The Heartbreak of Pet Loss

I want to write about the emotional complexity of pet loss. Not only do we have intense feelings about losing our pets, but then we also worry and judge ourselves about having those feelings.

I hear over and over again from people who are feeling bad or confused about their emotional response to losing their pet. They think that they “shouldn’t” feel so distraught over the loss of their pet. This mirrors the hurtful responses we often get from people who don’t understand our loss and say dismissive things like “it was just a dog/cat”. Or people feel completely bowled over by the depth of the grief and overwhelmed by an intensity that is different than they have ever felt, even over the loss of some people in their life.

If this is you, I just want to say that of course you should, and would, feel this distraught. And you are not the only one who feels this way.

You just said goodbye to a creature that had your whole heart. You cared for your pet on a daily basis for months and years, they were with you through your everyday routines and rhythms, and they saw you through the ups and downs of your life and you saw them through theirs. They gave you a love and connection that was so desperately precious precisely because they are an animal. There is just a pure magic in having a bond so deep with a being that we don’t share words with, but we are still so connected to.

The bond we have with our pets is such a unique connection. We are caretaker, provider, protector, and decider. Every choice we make is with their wellbeing in mind and it is on us to make every choice. When it comes to end of life decisions, this is an incredible burden to bear. And the bond goes the other way as well. They are our companion, family, friend, and support. Even though they rely on us for so much, we turn to them for just as much and they give it to us with such full-heartedness.

We share an intimacy with our pets that is different than with any human. They became an integral part of our daily rituals – we’re aware of their presence in the room with us while we get ready in the morning, we mark time by when we need to be home to feed or take them out, we’re greeted when we walk in the door with such joy and excitement, and we all head to bed together as the day winds down, just to start it all over again in the morning. And there is the tactile-ness of our pets – the feel of their fur, the energy of their play, the sounds they make from their paws padding on the floor and the way they bark or howl or purr.

Because of all of that, there is a deep emptiness and gigantic silence when they are gone. Home becomes a place of memories of their presence, and now their absence. Those markers are not just daily or hourly, but minute by minute as we move through our day and feel that they are not right there next to us like they always had been.

This just breaks your heart wide open, again and again and again. And this is why the grief is so deep and overwhelming. Plus, we are not prepared for the intensity of it. All of this in the midst of a world that often doesn’t acknowledge it, so we think something is wrong with us. And that just adds to suffering on top of the pain.

There is a path through the pain, and there are resources out there – pet loss support groups, books, online chat forums, poems, others who understand and can offer support. And part of the healing is creating space for the pain – the depth of our love is the depth of our grief, so of course we are distraught and disheveled, of course our world is turned upside down. Of course you are feeling the way you do. And sometimes the pain of pet loss can trigger or get tangled up with distress other than just grief itself, like feelings of anxiety or depression. Find the supports you need, be it friends and family, a hotline or support group, a therapist, a book, a walk outside. Take good care of your broken heart as you find soft places for healing.

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.

Rehoming or Euthanasia and Behavior Problems

The last several posts have focused on what it is like to care for a pet with behavior problems. It’s crucial that part of that conversation touches on something many owners will reckon with – decisions about rehoming or euthanasia. Future posts will focus more in depth about pet loss and grief and will include these topics related to behavior issues. But I want pet owners to know that if they are at that crossroads now, they are not alone, and they are not bad people for being in that spot.

The judgment that these pet owners can feel from others and towards themselves is intense, and my hope is that we can start to create more space for these difficult experiences and emotions.

There are such complexities when caring for a pet with behavior problems. Sometimes the pet progresses and does get better. But sometimes they don’t, and the behavior problem gets more intense, even with all the best efforts on the owner’s part. Our lives change and evolve. This impacts the environment that the pet is living in and whether it’s an appropriate fit. There may be new or continued safety concerns that need to be evaluated and addressed.

Making a decision about rehoming or euthanasia for behavior reasons is hands-down one of the most heartbreaking and difficult places to be, which I know from both personal and professional experience.

I have yet to meet an owner who comes to that decision lightly and without their own struggle – with feelings of guilt, feeling like a failure, intense self-judgment, and doubt. There is so much sadness and grief.

What I wish that we could give to them is:

  • open-hearted acknowledgement of the difficulty of the choice before them
  • reserved judgment to create the space for understanding their individual situation
  • professional qualified behavioral support in their assessment and evaluation of their family’s options
  • pet loss support for their complex and complicated grief

For those of you at this crossroads, my heart breaks for you. I hope that you can find support in your community and with your pet professionals.

You are not alone.

A helpful resource to navigate these decision is this handout developed by OSU’s Honoring the Bond program as well as Patricia McConnel’s blog post on this topic. I’ve also included this story and this one of traversing this painful path – thank you to these pet owners for sharing your stories with us.

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.

