it because she finds the alternative too ghastly to consider. On the other hand, like many pet owners, she believes that Adagio also thinks and feels emotions. Furthermore, she believes that he possesses his own unique spirit or soul, and her definition of animal death takes this into account, too.

Statistically speaking, about half of the animal-owning population would nod their heads in agreement at this point, and the other half would snort something like, “Give me a break!” Moreover, members of each group would feel so secure in their respective beliefs that they’d feel no need to explain why they happened to feel that way. Those who believe their pets possess higher brain and spiritual qualities can’t imagine how anyone the least bit familiar with animals could believe otherwise. Those who dismiss the idea of animals thinking and experiencing emotions, let alone possessing souls, claim their views as proven scientific fact.

In reality, both orientations possess elements of truth and fantasy. A growing collection of studies of animal thinking indicates that animals do think and experience emotions, but probably not in the same way we do. Thus if Anita projects her own thoughts and emotions on Adagio, she runs the risk of denying him his unique feline and individual needs. At the same time, other studies have demonstrated how animals function as little more than animated robots. However, the core beliefs that underlie the design of these experiments and the interpretation of their results may lie more in the realm of scientific tradition and politics than any quest for truth.

For owners facing the death of a pet, though, both orientations offer advantages and disadvantages during a difficult time. Although those who believe that their pet possesses a spirit may find comfort in knowing that this part of the animal always will remain with them, this belief may undermine their ultimate acceptance of the animal’s death. Those who perceive their relationship with their pets as completely tied up in the animal’s physical presence may feel utterly lost and abandoned when that animal dies.

“But what do you think?” asks Katie almost defiantly, seeking to nail down some concrete facts like any normal pre-teen. “Do you believe that animals have spirits?”

As uncomfortable as Katie’s question may make me feel personally, she raises a critical point. It really doesn’t matter whether others believe that animals possess any higher brain or spiritual capacities. Especially when a pet dies, all that really matters is what we believe ourselves.

As far as my own beliefs go, let me hedge a bit by first noting that, if you read a lot of animal-related fiction and nonfiction as I do, you quickly realize that the loss of a beloved pet elicits a great deal of deep human emotional response. Part of this may result from the fact that most of us first experience the loss of a loved one in the form of a family pet. Thus, Rover’s or Fluffy’s death provides us with our first glimpse into that valley of shadows from which none return, and this event prepares for the eventual loss of human loved ones, too.

However, a significant number of these novels, short stories, and articles treat the animal’s death as more than a mirror upon which people project their fears of death and vicariously work these out to their satisfaction. Additionally, most in this group assign a spiritual element to the deceased animal. I can understand this because, in addition to wanting to know what will happen to me and other human loved ones at the moment of death and beyond, I’d like to know what will happen to all my cherished nonhuman loved ones, too.

Although my strict Christian upbringing keeps me ever alert for celestial lightning bolts when admitting this, I can recall one medical case that convinced me that death doesn’t so much consist of an irreversible cessation of something as the experts claim, but rather of an irreversible departure of something currently beyond human comprehension.

This revelation occurred when parvo virus first hit the canine population in my area years ago, and those of us in the veterinary community could do nothing beyond offer these animals as much medical and emotional support as possible, then hope for the best. By the time scientists isolated the viral villain and developed a vaccine, we saw many dogs, and especially young pups, die from this sudden and devastating disease. At first I remembered each and every animal who died during that wretched period. Over time, though, most of these memories faded until the death of only one pup remains vivid twenty years later.

The pup in question, a Doberman, had two strikes against him before the parvo virus scored a direct hit. His parasite-infested, scrawny body attested to a short life spent under conditions that would make surviving to adulthood a challenge even without the presence of a life-threatening disease. With such a disease, he didn’t stand a chance.

Still, we tried, daily administering intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and anything else the veterinary rumor mill said might help. For a few days, he hung in there against the overwhelming odds with such extraordinary grace for one so young, I found myself falling in love with him and hoping for a miraculous recovery.

His last day I sat on the floor in front of his open cage with his head in my lap while my technician set up yet another round of IVs behind me. ( We took turns getting the medications ready so we’d both get a chance to hold the animals.) I put my hand on the pup’s head to pet him, we locked eyes, and then it happened.


It was as if someone or something had blown out a candle, a rush of air that drew a vacuum and instantly took the pup’s breath as well as some of my own with it. I was in the process of telling myself I must have imagined it when my technician, who still stood with her back to me and the pup, suddenly cried, “What was that? Did you feel it?”

Now I suppose that a sonic boom from a plane far overhead may have created a change in atmospheric pressure which we both sensed at that exact moment. However, since that time, I’ve encountered others from all walks of life who experienced a similar event. One hunter who experienced it the instant his bullet penetrated the heart of a doe put down his gun and never hunted again. Others who face animal death routinely, such as veterinarians and those who work in animal shelters, often view these experiences as the source of an even greater reverence for life and its continuity in the face of death.

Do such tales support the existence of animal spirits? Perhaps. But they certainly do underscore the power of the human-animal bond.

Bonded for Life

Long before the term gained recognition, the human-animal bond struck me as the most intriguing and profound aspect of animal ownership. It seemed so reasonable that humans and animals could and would affect each other both physically and behaviorally. However, even though more and more studies of the many facets of the bond slowly make their way into the scientific literature, most in the media still view the bond as a warm fuzzy concept invented by sentimental animal lovers who project their own feelings onto their pets.

