Faithful departed

 

When Ozzie the dog died, Michael Kellywas surprised by the intensity of his grief. What makes us mourn our pets so profoundly? Why mourning a dead pet is so important

The vet has just broken the news that our dog, Ozzie, has to be put down, and I'm mortified to find my eyes filling with tears. Imagine a grown man crying over a dog. I keep telling myself that I'm being stupid, that he's just a dog, but you can't help how you feel, can you?

"Do you want to take the collar off him?" the vet asks. It would be stupid to leave it on him, but it feels like stealing a wallet from a dying man. How could you do this to me, Ozzie seems to be asking with those big doleful eyes.

He was always somewhat pathetic looking - it was his most lethal weapon - but he's particularly pathetic looking now: painfully thin, his ribs visible on either side of his back and his breathing shallow. We say an awkward, self-conscious goodbye. For want of something meaningful to say, I pat him on the head condescendingly and mutter "You poor old divil".

And that's it: out through the waiting room with the empty collar in my hand, the other pet owners staring at me, horrified. Some must be saying to themselves "I'm not taking my pet in there!"

Ozzie was a springer spaniel and our first pet. We had him for about five years. We always called him a rescue dog, which makes it sound as if he came from a pound, but we bought him from a farmer, who dragged him out on a rope and told me he was selling him because he was gun-shy - admittedly a major liability for a gun dog. He was riddled with fleas and worms, and whenever you put your hand out to pat him he would hit the deck, cowering at your feet while he waited for a blow. In that sense he was rescued.

His favourite pastime was escaping, and, perhaps because of the difficult start he had in life, he was very good at it. He used to escape from our garden, over a two-metre fence, then escape back in again before we got home.

Some mornings, when we'd go out to feed him, he would be covered from head to toe in muck, a sure sign that he had been on an early-morning jaunt. He wouldn't even bother to look guilty. We tried everything to keep him in the garden, but he always found a gap in a ditch, scaled a wall, chewed his way through some chicken wire. Whatever worked.

You had to love his engine. He was a different dog when out on walks. If you walked two kilometres he would run 10, scurrying to and fro, his head down a hole, bum in the air, tail wagging furiously. We discovered that if you threw a stone into the sea or a river he would jump in and put his head down in the water until he found it. His logic seemed to be: "I will find this stone, even if I have to drown doing so." He spent a lot of time at the vet.

He was like a canine Woody Allen: there was always something wrong with him. A fight with another dog meant he had to have his gum stitched up and some teeth removed.

There were always problems with his stomach, his eyes, his intestines. There were infections to be cleared, wounds to be dressed, tablets to be administered.

Bringing Ozzie to the vet was always stressful, because he made me feel like the worst dog owner in the place. He would frantically circle the room, sniffing at people's feet and other dogs. And just when you thought it couldn't get any more embarrassing, the leg would go up and he would pee against a chair.

He stood on a sea urchin one day, and his paw swelled up like a balloon. I rubbed his ears while he lay at my feet in the waiting room, and he started a kind of purring, which was a first for him. It was the most contented sound in the world, and the other owners were practically besides themselves with joy. "God, but he knows who looks after him," said the owner of a terrier with a scabby eye.

About a year ago he stopped eating. The vet said he had a tumour in his intestines. We debated back then whether to put him down, but in the end he bounced back, and within a week or so he was his old self again. Lazarus, we started calling him. Then he stopped eating again. He started wheezing instead of breathing. This time there was to be no recovery.

You can't reconcile the phrase "just a dog" with the hours spent at the vet, the countless walks, the throwing of a ball and occasional fetching, the feeding, worrying, caring, patting, laughing. He wasn't just a dog. He was our dog.

John Butler and Misha

The loss of a pet is perhaps more keenly felt when the animal is larger than life. John Butler's dog Misha, which died last year, was a 10-year-old Irish wolfhound that weighed 64kg (10st). "They are such a big dog and have such huge personalities," he says. "She was her own dog. If she wanted something she generally got it. If she wanted a walk, for example, she would literally shove you out the door - but she was also very gentle."

