Paige Garnett, DVM
I was returning from a hike near Horsetooth Reservoir, outside of Fort Collins. The dogs were hot. Beside the road, I saw a concrete drainage ditch feeding the reservoir. I thought a swim might be fun for them. At the last minute, thinking how hard it would be to get the dogs back out of the water, I changed my mind and called the dogs back. One came, but my young lab golden retriever Chipper jumped in.
I watched in terror as she was swept downstream into a tunnel and under the mountain -- unable to swim the strong current in the canal. She drowned. I became frantic, hysterical and physically ill. The overwhelming grief and sadness was much more than I thought I could bear. As her owner, I was supposed to look out for her. She trusted me to look out for her! I was training as a veterinarian; was I so irresponsible that I allowed my own dog to drown while I watched?
Accidental deaths of pets leave no opportunity for owners to control the situation. If a pet dies naturally, the owner can usually accept that his "time had come," whether attributing it to old age, disease, or simply the will of God. An owner chooses euthanasia for a pet only if it seems the best alternative, and often the owner has time to prepare for the death, even if only a few hours.
An owner might be able to control some aspects of his pet's death, insisting that it happen at home, scheduling a euthanasia injection when it seems appropriate, or arranging for body care. This may provide the chance to say goodbye and to see that death is peaceful. Accidental deaths usually happen so unexpectedly that one has no time to prepare, say goodbye, or arrange a peaceful last moment. Memories of violence and visceral reactions will add shock, horror and intensified guilt to the normal grief.
My own experience has helped me deal with the intense grief and sadness of my clients who experience the sudden deaths of their pets. Automobile accidents, poisonings and other unforeseen events haunt others as Chipper's drowning haunted me. We all can learn how to make our environments safer for our pets. Often pet owners that lose an animal through an accident take more care than ever with a new pet, perhaps leashing dogs for the first time or confining cats to the home instead of allowing them to wander. Those are practical responses.
I vowed to try to have the canals' tunnel intakes covered in Larimer County so no other animals would die, so needlessly. Still, accidents can haunt even the most careful owner. These owners need support and understanding, as I did, to help them begin to resolve their pain. Sometimes such support isn't available from friends or family, and professional guidance is needed to help begin the healing.
This article is courtesy of the Pet Loss Support Group of the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society.