Vet Starts a Pet Bereavement Programe

Pet-Owner Bereavement Requires Passage of Time

by Mirko Petricevic/Record staff
August 05, 2010

WATERLOO — Until late last year Dr. Jennifer Heick spent her lunches strolling along Waterloo trails with a couple of her best friends – a malemute named Meesha and retriever mutt called Bear. Then cancer crept into their lives and separated the threesome. To spare her a prolonged and painful death, Meesha was euthanized around Christmas time. In April, Bear was also diagnosed with cancer and suffered the same fate.

“You really didn’t have time to finish grieving the first one,” said Heick, a Waterloo chiropractor. “They’re part of your life every day . . . and then they’re not there.” Gone were the long walks and encounters that regularly brought a smile to her face. “You just don’t have that wagging tail as you walk in the door,” she said. Heick talked about her loss with some of her patients. One of them, Brien Thurston, listened longer than most. As they talked over several lunches he never told her to “just get over it.” Instead, Heick said, Thurston gave her permission to still feel sad. A longtime chaplain and counselor, Thurston knew the importance of acknowledging Heick’s grief. Besides, he knew how she felt. Thurston’s all-time favorite cat, Tobias, was also euthanized in April.

“He was the most wonderful little barn cat you ever saw in your life,” Thurston recalled. Soon after, he realized he was experiencing some of the same grief symptoms he saw in many of his clients. “You can’t stifle these things,” Thurston said. He started to think that he’s probably not the only person who ever despaired over the death of a pet. Elderly widows and widowers whose pets die can undergo tremendous amounts of grief, Thurston noted.

But many people underestimate the value of pets, so they don’t acknowledge the grief some pet owners experience by the death of a pet, he said. “People need to see . . . that this grief can go on for a long time,” Thurston said. “It’s not just a simple matter of going and buying a new canary.” A 2007 an Ipsos-Reid poll suggested 35 per cent of Canadian households were home to a dog and about 38 per cent households included a cat. Eventually, all of them die. And for most pet owners, the time will come when they’re going to have to decide on euthanizing the pet that, for many of them, has become a part of the family.

The region is home to many grief counselors. But, Thurston said, few specialize in giving emotional support to bereaved pet owners. So he pounced on the problem like a dog on a new bone. Enter Dr. Robert Close, a veterinarian for more than 30 years who opened a new practice in Kitchener about a year ago. After seeing one of Close’s flyers this spring, Thurston called Close and talked about the depth of grief some people feel after losing a pet. As a longtime veterinarian who has euthanized thousands of patients, Close knew the emotional toll each case takes on pet owners – and on veterinarians. “When I was younger I always thought it might be easier, that you would get used to it (euthanizing animals),” Close said. “But you don’t. “Honestly, sometimes I think my heart is going to shatter into a thousand pieces,” he said. But Close said he knows he’s “doing the right thing” by sparing his patients great pain before they die.

So Close and Thurston developed a support program they feel would help bereaved pet owners, veterinarians and others who care for animals. In addition to addressing a person’s grief over the death of a pet, the program addresses the grief people experience in making decisions about euthanasia and, eventually, obtaining another pet. Thurston plans to start delivering the first classes next week . Bonnie Deekon, executive director of the Cambridge & District Humane society, welcomes the thought of having specific programs, or counselors, available for bereaved pet owners.

The society’s office installed a bulletin board to commemorate pets that have been euthanized. It’s a place where some pet owners linger for a long time. “They can stand in front of the board and look at it for half an hour,” Deekon said. “We never ever turn people away.” Deekon said she would also like to be able to refer some of her staff members who, from time to time, feel the emotional weight of euthanizing animals at the shelter. Kathy Innocente, fundraising and community development manager at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society, said she occasionally steers bereaved pet owners to humane society volunteers who work at local funeral homes. But she doesn’t know of anyone in the region who specializes in supporting bereaved pet owners. “It would be a very nice thing for us to offer people,” she said, noting that the society hasn’t yet checked into Thurston or his program, so it isn’t referring clients to him at this point.

Leslie Josling, executive director of K-W Counselling Services, said people can get very attached to their pets. “When there’s a loss, that can be a significant trauma,” she said. But if someone is seeking therapy for complex grief over the loss of a pet, there are probably other underlying issues, she added. There might be some unique issues therapists might need to keep in mind when supporting someone with pet bereavement, she said. But any trained therapist should be able to support bereaved pet owners, Josling said. “It seems that you would be able to generalize what you know about loss and grief and death and dying . . . and help somebody through bereavement when it comes to a pet,” she said.