The death of an animal companion is unique to any other kind of loss.
We choose everything about a pet’s life. The toys they have, the food they eat, when and where they eliminate, how they socialize, their medical care, and when they leave the house. Everything in their life is a result of our will. And although they require less oversight in adolescence and adulthood as they did when they were babies themselves, that our total choice and control over their lives never changes the way it would for a child who grows to adulthood and becomes independent.
Your pet will always depend on you, fully, and that’s honestly a source of the joy they bring to our lives. Someone who always needs you feels so good to care for. We never stop parenting them; they never leave the nest. Despite their aging and intelligence, dogs, in particular, develop about the same mental capacity as a four-year-old. They truly are always children.
The definition of guilt goes something like this:
A cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes — accurately or not — that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or have violated universal moral standards and bear significant responsibility for that violation.
So it stands to reason that whenever a pet parent makes a decision about their animal’s health, we feel solely responsible for it because functionally, we are. We make all of those other choices for them on a daily, or sometimes hourly, basis, and the goal of raising a happy, healthy, and well-socialized animal is worth every effort.
However, we cannot control biology or genetics. We cannot control disease. When our pets get old, we can only do so much, but we never stop making those decisions or relinquish that control and the older and sicker they get, the more weight and emotion each decision carries. So when they die, whether it’s by euthanasia, natural death, or tragedy, guilt will always come knocking. We will always feel responsible for a pet’s death regardless of the circumstances because of our responsibility for their whole life. Though our pets may think of us as god-like, we are not actually deities and we are not omnipotent.
I have always had dogs in my life. There were a few fosters that came along here and there, but my primary childhood dogs were two enormous beasts named Trog and Dude. Trog was a half-wolf, half-German Shepherd who we brought home the week before I started kindergarten. Not quite two years later, he sired a litter with my brother’s adorable but astoundingly dumb Saint Bernard-Lab mix. We kept the runt of that litter, Dude, who grew to be a 130-pound ginger behemoth of anxiety.
They lived to be almost exactly the same age each, right around eleven and a half. In the end, they succumbed to different diseases (spleen cancer and a previously undetected esophageal growth; respectively) and once we knew to the best of our knowledge there was no more hope for them, we did the humane thing and euthanized them.
Although I was a teenager at the time, and it wasn’t my decision to make, I was wracked with guilt for months following each of their deaths. What could we have done? Why didn’t we try another surgery? What did we miss? Did we do the right thing? I felt like we both assassinated and gave up on them.
Although it was my intention to euthanize, in the end, I did not give Czar the final “good gift.” After several weeks of stability, and even some improvement, he tumbled into freefall on the Thursday evening of Halloween. He started seizing, refusing food, most water, and was so exhausted he would not even sit up on his own for 36 hours.
I knew what was really happening, but I stayed calm and reminded myself to just take it one moment at a time. His vet wasn’t completely sure he was seizing and recommended a course of action that wouldn’t hurt him. Because we had agreed to keep a conservative approach, there was nothing more we could do than to wait it out.
The following Monday night, Czar’s seizures worsened after a day of calm. Legs stretching, neck craning, eyes rolling, jaw clicking. He was present enough between each episode to drink water I fed him through a condiment bottle. He pushed out a couple of poop logs, one of which had a string of plastic in it from when he chewed on a pee pad from Saturday (a sure sign he was feeling better, I thought at the time). I took a video to send to the vet in the morning. I knew we couldn’t wait much longer, but I could at least give him the comfort of my presence.
I fell asleep with my foot resting on his back, the way we had done so many times in the past when he wanted me to sleep near him (touching) but not with him (spooning). He’d refused to sleep in his own bed for about a week; its cozy den-like environment tucked into a corner under my loft left him isolated from the goings-on in the house and the people around him. I knew at this time he wanted my cuddles and closeness but there wasn’t room to do it where he wanted to rest, so this was my best option.
When I awoke around 5 a.m., I knew he was gone before I looked at him. Something in the room had shifted. Still, I sat up and stared at his frail ribs, waiting for his chest to rise just once. But I knew.
