Monday, March 23, 2020

Pet Loss: Why Surrender An Animal To A Shelter?

To let go does not mean to get rid of. To let go means to let be. When we let be with compassion, things come and go on their own.  ~Jack Kornfield

A reader writes: I have read that pet illness is one of the main reasons why owners decide to surrender their animal to a shelter. Can you provide any insight as to what it takes for an owner to get to that point? Are these owners less committed than other owners? Have fewer resources? One article recommended "defining your priorities and setting realistic goals". How can  a pet caretaker do this, in specific terms?
For example, when the cost of a pet's medication or surgery clashes with family vacation plans or an opportunity for a child to go to summer camp, how can a pet owner make a responsible decision?  How do they make peace with their decision if it doesn't favor the animal?

My response: This is a very complicated question.  First, not all "owners" are equally attached to their animals. Attachment to animals occurs along a continuum, anywhere from complete indifference, all the way to what others might consider "overly attached", and everywhere in between. Members of the same family may feel differently toward the same pet. People keep animals for all sorts of different reasons, and their attachments vary widely, as does their level of commitment to caring for their animals.

Although this is gradually changing over time, especially with regard to animals as companions, assistants and guides, we still live in a society that generally does not value animals as highly as we value humans. Under most state and federal laws, animals are considered to be property and have little or no legal rights of their own.

Further complicating the situation is that we also have the option of choosing euthanasia for our sick and dying animals ~ a choice which we do not have to make with sick and dying human beings, and one that can be agonizing for animal lovers.

When someone is faced with caring for a pet with a chronic illness, many questions must be considered. For example,
  • What is the pet's general health and attitude? (Still happy with a zest for life, or miserable and in pain, with no hope for recovery?)

  • What is the quality of the pet's life? (Still living with dignity?)

  • How much care does the pet require? Can the owner afford the costs involved, not just in terms money, but also in terms of time and emotional strain?

  • What is the animal's prognosis? Will more tests, costly treatments or surgery make the pet any better? Are there any negative side-effects from such tests or treatments?

  • How does the owner feel about euthanasia?  Some consider it an act of compassion; others feel as if they would be killing their animal and struggle mightily with the guilt such a choice engenders.

  • Are there any signs from the animal that s/he is "ready to go"? Some pets have a way of telling us these things if we are attuned to them. Sometimes people keep their pets alive so as to meet their own needs not to feel guilty or not to let go, rather than to meet the needs of the pet.
I think like any other major decision a family has to make, this one calls for open communication among all family members, so that everyone has a chance to have their viewpoints heard and everyone feels as if they've had a part in making the final decision, even if they disagree with it. Children who are old enough to think and speak for themselves should be included as much as possible in discussions and decisions about the illness, treatment or death of the family pet, including plans for euthanasia. They need time to accept that having the pet's life ended painlessly is the kindest thing to do, and they need time to say good-bye.

Deciding when and whether to continue treatment or to euthanize a pet is probably one of the most difficult choices a family will ever have to make. Because a pet has been diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness may not be reason enough to resort to euthanasia, however. Nowadays many veterinarians offer a variety of alternative therapies, including palliative and hospice care for animals. Depending on the stage and severity of the pet's illness, and the resources the family has available, they and the pet may still have many happy years left together. Exploring all aspects of the decision among themselves, with their veterinarian, and with others whom the family trusts is very important.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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