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Advice on what to do when a dog or cat dies suddenly

Losing a beloved cat or dog to an accident at home can magnify grief and shock. Here's advice on what to do and how to cope

05/27/2011 11:11 PM

06/01/2011 12:28 PM

"Oh, no, Bella! No, no, no!" I cried and crumpled over the back of the couch.

"What? What?" Mike, my boyfriend, asked as he rushed toward me. He peeked around the corner, into the next room. "Oh. Wow."

There lay our beloved, beautiful Bella -- a gray-and-white Persian cat that Mike had raised since she was 2 months old and barely a "puff of fluff" in his hand -- now still, lifeless.

Our girl. Gone. Gone? Not Bella, who knew the word "brush" and would purr loudly each time we combed her luxurious coat. Not Bella, whose seventh birthday we'd just celebrated with balloons and party hats. Not Bella, who loved to make play toys out of boxes, bags, bugs and dental floss.

Ever the curious kitty, on this cold night in February, she had found the wrong place to play at the wrong time; now she was gone, her sudden death a result of an accident inside the house.

We cried. We embraced. But Mike and I had absolutely no idea what to do next.

Whenever a cherished pet dies, even of old age, it's a painful and powerful loss for the "parents." But pet owners have to deal with a whole new set of decisions and emotions when the animal dies suddenly at home -- especially when family members feel responsible for the accident.

The coming summer months will mean a higher than usual number of at-home pet deaths, local experts say, due to the hot weather and the change in family routines. Here are some strategies they offer to pet parents who, sadly, might find themselves dealing with a loss at home.

Removing and caring for the body

Mike and I wanted someone to take Bella's body from the house immediately; we didn't think we could bear to touch her. But who would do it? Where would she go? Amid the tears and the trauma, we couldn't think straight.

I called a cat-loving friend in Albuquerque, who Googled 24-hour emergency veterinary hospitals, and we called one of them. But because it was Saturday night past 9, we were referred to the Humane Society of North Texas'"K-9-1-1" emergency line. An angel of a woman named Shelly Meeks answered the phone.

"My heart is breaking for you guys," she said. She, too, was unable to come to our home, but she was 10 minutes away from the Humane Society, she said, and if we could take Bella there, she would meet us and make sure she was kept safe until we made further decisions.

I said a prayer for strength, knelt down beside Bella, swaddled her little body in a towel and lay her in her carrier.

The next morning, we sat down at the computer and -- in a haze of surrealism -- researched options for pet cremation.

Less than a week later when we got her ashes back and set them on a windowsill overlooking the patio where she liked to sit and watch the birds, we felt as though the family was somehow together again.

The physical reality is that you have several hours to decide what to do with a pet's body. The emotional reality, however, is that you might want it removed as soon as possible. Pet owners have several options for safe removal or drop-off.

The first call should be to the animal's veterinarian or to a nearby 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic. This may seem obvious, but "your brain shrinks to the size of a pea," said veterinarian Steve Hotchkiss, owner of MetroWest Emergency Veterinary Center in Fort Worth (metrowestvet.com).

As hard as it may be, check for a pulse and check for breathing so you can report it to the vet, he advised. If the pet could still be alive, find someone else to drive you and the pet to the hospital -- especially if the pet needs pressure applied to a bleeding wound.

If the pet has died, it's all right to walk into any vet's office or animal clinic and ask personnel to help you make arrangements for your animal, said Hotchkiss, whose clinic takes in 40 to 50 deceased pets a week.

"Every vet's office deals with this and is very gracious," he said. "This is your child. It's a really sad time for people, and we want to be really gracious during what is a hard time."

Most clinics work directly with crematoriums and pet cemeteries in the area and can help owners make arrangements on site quickly, he said.

If you need time alone with your pet before you release the body, Hotchkiss added, simply wrap it in a towel or sheet for up to about four hours in an air-conditioned area; there's no need to store the body in a cooler or freezer at home, as some websites suggest, he said. However, if the body is outside or if you won't be moving it for a day or so, you will have to take steps to keep it cool.

Calls to the Humane Society are answered by a live person 24 hours a day, said Meeks, who is the adoptions coordinator. But the donation-funded organization simply is not staffed to remove animal remains from homes (unless the pet owner has a unique circumstance, such as a disability that precludes driving, Meeks said). At the Humane Society, an animal is tagged and kept in a special freezer until arrangements are communicated by the owners, she said. There is no charge for a drop-off at the Humane Society, but donations are welcome.

"If you need a few days to figure out the arrangements, we can hold them a few days," she said.

Another option is to call an "after-care" business, such as a pet cemetery or crematory, directly.

Ronny Roberson, whose family co-owns Fort Worth-based Little Angels Pet Cremation Service (www.littleangelspetcremation.com), receives calls for no-charge pickup 24 hours a day -- and many times, he is the first call that pet owners make. "This is no ordinary business, so if I'm around the corner, I'll go pick up the pet [when they call]," Roberson said.

Representatives from Beyond the Rainbow Pet Hospice & Memorial Center in Fort Worth (www.texaspethospice.com) offer home pet removal 24/7, they say.

More than a dozen such after-care facilities exist in the DFW area; they offer various services and products, from pet hospice and home euthanasia to funeral and memorial arrangements, to customized caskets and urns for burial and cremation. Fort Worth-based Faithful Friends (www.ffpcc.com) has a mausoleum and a stateroom for viewing pets.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to immediately bury a pet in the back yard. Check your animal-control ordinances first. A Fort Worth city ordinance, for example, says dead animals can only be buried at a pet cemetery or licensed landfill, said a city spokesman. (Burying a pet's cremated ashes in the back yard would be OK, he added.) Curbside pickup of dead animals is offered at no charge six days a week.