After the calls were made and I cleaned him up, removed his harnesses and wound dressings, I made the announcement on Facebook. I was candid about the way he died; likely in the middle of a seizure. I mentioned that I felt I failed him. Comments and post reactions poured in, people insisting that I was the best dog mom ever and went so far above and beyond what most would do.
But the thing is, I already knew I was a good dog mom. I can count every effort and sacrifice I made to keep him happy and healthy his whole life and I know that until that last moment, I did a damn fine job. What my friends don’t have to live with is the last living memory of their pet craning their neck, eyes wide, haunting them. I knew Czar was seizing again after we fell asleep, but thought it was minor and let it go. They didn’t see his body; mouth open, legs stretched, feces tumbled out, lying in a puddle of urine.
Guilt and relief
Czar’s vet assured me he likely wasn’t even conscious and it wasn’t painful, but he does not have to scroll past a dozen videos in his phone gallery, knowing that the only thing that documents his dog’s final few days are several gigabytes of him seizing over and over. No smiles or toy cuddles, no Instagram-worthy moments of him tucked into his blankets. Just pain and suffering. Even if the seizures were painless, I can’t imagine his failing liver felt great.
That is the guilt I live with now. The burden of feeling I was selfish for too long and did not insist on the euthanasia. Knowing that Czar died suffering. That all of my work to prepare the way I did, to fill each moment possible with compassion, love, and comfort ended like this. That I didn’t focus more on his liver function back in July when I knew he was starting the homestretch; in fact, that I had forgotten it entirely until we started discussing medication. The guilt is that no matter how hard I tried to keep him pain-free, I failed at that because every single decision about his care was solely my responsibility.
And the worst part of that guilt I feel is that now, I am relieved. I know, not even very deep down, that the reason I stayed so calm during his final days and the moments after Czar died, was because of knowing that it was all over, once and for all.
Caring for Czar in his final months had pushed me to my limits and then some. Unlike Trog and Dude, who were surrounded by family and round-the-clock care, with people to hand the baton to and rest when we needed, the entirety of Czar’s many needs fell on my shoulders. The irony, of course, is that the closer to death he inched, the more he needed from me — all the work would lead to an anticlimactic end and leave me with nothing.
This is not unique. There is nothing particularly special about Czar’s case. He was extraordinarily old for his size and breed at 15 years, 10 months, and it follows that eventually, something in his body was going to give up. The one vital organ that had always been a little persnickety would be the one to end him.
But when pet parents talk about guilt and their animal suffering, this is the stuff we’re talking about. For all of the beauty our beloved animals possess, it is still so jarring that their deaths are never pretty. Even if we choose to euthanize, they experience some pain we cannot prevent.
For pets that are lost through tragedies other than natural causes or euthanasia, such as being hit by a car, I imagine the guilt is even more intense. One simple mistake or forgotten warning can lead to the death of a family member whose entire existence depends on its guardian’s actions.
Because this is not something I have experienced, I will provide this link that discusses more about our guilt when a pet dies suddenly.
My message here is: guilt will always be part of pet bereavement. It cannot be avoided. Because of how responsible we are for our pets, guilt should be expected when they die. Perhaps it falls under the “bargaining” stage of grief, but guilt is more of a foundation rather than a phase when it comes to grieving the loss of a pet.
We feel guilty when they are sick, when treatments have adverse side effects, and when they die. Further still, we feel guilty because we’re relieved of the burden after they’re gone, even if we’d do anything to have it back.
If you are mourning the loss of a pet or facing an impending loss: embrace the guilt and acknowledge it. It’s going to be your most constant companion through this time. Nurture it as you would your animals, listen to its needs.
As you move forward, as long as you care for that guilt, it will change. It will become a resolution to pay it forward to your next pet when and if you are ready. It will teach you valuable lessons to think upon the next time you or a friend are in a similar position. It will add endless doses of compassion to aid others when they, too, are wracked with guilt over a loss they feel so much responsibility for.
Guilt makes us feel like we did something — or many things — so wrong. But just like grief is love with no place to go, remorse is the misplaced self-confidence that we are and were capable of doing better, that we are as good as our pets believe. And they’re right.
Reidun Saxerud is a writer and author of Nordisco: Things Mom Did With the Help of Whiskey. You can read more of her work here.