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Pets: End of Life Care and Cremation

by Linda Banks

Image by Big Ben in Japan*

Pet professionals recognize the strong bond that gets established between humans and animals. They validate the unavoidable grief associated with the loss of a pet. Assistance with end of life plans and grief counseling is becoming an essential service that veterinarians provide.

If you have a pet, how can you prepare for the inevitable loss? Who will understand your grief? What help is available for a terminally ill pet?

Support for pet owners

The Argus Institute in Fort Collins, Colorado, is one of a growing number of organizations offering grief support for the loss of a pet. Argus is a part of Colorado State University (“CSU”) College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Services. The Institute provides free grief counseling relating to pet loss. They also provide support for pet owners making end of life decisions.

Founded in 1984, the Institute is one of the oldest support and counseling programs for pet owners in the country. We interviewed Maria Gore, MSW, and clinical counselor with the Argus Institute in December 2015. Ms. Gore stated, “Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital recognized as early as 1984 that pet owners needed that extra support as they navigate complex health decisions for their pets. Additionally, people benefit from the grief support we offer clients following the loss of their beloved pet.”

Ms. Gore said that most veterinary hospitals are beginning to offer support services. Veterinary schools now include compassionate communication in the veterinary curriculum. “This aids in veterinary students developing the needed skills to have those difficult conversations with clients that come with end of life services,” she said.

Argus Institute primarily serves clients whose pets are being treated at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Their office is located within the hospital and they work with staff in all departments of the veterinary hospital. “We are an integral part of the medical team, and often clients meet with us via an introduction from the clinician treating their animal,” reports Ms. Gore.

The Institute also offers grief counseling on their clinic line. “Calls come in from someone in the same state, across the country or from around the world."

CSU in partnership with the Argus Institute operates an in-home pet hospice. The website describes the program: “The Colorado State University Pet Hospice Program is not a specific place, but a philosophy. It functions on the principle that death is a part of life. Terminal illnesses and the dying process can be experienced with dignity, as an animal rests at home with its loving family.” Hospice volunteers visit the homes of pets that are terminally ill. The volunteers, in close communication with the pet’s veterinarian, assist with pain management and end of life care in the comfort of the pet’s home.

Pet Memorials

The Argus Institute and other pet care organizations, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“ASPCA”), recommend creating a memorial for a pet when they die. This assists with the grieving process. CSU maintains a memorial Path of Honor created from bricks purchased by pet owners who lost a pet. The path, located on the beautiful Colorado State University campus, wanders through parks and flower gardens.

“Many individuals choose to make a donation to a specific organization in their pet’s name,” stated Ms. Gore. She mentioned that the Argus Institute hosts an annual Pet Memorial ceremony. Clients are invited to bring their pet photos and mementos. “It is a special event that creates a safe environment for a community of animal lovers, where they can openly share their grief among one another.”

Pet Cremation

Ms. Gore said that cremation is the most common choice among the Institute’s clients when their pets pass away, rather than burial. Cremation is a practical and manageable option. “I think people are becoming more aware of the various options they have in regards to their pet’s ashes,” she said. “There are many artistic options and ways they can keep their beloved pet close to them, such as cremation jewelry.”

Pet Cremation Urns

For those who choose to have their pets cremated there is a large variety of pet urns for ashes to hold the cremated remains. Pet photo urns hold a photograph of a pet along with their cremated remains. Pet cremation urns for cats and pet urns for dogs can be personalized with engraving. Pet ash necklaces are designed to hold a small portion of cremated remains and worn as a pendant. Scattering urns are available for pet owners who wish to scatter their pet’s ashes on a favorite path or trail. Traditional cremation urns for ashes are also available to display in your home or office.

Resources for End of Life Planning for Pets

Argus has an extensive list of resources available to pet owners at their website. Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org), of Bellevue, Washington, is a non-profit organization that provides end of life planning services and counseling for the loss of a pet.

The American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains a 24-hour toll free hotline to assist grieving pet owners. They also have more information on their website to assist with end of life care for a pet, how to help a child or older person who has lost a pet.

For children, the loss of the pet is often their first experience of death. It has the potential to influence how they will handle other losses in the future. Ms. Gore said, “Young children have active imaginations. It can be important for family members to share simple facts about death and euthanasia because their imaginations can create something worse than the truth.” Older people who lose a pet can also use support adjusting to their life without their animal companion.

*Image can be found athttp://bit.ly/1XPKkve

Linda Banks provided extended end-of-life care for her beloved Aunt who was like her mother. When her brother suddenly died, she was instrumental in orchestrating all of the details of his final wishes to be cremated. Linda has been an active blogger for ten years, including blogging about Willie Nelson and his family. Willie told her recently that he reads her blog every day.

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