Any pet owner knows that gutted feeling that comes with saying goodbye to their friend. Putting down a pet or watching them slip away causes profound sadness.
“Clients that are grieving the loss of a pet mention the types of feelings that they have are the same as they would have if they were grieving the loss of a human,” Joelle Nielsen, a social worker at Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center, told TODAY.
“I have had many clients say to me, ‘Why is this harder than when so-and-so died?’" she said. "That happens a lot because our relationship with our animals sometimes are much different.”The unconditional love from a pet to owners causes deep emotional reactions, said Nielsen, who helps clients deal with the grief of losing a pet.
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“Our animals often sleep in bed with us, they rely on us unconditionally,” she said. “The dynamics are very different.”Nielsen directs OSU's Honoring the Bond, which provides supports to people with dying pets. It’s one of about 30 similar programs in the country that offer social workers to those grappling with end-of-life care for their dog, cat, horse, bird, lizard, snake or other cherished critter. Often Nielsen's role is straightforward: She's a sympathetic ear.
“It’s just listening and being there with them,” she explained, "allowing that grief to happen.”
While about 85 million families in the United States own pets, according to the American Pet Products Association, some don’t feel like they have permission to mourn their dead pet.
One of the toughest goodbyes. Wanted to make a special tribute to the sweetest boy ever - thank you for all the joy you brought and all the memories. pic.twitter.com/a5qKLJrn9C— Tim Tebow (@TimTebow)
“It’s disenfranchised loss because not everyone understands it,” she said. “A lot of times people want to ignore it, bottle it up, they keep busy... I think that is okay, to an extent, but really being able to feel that pain, so allowing oneself to cry to scream, whatever, is important.”
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This grief also feels complicated because many pet owners choose euthanasia for their pets, a decision that people don't usually have to make for human loved ones.
“It’s profound because you are you're making a decision to actively take the life of your animal,” Nielsen said. “There's a lot of guilt associated with making that decision.”Counseling patients about end-of-life care remains a challenge, Dr. Page Yaxley, an associate professor, clinical, of small animal emergency and critical care at OSU, said. But, she focuses on the pet’s quality of life to help guide families. Family members fill out surveys so they can see ways their pet might be declining. She also talks with them about what they think makes their pet’s life fulfilling.
“Maybe for this animal, suffering is that they can’t do the things that they used to, like they can’t go for a walk around the block,” she told TODAY. “Or the dog is urinating on the floor, but the dog seems embarrassed or ashamed — that becomes part of the discussion of suffering.”Understanding if a pet is suffering isn’t easy and figuring out if they’re in pain can seem impossible. Still, Yaxley says pet owners are most likely to notice when a pet groans, whimpers or has strained breathing, which can be signs of pain or discomfort. Often pets act unusually during vet visits, so those behaviors in the office aren't always reliable indicators.
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“Most owners will identify when it's time because they know their pets better than anybody else,” Yaxley said. “Putting a pet down is a heavy burden to place on an owner, who doesn't want to make the wrong decision.”
When the time comes, Nielsen suggests that families create memories with ailing pets, such as taking them to beloved places or giving them special treats, just like Tebow.
“I have owners that have done a bucket list,” she said. “I will recommend folks take them out, get a cheeseburger on the way and let them eat things that they wouldn't normally be able to do or take them for a walk in their favorite park.”
Annually, the OSU Veterinary Medical Center holds a memorial service for all the pets who died in the past year and many feel comforted by it. But, Nielsen has other clients who placed their pets remains into jewelry, had casts of the pet’s paw made, commissioned a portrait, planted a tree or did something else meaningful to remember their animals.Tebow's openness with his grief over Bronco can also help other pet owners feel less alone, she added, and hopefully help some realize they have permission to mourn their pets.
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“It gives me goosebumps,” she said. “I’m so grateful that he was willing to share that. It helps with any sort of stigma.”Follow TODAY Health and Wellness on and subscribe to our newsletter "One Small Thing" for easy tips to improve your life every weekday!