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The death of Ben Fogle’s dog: his honest grief is helpful to us all

Ben Fogle has written a moving piece in the Sunday Telegraph about the loss of his Black Labrador, Inca. At twelve years of age, she had lost the power in both hind legs. Ben made the right decision for Inca, but it was still terribly difficult to go through the process of euthanasia. His article is unusually frank, with Ben describing how he "burst into uncontrollable tears" on the telephone when talking to his veterinary surgeon father, Bruce, about the situation. Then later, Ben describes the actual act of euthanasia:

"I carried her from the car into the house, burying my face into her fur, and laid her on the kitchen floor. Mum, Dad and my sister were all there. "I lay on the floor, hugging Inca while Dad injected her. Her breathing became heavy. I could feel her heart pounding and the warm blood beneath her skin. I breathed the familiar scent of her fur as I nuzzled into her thick coat. I have never sobbed like that in my life. It was a primal, uncontrollable, guttural sob as I felt her heart stop beating.I lay there on the kitchen floor clutching my best friend, unable to move. Wishing, hoping it was a dream, I held her lifeless body."

Many readers have commented on the online version of Ben's article, with some describing how tears were streaming down their face as they read his words.

Ben's account will come as no surprise to vets and nurses: we witness people going through the emotional trauma of losing a pet every day, or even several times in one day.  Perhaps the only surprising aspect is that the depth of grief isn't discussed more commonly in public. It's as if it's only behind closed doors that it's acceptable to express this level of grief for an animal.

The private nature of grief for pets can make it doubly difficult for some pet owners to cope with their emotional distress. They feel deeply upset, but they may feel that it's somehow  "not right" for them to be so distressed. To an owner, the loss is as deep - or sometimes even deeper - as if a human friend or relative has died. To society at large, the loss is still ranked as minor, with people making heartless comments like "It was only a dog". When a human dies, a wide leeway of sympathy is given, with time off work, and sensitive understanding for many weeks. When a pet passes away, people are often expected to "get over" their loss almost immediately.

Behind the scenes, there's wide recognition of the emotional distress caused by the loss of a pet. The Society of Companion Animal Studies runs a Pet Bereavement Support service, in conjunction with the Blue Cross. This offers support by trained counsellors for people who need someone to talk to after a pet has died, both on the phone and by email.

It's also increasingly recognised that veterinary staff can be emotionally traumatised by the daily witnessing of deep grief: after all, there are not many jobs where, every day, you need to offer support to grown men (and woman and children) as they cry their hearts out. The suicide rate of vets is around seven times the national average, and the complex nature of pet euthanasia is thought to play a role in contributing to this. Vetlife is a website designed to provide resources to help vets and nurses cope with the stress of their daily job.

Ben's account is sad to read, but it's heartening that he expresses his emotions so openly. If more people like Ben spoke out so clearly and truthfully, it would make it easier for those many individuals out there who still feel that have to hide their deeply held emotions.


But can’t he just die in his sleep…..?