Misha developed pneumonia and spent the final year of her life in and out of hospital. "She was in UCD's veterinary hospital, which was expensive, as you can imagine, but I can't be complimentary enough about the service there. They were very good to her. It was very, very sad to say goodbye."

Butler is generally positive about the way people reacted to Misha's death. "Some people have a just-a-dog attitude, but the vast majority of our friends and neighbours were hugely supportive. Miriam and I don't have kids, so people know the bond we have with our dogs is hugely important to us," he says."We didn't hide the fact that we were upset. I had a friend who wouldn't go down to see his dog in the vet's before he was to be put down, and he said it was because he didn't want people to see him crying. I bawled my eyes out when our dog died, because we had a strong bond. I think it's healthy to deal with the grief appropriately."

An important part of the healing process, he says, was having other pets to look after. The couple have two other Irish wolfhound bitches, aged three and six. "When we came home after she died we were gutted, but the other two dogs had to be fed and walked. That's hugely therapeutic."

Annie Kilmartin and Toby

The death of her dog Toby prompted Annie Kilmartin to establish a pet-bereavement counselling service (www.solacepbc.com). "I found the euthanasia side of it quite harrowing. It's unique to pet ownership that you're making the call in terms of the life or death of the animal. I found there was very little available in Ireland to help people like me; all the websites were English or American, and I thought this was something that could be quite useful to people."

Toby was a cross-breed rescue dog. "He was going to be drowned along with his brothers and sisters, which was quite common at the time in Ireland. He was a great companion to me. I think that dogs are being more valued now for the unconditional love that they give and for the stability they bring.

"This animal was such a huge part of my life for so long. I got him when I was in my 30s, and when he died I was in my 50s. It was like the loss of a good auld pal," she says.

"I think there's a stigma attached to feeling grief over an animal, so whether people will take the opportunity to use a service like mine, remains to be seen. I've had quite a lot of dog owners get in touch, and a few people with horses also, which was interesting.

"I am getting a very positive reaction from vets. I think a lot of the time vets feel that while they have done their best for a pet, they see the owner walking out of the practice quite distressed, and they feel there's very little they can do to help."

Kilmartin is unfazed by people who might think that pet-bereavement counselling borders on the ridiculous. "The world is divided into those who have pets and those who don't, and I think anyone who has ever had a pet will understand that this service will be of value to some people. The people I have talked to have met with ridicule for being upset - people saying 'it's only a dog'. But it is real grief whether you like it or not."

A guide to grief: why mourning is so important

Vet Pete Wedderburn says pet bereavement can be difficult because we feel we should treat it differently from human bereavement. "It's very common that people are surprised, embarrassed, even guilty that they feel grief when an animal dies. You don't get the same level of support as you do when a person dies. People will most likely say that they're sorry to hear that but will almost instantly move on and forget about it."

The key to understanding why we feel grief when a pet dies, he adds, is to think about what we get from our pets while they are alive. "Pets don't have bad moods. They give us unconditional love. No matter what you think of yourself, your pet will always think you're great and be happy to see you. We feel affection for our pets. We like them. From that perspective a pet fills the emotional space of a human being. It's a relationship, and when that relationship ends it hurts. It's a wrench."

You can rationalise that you shouldn't feel grief, but that doesn't mean you don't feel it. If you feel an emotion, it's wrong to deny that emotion exists."

In his practice, Wedderburn has dealt with the extremes of pet grief and everything in between. "For most people it's a case of taking it reasonably seriously, dealing with the grief and moving on. Some people will get another pet straight away. But I've known people who were so distressed when a dog died they never got another pet. They didn't want to go through the grief again," he says.

"If you have an older pet, you should prepare yourself for what's to come. Think about practical issues, such as what you will do with the body. Also think about the emotional side of it . . . It is important to help kids to deal with the grief. Many people get their kids to draw a picture or write a poem about the animal or put together a shoebox with memories of the dog, perhaps containing a photo and other mementos, like the pet's collar."