Acceptance, Expectations, and Loss When You Have a Pet with Behavior Problems

Getting a new pet is such an exciting time! We often have a whole bunch of hopes and dreams for the life to come – long walks with a new dog around the neighborhood, a pup who loves our kids, a kitty ready to cuddle up, a new furry family member who will integrate nicely into our lives. Of course, we all have these hopes and dreams But real life isn’t a fantasy. Everyday life with our pets is messier and more complicated.

Having a pet with behavior problems like aggression, reactivity, and/or separation anxiety can really shake up those hopes and dreams. Sometimes they crumble right before our eyes.

Through my work and research with pet owners I’ve found that having a pet with behavior problems involves accepting the pet for who they are in real life, and then adapting our hopes and dreams to what they need from us (and can realistically give to us). And, I would add, also honoring the loss of the dreams we had about our future with this pet.

This process also involves re-choosing whether we can provide our pet with what they need moving forward, now that we understand their needs better. Addressing a behavior problem like aggression or separation anxiety is a whole different ball game than what we might have signed up for initially.

I would encourage us all to reserve judgment when someone decides they can’t take that on, because it really is a huge thing to care for a pet with behavioral special needs (just ask anyone who has lived the experience). And when we can find a home for our pet that can help them in the ways they truly need, it can make all the difference for the pet as well.

The emotional experience of rehoming or euthanasia for behavioral reasons deserves further attention, so we’ll be looking at that in future posts.

For now, let’s follow the story of a pet owner who finds out that their pet has a behavior problem. Imagine that you, as an owner, meet with your veterinary behaviorist or other qualified behavior professional, and learn that your pet is dealing with a behavior problem which is going to require you to adjust your life with this pet.

Here are some tips for how to recalibrate in order to better understand who your pet is, what they may need from you, and how to honor your own feelings in the process:

 1. Acceptance

Understanding our pet’s behavior problem and how to help our pets (which your behavior professional can assist you with) can help us accept our pet for who they really are. Acceptance allows us to re-calibrate and say, “Okay little guy, this is who you are, I get it now.   I’m going to learn how to do best by you to help you feel as safe and secure as possible and we’ll figure this out together.”

2. Expectations

It can help to identify the expectations, hopes, and dreams that you initially had for your pet. Then to talk with your pet professional about which of these dreams you might have to let go of for now, or long term, or which could still be worked towards (maybe with some adaptations). For example, maybe you had dreams of letting your dog run free on the dog beach every day. But maybe that isn’t going to be a possibility. Eventually, if they have one doggy friend that they play well with, they can run free in a private backyard. And that can be your new dream to work towards.

3. Loss

I think loss is the thing that we sometimes forget about when we are thinking about adjusting our expectations and accepting our pet for who they are. It is a loss to give up the dreams of what we thought life would be like with our pet. It isn’t a one time “loss moment” of “I accept my pet, I feel the loss of what I won’t have, moving on.” I’ve heard it described more like waves that can come and go throughout the days, months, years with our pet. The twang when we see a dog that can play with a child and know that our dog can’t do that, and the little bit of sadness we feel if that was one of our initial hopes. The way we sigh when we can go to our friend’s house and their pet can be out to say hello to everyone, where we have to have ours behind closed doors when guests are over. Even the envy we feel when we see another owner and dog walking and they don’t feel the need to cross the street when they see another dog coming. A way of honoring the loss might be something like acknowledging to yourself, “I do wish my pet could do _______” , then allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and then re-grounding yourself in a positive “but even though he/she can’t, I really love ___________ about him/her.”

Living with a pet with behavior problems often means letting go of some dreams and welcoming in new ones. It’s a process. What has helped you to adjust your expectations about having a pet with behavior problems?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.

When Your Pet Has a Behavior Problem, Finding Support For Yourself

While finding help for your pet’s behavior issues is often the first step, I think it is equally as important for owners to have support specific to them and the ways caring for their pet is impacting their life. Below are three ideas of what that support could look like.

1. Counseling

Talking with someone about what you are going through can be really helpful. Veterinary social workers or other mental health professionals sensitive to the human-animal bond can be a support for the pet owner navigating caring for a pet with behavior problems. Counseling and support groups can help provide a space for you to process your own feelings about caring for your pet and also find strategies for stress management and self-care.

To find a veterinary social worker in your area, you can contact the University of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work program directly by phone at 865-755-8839 or by email at [email protected]

It can be a little difficult to find a mental health professional sensitive to the human-animal bond, but there are many of us out there! One place to start is to look for professionals in your community who provide pet loss support, and talk with them to see if they would also be able to provide caregiver support to those caring with “special needs” pets. The Pet Loss Support Page includes listings by state of counselors. You could also ask your veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, or trainer if they have any recommendations for counselors in your area. Another strategy is to do a search on Psychology Today and look for therapists who focus on grief and loss or stress and caregiver support, and then talk with them to see if they are sensitive to these issues for pet owners.

