Research has shown something those of us with pets have known all along: Losing a pet is as difficult as losing a human loved one.
A 1988 study, for example, suggested that a pet “may be perceived as being [just] as close as one’s spouse, child or parent.” The researchers explained that a pet’s death can therefore be “extremely intense” for many people.
The entire process of a pet’s end-of-life journey is fraught with emotion and a minefield of difficult decisions. And the days, weeks, months and even years following remain a struggle when that space beside you is empty.
Your Pet Sitter Is Grieving Right Along With You
Pet sitters have a unique role in the life of a pet.
We’re often there during the day or evening when the pet parents can’t be. We come to know and love these animals as if they were our own. Their quirks, their personalities, their routines and habits, and their likes and dislikes are as well known to us as they are to their family.
When you lose your pet, your pet sitter is grieving right along with you. “Each time a pet I’ve cared for passes, a little bit of my heart goes with him or her,” says pet sitter Kristen Carr. But what may not be so obvious is that we also don several challenging hats during the pet’s finals days.
As a pet sitter, I’ve been the person a client calls late at night or early in the morning, having that difficult conversation where we talk about the pet’s quality of life and how it’s degenerated.
It’s hard for pet sitters because we know just how it feels to be in our clients’ shoes. We’ve all had to say goodbye to pets of our own and understand the crushing grief that comes not just at the moment the pet slips away, but beforehand, when the decision is made to let the pet go.
It’s a decision fraught with emotion and guilt:
- Is it time?
- Am I overreacting just because my pet has this-or-that ailment that is troublesome for me? They’ve had a couple of good days lately — maybe it’s just temporary?
- Physically my pet is doing well, are their mental issues really worth letting them go?
I’ve counseled people through all these questions and more.
I’ve done it by setting aside my own grief at an upcoming loss and keeping in mind what I really need to be for them: a sounding board, an empathetic shoulder and, most of all, someone who knows their pet and all their ailments and is able to give that person permission to let their pet go.
I have stood in the office with the smell of antiseptic in the air and watched the candle light up that indicates a pet is crossing the rainbow bridge … and known just which pet it was.
And it’s hard. Those moments bring back my own grief so sharply of the day I carried my German Shepherd, Gypsy, into the office for the last time and came out with empty arms.
But pet sitters step into this role willingly, with love, because we know that ultimately we are there to be an advocate for the animals we love. We’re there to be a voice for them and a shoulder for their parents.
“What Do You Think?”
“What do you think?” is probably the most common question a pet sitter hears regarding failing pets.
We come to dread it in some cases because what we think is probably not what you want to hear — and because it’s just as difficult for pet sitters to think about.
However, it’s even worse when we don’t get asked that question; when we’re dealing with a pet parent who cannot bring themselves to see that things are getting bad.
An elderly pet can suffer from an endless number of ailments. Some are completely manageable with medication and accommodations. Others gradually grow worse until the suffering cannot humanely be mitigated in any way. Looking at this animal who has become such a large part of your life and telling the pet parent, “Yes, it’s time to let her go” is intensely difficult.
The flip side is that if we don’t have this conversation, a pet parent can sometimes allow their pet to linger on, and the pet suffers.
I’ve watched someone hang on to their dog much longer than they should have, and I can tell you from experience that it is far more difficult to watch an animal struggle in agony day by day than to let him go.
This particular dog suffered from crippling arthritis and joint issues, but his caretaker had a difficult time accepting that the dog’s quality of life was so bad that humane euthanasia was the better choice. After watching that happen, I vowed to always have that conversation with my clients, no matter how hard it was.
Since that time, I’ve had 4 such conversations with pet parents regarding their elderly pets. It never gets any easier. But I won’t ever see an animal suffer and say nothing, and I know most pet sitters feel exactly the same way.
Dealing With Denial
If someone is allowing their pet to linger and suffer, pet sitters have to take the difficult step of bringing up the pet’s quality of life.
This conversation can lead to a number of outcomes, up to and including an enraged pet parent tossing you out of their home and out of their pet’s life.
The best outcome, though, is that the person really listens and begins to accept that their pet is suffering.
Your pet sitter can help you talk through your pet’s ailments and what they mean. We can also help by going to veterinary visits with you, asking questions or doing research for you.
For pets with ailments that are not yet life-altering, we can help you come up with solutions to make your and their life easier. Simple things like ramps and stairs for arthritic pets, makeshift bumpers for blind pets, and pee pads or doggy diapers can make a huge difference.
Ultimately, we’re there to be a voice for your pet because we love them.
The worst thing you can do is deny that there is a problem, because it’s the pet who suffers. In extreme situations, pet sitters can be placed in the unenviable position of having to contact authorities to report hoarding or neglect. There are no words to express how much we don’t want to have to take that step.
Let us help you. It’s our function and our calling.
Medical Advice: Best Left to Your Vet
Pet sitters are not veterinarians. While we can certainly give examples of situations we’ve encountered, in a medical situation your first call needs to be to the pet’s veterinarian.
