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Feelings of guilt, grief common when navigating euthanasia

Saying goodbye to pets made easier with professionals
Carole McWilliams talks about her dog, Rusty, a 15-year-old terrier, on Tuesday at her home south of Bayfield. When pet owners, like McWilliams, have to consider euthanizing their pets, their grief can be complicated by guilt.

For 14 years, Jack Schuenemeyer and his dog, Cory, geared up in Thanksgiving-themed costumes and led the milelong Turkey Trot in Cortez. In 2018, Cory led her last trot.

In July, Schuenemeyer had to decide whether and when to euthanize his pet companion of 15 years.

It’s a moment that pet owners dread, and for many, trying to navigate that decision requires soul searching and help from professionals.

Americans spent $72 billion in 2018 on their pet companions, and research has shown the huge amount of grief owners can experience when the human-animal bond is broken at the time of a pet’s death. When it comes to euthanasia, that grief can be complicated by feelings of guilt, leaving pet owners in need of resources to navigate their loss.

“It’s always a tough decision, especially for somebody you spent that much time with,” Schuenemeyer said. “It’s in so many ways similar to losing a two-legged friend.”

In 2015 and 2016, Americans owned 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The bond between humans and animals can influence blood pressure and heart rates, as well as hormones correlated with well-being, like cortisol, oxytocin and dopamine, according to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

In natural disasters, pet owners have failed to evacuate while trying to save pets, which can place owners and emergency responders at risk of injury and death. Animals are used in therapy, and service animals provide support for their owners.

Jack Schuenemeyer prepares to lead off the Cortez Turkey Trot with his dog, Cory, in 2013.

Schuenemeyer said it was wonderful to have Cory as a companion at home. She might have eaten a few slippers in her life, but mostly she was a happy dog that loved people and eating snow.

“No matter what other difficulties or problems that you’re running into or stress that you had, just having her around was really quite something,” he said.

Letting a companion go

The decision to euthanize a pet can mean taking on guilt in addition to grief for pet owners.

Those emotions become even more difficult when some people dismiss a pet owner’s grief, saying animals are “just pets,” and therefore less meaningful.

“Some people think that they shouldn’t make this decision for their pet, or it’s not something they believe in,” said Katie Bosco, managing veterinarian of TenderHeart Pet Hospice. “In the end, this is the last gift you can give your pet.”

Schuenemeyer’s golden retriever, Cory, had an aggressive tumor that diminished her quality of life.

“She really made the process easier for us. Right at the end, she sort of looked at us and said it’s time to go,” Schuenemeyer said.

Carole McWilliams with her dog, Rusty, a 15-year-old terrier. McWilliams relied on a list of symptoms and a veterinarian’s expertise to navigate Rusty’s failing health, and possible euthanasia procedure, in November.
Carole McWilliams holds the ashes of her dog, Zeus. Part of being a pet owner is having to make difficult decisions for animals as they near the end of their lives.

In November, Carole McWilliams of Bayfield went through the whirlwind of considering euthanasia her for pet. She took her 15-year-old terrier, Rusty, to the veterinarian without knowing whether he was coming back. The experience left her grappling with a sense of betrayal.

“He’s used to going to the vet. He doesn’t like it, but he’s used to it. And he expects to come home from the vet,” she said. “If I’m taking him, and he’s not going to be coming home ... you know, that feeling of betrayal.”

For many, the loss of a pet is impactful but manageable. For 3% to 5% of pet owners, it can result in post-traumatic stress disorder or complicated grief, which is persistent and in part characterized by maladaptive thoughts, according to a small University of Hawaii study.

“I definitely think people feel guilt,” Bosco said. “There should be nothing to feel guilty about in that situation. In the end, it’s a helpful thing that they’re doing for their pet.”

Bosco spends part of her week as a veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital, and the other part of her week traveling to people’s homes to deliver end-of-life care or at-home euthanasia for pets.

Some weeks, Bosco does not make any home hospice or home euthanasia visits. Sometimes, she might have four in one day. She often finds herself sitting on a family’s couch, trying to help them through their grief by assuring them that they did the best thing for their pet.

“(Pets) can’t speak for themselves, and I truly think in the end, it is a gift to let them go in a pain-free situation,” Bosco said, repeating what she might tell a client. “Unfortunately, it’s very hurtful toward you, but you’re setting them free.”

Veterinarian Shannon Mazur with Riverview Animal Hospital examines a healthy Hudson, a French bulldog, recently at the hospital. Veterinarians often take on the role of grief counselors for pet owners who have to make end-of-life decisions for animals.

Shannon Mazur, the managing veterinarian at Riverview Animal Hospital, said the at-home service helps families who want to grieve in a private space and a less-stressful atmosphere for nervous pets.

“It is really awesome that she is able to provide that service,” Mazur said.

The euthanasia process is difficult for veterinarians. It is one of the highest causes of burnout, she said. Even as veterinarians process their grief, they provide guidance to families trying to make a difficult decision.

Bosco and Mazur, like other veterinarians, determine when euthanasia is appropriate using symptoms like dementia, difficulty breathing, a decrease in eating or drinking, an inability to go outside for bowel movements or urination, inhibited movement and other quality-of-life changes.

For McWilliams and Schuenemeyer, visiting with a veterinarian and considering their pet’s quality of life made the decision easier to process.

“Anybody who has not owned a pet, they need to understand ... if you take on a pet, at some point in however many years, they’re going to break your heart,” McWilliams said.