If, for financial or other reasons, you want an animal taken away and buried, place it in a trash bag, call the city's environmental solid waste division at 817-392-EASY, and let them know the animal will be on the curb. It will be taken respectfully to a special place in the city landfill, apart from the trash, the spokesman said.

Moving through the grief and guilt

The first time I saw Bella, she was peeking out from behind Mike when I arrived at his door for our first date. I fell in love with the way he cradled her in his arms and snuggled with her every chance he got, the way he doted on her like a daddy on his baby girl. So one of my first reactions to her death was guilt at the fact that I didn't prevent the accident.

"How can you even look at me?" I cried to Mike after we found her. "She was your girl! I did this to her! It was my fault!"

"I love you," he assured me and wrapped me in his arms. "You mean more to me than she did."

Still, Bella was such a big part of our five-year relationship that I couldn't help but wonder how her loss might affect "us." For the past three months, we've grieved separately, but we've also grieved together. It's finally getting easier to remember the good times without also remembering the night she died.

It's not unusual for people who suffer a sudden, often horrific loss of a pet to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Ja-Neen Saffle, a Fort Worth pet loss counselor. They may relive the events over and over in their head during the day and then dream about them at night. Feelings of stress and anger, and difficulty sleeping, concentrating and making decisions all are common.

Add to that the guilt and shame pet owners feel if the death was a result of their action or oversight, and the combination of emotions can be paralyzing.

"So many people are the best parents in the universe; they treat their animals better than some people treat their children, and yet you think there was the one thing you didn't do [that resulted in the pet's death]," said Diane Pomerance, creator and director of the pet grief counseling program at the SPCA of Texas, in Dallas.

As difficult as it may be to tell yourself in the initial hours and days after the accident, Pomerance said, you absolutely must remember that most humans will outlive their pets; that humans are animals' caregivers, and that most pet owners do the absolute best they can. Accidents, as the cliché goes, happen.

"These animals come into our lives with a mission and a purpose, and when it's their time, no matter what, you didn't create or manufacture them and you cannot be responsible for what happened to them," she said.

Saffle organizes the emotions pet owners feels into three stages: shock, disorganization and reorganization. If the pet has died in an accident, owners need to first enlist help.

"First, call somebody else and have them do the thinking for you," she said.

Next, she said, it helps many people to get rid of the pet's belongings and change their own routine. If, for example, you're used to getting up early each morning, putting the dog on the leash and taking him outside, choose to donate the leash to charity and use that morning time to exercise at the gym.

Making sure to eat properly, avoiding substance abuse, sleeping, exercising, meditating or praying all help people cope with grief. Do things to keep yourself busy, Saffle advises. Make as many daily decisions as possible to feel like you have control of your life, she suggests, but put off making major decisions until you are in a clearer frame of mind. Still, identify that you are grieving -- and give yourself permission to do so.

"People need to spend time with their grief," Saffle said. "Grief is not going to go away; it is going to wait for you. And the best way to deal with it is to go through it, even if you have to schedule that time." She suggests writing in a journal nightly, talking with an empathetic friend, attending a grief support group or working on a scrapbook or social media page devoted to happy memories of your pet.

Couples who lose pets absolutely must talk through it, Pomerance adds. And when it comes to helping children through the loss of a pet, Pomerance says, be direct and straightforward. "Being honest with kids is the best policy," she said. "Don't say they've 'gone to a better place.'" The fact is, she said, we don't know what death involves; most people are slightly afraid of it, and even more afraid or confused for their pets because their religious faith may not offer answers for pets as it does for humans.

"People are dismissive of this kind of loss," Pomerance said. "They say, 'You can replace it, you can go to a breeder and get another one that looks similar,' and you get very little sympathy. Whereas there are human [death] rituals and rites; people cook for you and they comfort you. It's a lonely path when you lose an animal companion."

Finally, don't be embarrassed or ashamed if you grieve for your pet harder than you grieve for a human loved one, Saffle said.

"Our pets are like a time capsule for us; they're like a time line, and there's so many [ways] they're there for us. They love us unconditionally, they provide us with companionship," she said. "When that support is knocked out from under us, more spills out than [grief related to] the death of an animal."

The best advice: Have a plan

No one, of course, is ever really prepared for the death of a loved one, including a cherished pet. But animal experts urge pet owners to have plans in place in case of a household emergency.

Keep handy the ASPCA household animals poison control number, as well as the number to your nearest emergency veterinarian clinic; keep your vet's number on speed-dial, Meeks of the Humane Society urged.

Another tip: Drive the route to the emergency clinic, Hotchkiss said. Know where it is and the fastest way to get there. At the point of emergency or death, you'll be in such shock that following the GPS will be the last thing you will want to do.

Additionally, make sure to have emergency funds set aside for your pet and to consider pet insurance, Hotchkiss said. An emergency visit typically will cost at least $100 just to walk through the door.

There's also nothing wrong or morbid about planning pets' after-care before they die. Making arrangements with a local cemetery or cremation center is simply good ownership and will save your family grief later, if the unthinkable happens.

"That preparation is worth its weight in gold," Meeks said.

Stephanie Allmon, 817-390-7852

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