2. Education & information about dog behavior

Many owners I’ve spoken with have shared that understanding more about their dog has helped them immensely. There are many great books, scientific articles, and online courses to support you in learning more about dog behavior. I was introduced to the world of dog behavior through FetchFind’s Behavior Fundamentals course, which helped me increase my own understanding and knowledge of dog behavior. Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants has this reading list on their website. E’Lise Christensen DVM Diplomate ACVB reccomends the following resources:

https://fearfreehappyhomes.com/

https://eileenanddogs.com/

http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/

https://drsophiayin.com/

https://muzzleupproject.com/

3. Support groups & online forums for pet owners

Across the country there are now in-person support groups for pet owners of pets with behavior problems. And there are also several online forums, such as the “Fearful Dogs” Facebook group facilitated by Debbie Jacobs and the “Living with Dogs in Need of Space” course developed by Jessica Dolce. Janet Finley’s “Your End of the Lead” is another online forum that many owners have found helpful. These forums allow for owners to connect (virtually) and offer support to one another.

Many of the owners I’ve spoken with have indicated that connecting with others who “get it” has been a huge support to them. (Especially when there are people in their world who don’t get it and are not supportive in the ways they need). These are often peer-to-peer support groups, and these support groups do not replace professional help.

Where have you found support?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.

When Your Pet Has Behavior Problems, Where Do You Find Help?

In an ideal world, the shelter, rescue organization, or breeder your pet came from will have a system of support available to assist you in getting the behavioral help your pet needs and your search will be done before you’ve even had to start! I’ve heard of wonderful collaborations between the animal rescue community and behavior professionals, so do ask if that is an option in your area.

I think it can be helpful to have a reference of the various types of professionals that are out there and the roles they play in providing support for people and their pets. Here are some of the professionals I hear most about from pet owners who have sought help (the ASPCA also has a nice description of the different professionals which you can find here):

Veterinary Behaviorists:

These brilliant folks are veterinarians who have completed additional intensive training and certification in animal behavior. Typically when you consult with a veterinary behaviorist you will receive a diagnosis for your pet and a treatment plan. Veterinarians are the only individuals who can prescribe meds for behavior problems (if needed), and veterinary behaviorists have advanced and specialized training in the use of medications for behavior. This is a professionally regulated field. A veterinary behaviorist may very likely recommend that you also work with a trainer. The role of the trainer is to help you implement the behavior modification recommendations in the treatment plan for your pet. The veterinary behaviorist also collaborates with the pet’s regular veterinarian to ensure that all aspects of the pet’s medical care are tended to. Dr. E’Lise Christensen is VetVine’s veterinary behaviorist, and on her website she has detailed answered to frequently asked questions about veterinary behaviorists. You can find a Veterinary Behaviorist near you on the Veterinary College of Behavior (ACVB) website.

Trainers:

Trainers are amazing. They have dedicated themselves to helping people learn how to communicate with their pets, and their help can be invaluable! Dog training is not a professionally regulated field, so it is wise to do your due diligence in researching a trainer you are going to work with. Learn as much as possible about their professional background and education, any certifications they have earned, and their approach in working with people and their pets.

I often hear from pet owners that they are working with both a veterinary behaviorist and a trainer – as a collaborative team. The Certification of Professional Dog Trainers (CPTD) is good place to start looking for someone who has completed the formal process of becoming certified. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers also provides some guidance on how to choose a trainer, as well as this guide from the American College of Veterinary Behavior.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has this position statement recommending training methods to use (and not to use) to address behavior problems.

Behaviorists:

This is a trickier title. People who call themselves an Applied Animal Behaviorist should have an advanced degree in animal behavior.   Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Certified Assosiate Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) have an advanced degree in animal behavior and have completed other course work and experience for certification set by the Animal Behavior Society. CAABs often partner closely with veterinarians and trainers as well as the shelter community to help pet owners have access the best behavioral help available to them. A well-known and well-respected Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) is the wonderful Patricia McConnell, who writes great books and articles about behavior problems and pets. To find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in your area, you can go the directory on the Animal Behavior Society website.

But pet owners have told me that they’ve encountered people calling themselves a “dog behaviorist” (or the like) and who do not have an advanced degree in animal behavior. “Dog behaviorist” is non-protected term. So be mindful that anyone one could call themselves a “behaviorist.” I would encourage you to ask lots of questions about training and education in behavior.

Many trainers are diligent about getting advanced training in behavior, and they might highlight that for you. Again, ask about the training and education related to behavior. For example, if they say they are a “Behavior Consultant” you can ask if that means that they’ve completed the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) training process which you can then verify with IAABC.

For me, the “dream team” of support includes professional support for the pet and for the people all working in collaboration! The next post will talk about where you can find support for yourself.

Where have you found support for your pet?

Kristin Buller is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a Certificate in Veterinary Social Work. Kristin lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Ruby.  For more information on Kristin, visit www.kristinbuller.com.