Losing a pet can be devastating. When a dog or cat wanders away from home, microchips can help a family reconnect with their pet. Unfortunately, other losses are permanent and cannot be helped by using technology.
What does a person do when facing the loss of a treasured four-legged companion to old age or sickness? I have reached the time in my life and career when loss is becoming more of a day-to-day experience. Personally and professionally, when you get to your middle 50s, death becomes more common. We have begun to lose our parents, sometimes tragically our peers, and unfortunately our pets. Many of us lost dogs and cats in our childhood, but the responsibilities of now being “the adult” in these circumstances carries a much greater burden. Veterinary school doesn’t really provide us with the expertise we need as doctors in counseling pet owners who are grieving. Every day, I get questions about decisions related to pursuing medical treatment or, more importantly, stopping medical treatment for an older animal. How do I make an aging pet more comfortable? How do I decide whether to have my pet undergo chemotherapy? How do I know when it’s time? These decisions are among the most difficult we will ever make. For pet owners, most of these questions eventually lead to navigating their way through loss and grieving. As a veterinarian, I draw on professional experience helping other clients over the years, as well as personal experience in losing my own pets.
My husband, Dr. Tom Hemstreet, and I recently lost our own family pet. Sarah was the World’s Greatest Dog. She was perfect for our lives both personally and professionally because she taught us everything about the wonders and stages of an animal’s life, and we were able to use these experiences to help our clients. We learned the trials of puppyhood and the mistakes we humans invariably make in training. We lived through those fabulous healthy middle years when dogs and kids fill every waking moment and every corner of your heart. And most recently, we have lived with our furry friend through her difficult aged years. The care becomes more intense because of physical ailments and mental decline. Old dogs need more supervision and just as much carpet cleaning as they did in puppyhood. It gets difficult and you are faced with all of those questions I have previously mentioned, especially the big question: When is it time? Thankfully, Sarah died quickly of heart failure in our home and in our arms so Tom and I were spared the hardest decision of our careers, marriage and lives. The grief comes now and all I can report is that talking with my friends has worked wonders. There are professionals who can help with loss and often one can find a grief support group. Communication is key in end-of-life journeys. Talking through the medical and emotional decisions will ease the burdens we face. Now I just wish I could trace Sarah’s microchip to Heaven.
Originally published November 2014 in the Lake Norman Citizen