“What’s wrong with that?” Jason demands somewhat irritably. “Don’t you like stories about pets who save their owners’ lives or make sick people in nursing homes feel better?”

I do find such reports heart-warming, but I don’t perceive these animals as displaying extraordinary skills, but rather those qualities within the capacity of almost any pet. We know, for example, that most of the true animal heros turn to be normal happy-go-lucky household pets. And while pets do indeed help those in nursing homes feel better, they also may beneficially affect their owner’s blood pressure, heart rate, pulse, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, not to mention their sense of mental and emotional well-being. Moreover other studies indicate that we similarly affect our pets, too.

However, just because we and animals can and do affect each other’s physical and mental health in no way guarantees that we’ll always affect each other beneficially. This occurs because, all romantic notions of the bond aside, any bonded pair also consists of separate human and animal beings, each with their own particular needs. This raises the possibility that owners and pets may become involved in push-pull struggles where the owner wants one thing and the animal wants another, with the resultant discord subconsciously altering the other’s physiology and behavior in the process. In my mind this possibility, in turn, raised the question: What happens when owners want an animal to live, but the animal wants to die?

Experience and anecdotal evidence suggests it depends on the person and the animal as much as, if not more than, on our medical technology. The notion of a “will to live” crops up in veterinary medicine as often as in human medicine, most commonly when technology fails and clinicians seek to explain why it did.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Jandrow,” Dr. Cramer says to Paul two days before Paul suddenly decides to take his wilderness vacation.

“I’ve done everything possible, but Chico seems to have lost the will to live.”

Suppose Chico experienced his final medical crisis a week earlier with his beloved Paul rather than with the ambivalent Anita and children at his side. Would Paul’s presence and his relationship with his dog have made a difference? We can never know, but I do recall one case that offers some tantalizing clues regarding the effects of the bond on a terminally ill or injured animal.

One night I received a frantic call from two elderly clients whose ancient poodle had just been hit by a car. The somewhat confused senior citizens had put their equally confused as well as almost completely blind and deaf, arthritic pet out to relieve himself one cold, rainy night. The little black dog became disoriented and wandered into the road, directly into the path of a car whose driver never saw him. When his owners carried the dog into the clinic, they could barely control their emotions.

“You must save Dijon!” the couple moaned unison, clutching each other for support, tears streaming down their faces. “We can’t live without him.”

Having treated Dijon over the years, I knew they spoke the truth. Their whole life centered around that dog, with their stories of his past escapades gradually replacing those of his present activities as first one, then another system in his body succumbed to the ravages of age. If owner-love fueled any animal, it surely fueled Dijon, somehow keeping that leaky old heart pumping, those tired kidneys and liver functioning, and those rickety old bones strong enough to allow the old dog to totter outside twice a day to relieve himself for at least a year longer than medical science would have predicted

And now this, the kind of case that creates the worst nightmare for veterinarians. Dijon’s owners had denied the possibility of his death from the first day they got him as a pup. Lately, they’d deliberately side-stepped any attempts family, friends, or I made to discuss what they would do—for themselves and for Dijon—when that inevitable day came. Ironically, I’d become an unwitting accomplice in this charade, pulling medical tricks out of my bag to buy the dog more time. Because of that, I now wanted Dijon to live for myself as well as for his owners, no matter how much his old body screamed for relief.

I don’t remember how many hours I worked on that dog, trying to stabilize him enough to begin repairing the damage. Eventually, though, I had to face reality: Dijon wasn’t going to make it. Nonetheless, I sat down beside the exam table, held his paw, and told him over and over again that he had to make it because his owners loved him so much. I could vividly imagine them thinking the same thing and, in my exhausted mind, our feelings became a fragile thread that kept that dog connected to us and to life itself.

A few hours later a nearly bursting bladder urged me to leave the dog just for a minute or two, but I resisted. What if only my presence were keeping that dog alive? My scientific training and my own discomfort argued against that: Dijon’s living or dying depended solely his response to the medical treatment I gave him. Period.

Nonetheless, I voted for a compromise, racing down the hallway to the employee’s lounge, and leaving the door open while I used the facilities so I could continue beaming my best thoughts toward my patient. The instant I left the treatment room, though, I felt that fragile thread break. I told myself I didn’t, but I knew it did. An amazing coincidence?

When the Doberman pup died of Parvo, I also felt some something beyond the irreversible cessation of something, but with Dijon I felt that even more strongly and I attribute this to the both the greater magnitude and duration of the bond that I’d formed with him and his owners. When he died, I felt as if a definite connection between the two of us had been severed, stretched too far for his weakened conditioned to sustain when I left him. As I ran back to the treatment room, I recall thinking that maybe that love-link had somehow snapped back into his body and invigorated him as love had so many times in the past.

It hadn’t. I immediately called his owners and they pick up the phone on the first ring. Before I could utter a word, they said in unison, “We know he just died, Doctor. We felt it. Thank for you trying.”

After studying the bond for more than twenty-five years, I know that it exists and that it can exert a profound effect on animal and human alike, and that nothing reveals its strengths—and weaknesses—like the specter of death.

“We’ll always wonder if we should have asked you to put Dijon to sleep,” the old poodle’s owners commented when they came to retrieve his body the next day.

And I’ll always wonder if I should have asked them to do so.

However, if our thoughts and emotions about our pets and death can send us into a tailspin when our animals naturally succumb to a terminal illness or injury, that’s nothing compared to what the idea euthanasia can do to us.

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