This week my Granny died, which was sad for us all but she was very old, had had a wonderful life and her family was with her at the end. She had been in a home for some time and was cared for very well. When she became sick and bedbound, the doctors and nurses worked together to keep her comfortable and pain free, until she slipped away in her sleep. I am lucky in that she was the first person I knew well who has died and this experience has made me understand why many people hope this is how their pets will go. However, to die in their sleep is rarely a pleasant or pain free experience for our animals. Domino sleepingAlthough, just like people, our pets are living longer and healthier lives, inevitably there comes a time when their age catches up with them and illnesses develop. Advances in veterinary care mean we can do a lot for them but eventually we won’t be able to keep up with their problems. If they were people we would put them in wheelchairs or place them in a home where their needs could be catered for, for example being assisted to the toilet or spoon fed but this isn’t practical, or in most cases fair, to a pet who won’t understand what is happening (there are many people who would argue this is no kind of life for a person either but that is a whole other debate). For a pet, when they can no longer get up and out to do their toilet or feed themselves properly, or when their illnesses or pain can no longer be controlled with medication, this is the time as owners we should objectively assess their quality of life and decide whether it is fair to let them continue. Also, just as important is your quality of life, it is hard work caring for any pet, let alone an elderly one who may be incontinent or senile. The vast majority of pets who reach the end of their natural lives are euthanased by their vet. This is inevitably a sad experience for their owners (and us) but is far preferable than allowing them to slip away on their own. Many people hope this will happen, having probably experienced death this way with people as I recently did myself, but it is very different for animals. Bodies are designed for living and will go on doing so regardless of how painful or unpleasant it becomes for the individual. When people die in their sleep they are usually heavily medicated and cared for to ensure they are not in any pain or dehydrated but this doesn’t happen for our pets. If an animal dies this way, they have usually suffered to a large extent; likely being dehydrated, malnourished and in pain. Although from the outside they might look peaceful, they are anything but; it is simply all their exhausted body can manage. This is why when our pets become infirm and their quality of life declines to a point where living is a struggle and not the joy it should be, by far the kindest and most humane thing we can do as owners and vets is to euthanase them in a painless and peaceful way. I often say it is the one big advantages we have over human medicine; we can stop the suffering before it becomes too great. Although it may seem daunting your vet will talk you through the procedure and make sure you are happy with the process and your decision. You will be able to stay with your pet if you want to and most vets will come to your home if your request it. Euthanasia means ‘a peaceful death’ and as a pet owner it is the final act of kindness you can bestow upon your companion. If you are worried that your pet may be ill, talk to your vet. Try our Interactive Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they are displaying and help decide how soon you'll need to visit your vet.
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Difficult decisions towards the end of life.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a close friend to put her dog to sleep at home. Timmy was a farm dog really, who slept in a stable, but just as much of a family member as any house-dog and much loved. I trusted Timmy’s owners’ judgement completely as to when the “right time” came to part with Timmy, and I was already familiar with his medical history. I was glad to be able to carry out the euthanasia in the way in which his owners wanted. Timmy was in familiar surroundings, greeted me like an old friend and showed no distress at all. With his owners beside him, I clipped some hair from his front leg and injected a strong solution of anaesthetic into his vein. He went so peacefully that there were only a few tears, mixed with feelings of relief. Timmy was buried on the farm. Amber curled upOne of the questions people commonly ask when they first know that you are a vet is “How can you bear to put animals to sleep?” The answer is that it is still one of the most difficult parts of veterinary practice, even after many years. You become used to the technicalities of carrying out the procedure in various different circumstances, because you have to. You never become immune to the feelings of owners at this time, and never should. If you are satisfied that what you are doing is in the animals best interests and you carry it out with as little distress as possible, then you feel that you have done a necessary service. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to plan exactly when, where and how their pet’s life might end, but sometimes considering some of the options in advance can be a good idea. We would all prefer it if our dog or cat would live a happy life and then die at home in bed at an old age. Unfortunately this does not always happen, and many owners are faced with the difficult decision whether to have their pet put to sleep (euthanased) in order to prevent suffering. Deciding when the right time has come can be difficult. No-one wants to cause unnecessary suffering by leaving it too late, but equally it would be regretted later if a hasty decision was made. Vets can advise what the likely outcome of any illness is going to be and what treatments, if any, could help. If everything has been done that should be done, then it may come down to the small things in life: does your dog still enjoy a walk, recognise members of the family, enjoy their food; does your cat show an interest in surroundings and people? Home visits for euthanasia are often requested, and if this is your wish it would be worth talking to your veterinary practice in advance. Sometimes, however, it is easier and safer to do this at the surgery because of the availability of experienced helpers, and the availability of other drugs, if for example sedation was needed in a scared animal. The other big factor could be the time of day. In a night-time emergency, it may not be possible for the vet and nurse on duty to travel far from the surgery because of other patients. Labrador cropEuthanasia in most cases is quick and painless. An injection is usually given into the vein because this will work more quickly than if given by other routes. Sometimes a sedative may be needed first, if an animal is nervous or aggressive. The decision whether to be present or not is an entirely personal one for the owner. Some people will feel they want to be present and others will prefer to leave after signing the consent form. If you are not present, your pet will be handled by gentle, caring, experienced staff on your behalf. If present, it may be better for both the owner and the animal if the holding is done by the veterinary nurse, who can raise the vein for the injection at the same time. This leaves the owner free to be where the dog or cat can see and hear them. Most practices will use the services of a pet crematorium who will offer various different types of cremation or burial, depending on individual wishes. For example, you may wish to have your pets ashes returned so that you can keep them or scatter them in a favourite place. If you have a suitable place you may choose to bury your pet at home. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The bonds that exist between people and their pets are strong and the loss of a pet can cause a similar sense of loss to any other bereavement. Many people like to remember their pet with photos, by planting a tree or placing a plaque in a special place. Some practices keep a book of remembrance or a wall of photos of past and present pets. Vets and nurses also like to remember their patients. Some practices have staff who have been specially trained in supporting clients who are going through bereavement and if you would like this help, do ask at your surgery. If not directly available within the surgery, counselling services are available including support from the national charity the Blue Cross. It can be especially important to help children talk about their loss as it may be their first experience of death. Other pets may also grieve. Some people think it helps to allow other pets to see the body of the pet who has died, and I have certainly no reason to think this is harmful or distressing to them. Euthanasia and death are subjects that all of us would prefer not to have to consider, but sometimes things can be made a little easier for everyone by thinking ahead, so that if the worst happens, we are as prepared as possible, and left with happy memories.