We’re not stand-ins for medical care, and most of us are going to be very cautious about giving any kind of medical advice. Practically, because we have insurance companies that will be quite unhappy if we inadvertently cause the death of a pet. Much more importantly, because we care about that pet and are terrified of getting it wrong.
Recently I had a situation with a dog I care for whom I absolutely adore. She’s a husky mix and a chewer. When I arrived for her visit, I discovered that she had chewed up a battery-operated window candle. The problem was that the batteries were nowhere to be found, which meant she may have eaten them.
My client asked me if I thought the dog was going to die. With proper medical care, probably not. But battery acid is obviously extremely toxic and dangerous.
I cleared out my schedule to stay and supervise until the pet dad could leave work, get home and take her to the vet. Because could she have died? Most certainly. Am I a qualified medical professional with years of veterinary schooling to be able to speak with certainty? Not at all.
She ended up being totally fine, thank goodness. She thought it was great — she got all the attention!
But remember, your first line of defense is always your pet’s veterinarian. Your pet’s vet can sit down with you and discuss your pet’s illnesses or ailments and how they will affect your individual pet. The vet can offer pharmaceutical and therapeutic solutions to practical problems.
A pet sitter’s role is one of support, and most of us are more than happy to flex our day and our schedule to get your pet to the vet when needed and in an emergency. But we can’t tell you what will happen medically. If you feel you cannot sit down and have a heart-to-heart, honest discussion with your vet, then it’s time to change vets.
A Note to My Fellow Pet Sitters
If you’re a pet sitter reading this, you’re probably nodding and maybe even shedding a few tears.
It’s tough. Everyone looks at a pet sitter’s job like it’s all playful joy and maybe some poop, and there’s plenty of both. But there are also long nights sitting up wondering about a pet you’ve had in your care, long conversations that wring your heart dry and, at the end of it all, a tearful goodbye.
“Professional pet sitters are caregivers, so they can fall prey to compassion fatigue,” explains Pet Sitters International.
It takes a toll, so my fellow pet sitters — remember to take care of yourself and give yourself permission to grieve. You’ve had to be a pillar of strength for the pet and the pet’s person through the end-of-life process, and it’s immensely draining.
Take some time off to process your grief. It’s tempting to rush on to your next visit, but sometimes you need a little buffer in between.
Talk to friends and fellow sitters, share stories about your lost pet, and engage in self-care. You cannot pour from an empty glass, and giving yourself time to refill it will only enable you to provide better care to your other clients and their pets.
In the video below, Vox explains more about why losing a dog feels like losing a family member:
Pet parents, if you’re approaching an end-of-life scenario with your pets, please don’t be afraid to allow your pet sitter to be part of the process.
We’ve been there, believe me, with our own pets and with others. We’ve seen dozens of pets approach their personal dusk of days.
- For myself, I’ve seen dogs who are so crippled by arthritis they cannot walk without falling or even defecate normally.
- I’ve seen dogs blind, deaf and disoriented.
- I’ve seen dogs who are doing well physically but suffering from mental issues like dementia that make their lives unbearable.
In each case, I’ve been there to quietly advocate for the pet and help the pet parent make the hardest decision of their lives. It’s part of a pet sitter’s unspoken function, and it’s an honor and a privilege.
We’re here to listen, to talk about your pets and all their wonderful personality traits. We’ll laugh with you and be a shoulder for you to cry on. Most of us are probably going to ugly cry with you.
Thank you for letting your pets be part of our lives.
- Barker, Sandra B. and Barker, Randolph T. “The Human-Canine Bond: Closer Than Family Ties?” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 10, no. 1 (January 1988): 46–56. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232524029_The_human-canine_bond_Closer_than_family_ties.
- Messam, Locksley L.McV. and Lynette A. Hart. “Persons Experiencing Prolonged Grief After the Loss of a Pet.” In Clinician’s Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues (2019): 267–280. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128129623000150/.
- Ryback, Ralph, MD. “Why Losing a Pet Hurts So Much.” Psychology Today. Aug. 22, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201608/why-losing-pet-hurts-so-much.
- Yonan, Joe. “The Death of Pet Can Hurt as Much as the Loss of a Relative.” Washington Post. March 26, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-death-of-pet-can-hurt-as-much-as-the-loss-of-a-relative/2012/02/21/gIQALXTXcS_story.html.
- Axelrod, Julie. “Grieving the Loss of a Pet.” Psych Central. Jan. 14, 2020. https://psychcentral.com/lib/grieving-the-loss-of-a-pet/.
- Carr, Kristen. “When a Pet Passes Away: A Pet Sitter Perspective.” Sept. 13, 2015. Well Minded. http://www.wellmindedpets.com/blog/2015/9/13/when-a-pet-passes-away-pet-sitter-perspective.
- “5 Ways That Pet Sitters Can Respond to the Death of a Client’s Pet.” 2017.
Pet Sitters International. https://www.petsit.com/5-ways-pet-sitters-can-respond-to-death-of-pet.