Local experts share advice on the grief of pet loss
11 months ago
Bubba was a force of his own. A Pembroke corgi who thought he was "part cat, part person," he wiggled himself into the center of every gathering and snuck a sip from any unattended drink he could. When Bubba developed two tumors on his adrenal gland, owner Dr. Kim Gower spared no expense in his treatment. "I call him my 'Million Dollar Corgi'," Gower says. "But my vets and I, we all knew he was worth it. He was Bubba." But even Bubba's peppy personality couldn't push back his pain forever, and when the Mighty Bubba passed, Gower wanted to find a way to honor his memory.
A friend introduced her to Richmond Animal Care and Control (RACC), the city of Richmond's open-admission animal shelter, to make a donation in Bubba's name. She left a volunteer and a committed believer in the power of fostering and rescue work to help heal after a pet loss.
Experts agree that it's important to take your time bringing a new animal into your home after you've lost a pet. "Your pet was a significant part of your life," says grief counselor Anisa Glowczak. "Pay attention to your feelings and you'll know when you're ready to begin a new relationship." But for those who aren't sure they're ready for a lifetime commitment: "fostering can be a great option," says Elizabeth Thomas, Executive Director of Richmond Animal League. Typically lasting from three weeks to six months, these short-term placements are now a vital part of most animal rehabilitation networks, allowing stressed or abused animals the chance to heal outside of the overwhelming kennel environment and opening desperately-needed space in overcrowded shelters. "Plainly put: fostering saves lives," says the Richmond Animal League. Gower agrees: "There are so many shelters around the country, so many that euthanize because they don’t have space." Gower credits RACC’s director, Christie Chipps-Peters, with developing a successful and extensive fostering program and driving their save rate to over 90%.
Once placed in a homelike space, animals can reveal facets of their personality that help foster families find them the right placement. And it can allow grieving pet owners the chance to have the comforts of animal companionship without the guilt of some may feel over 'replacing' the animal they've lost. But it's important to be prepared for some realities. "Realize that an older dog from a shelter is going to need a lot of love but also a lot of training because it may have come from bad circumstances," says Gower. Also, sometimes the animals most in need of fostering are suffering from terminal diseases. For some hospice foster providers, offering an animal a happy place to spend their final days gives them a deep sense of purpose. However, someone struggling with pet grief may find the experience too close to their own loss.
Of course, sometimes fostering can be the start of a whole new relationship. After working with so many animals she had to convert her garage into her "animal sanctuary," Gower found herself falling in love with two puppies whose adoptions fell through, Teddy and Izzy. "They’re delightful: loving, beautiful, really well-behaved. We did an DNA test: they had 53 different breeds, so I call them my Heinz 53's."
Whether someone is adopting their first pet or bringing a new pet home after a loss, Gower has some advice on how to make the relationship work. "People think working with pets stops at potty training, but if you want pets to enrich your life, you have to work hard: you have to socialize them, train them so they behave in a way that’s going to work with you and your family. That's something a lot of people don’t understand. Don't be afraid to get help from a good professional trainer. I still do." And be ready for the basics, too: "Puppies have accidents. Thank god for laminate floors."
You are not alone: Find support in our online Pet-Loss Grief Group.
Need some local support? Our Richmond Pet Loss Resources Directory can help.
Learn more about pet grief in these articles from Dr. Sandy Barker at CHAI at VCU and Anisa Glowczak of Good Mourning Counseling.