Dealing With Ferret Death
By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.
I am going to turn from medically oriented topics this month and discuss a subject that may be difficult for many of you to read or think about. It has been difficult for me, as a veterinarian, to sort out and deal with over the years. That subject is the death of a pet. The reason I would like to spend a bit of time discussing it, is that I think there are some ideas we might consider and reflect upon when it comes time for a special friend to depart from our presence, that might make the loss a little easier to bear and understand.
I would like to concentrate on our attitudes about death, not on the grief process itself. There are a myriad of books written and grief therapy groups formed that can help one through the various normal and healthy emotions experienced when a loved one passes on, so I would like to leave the subject of the grieving process to the experts.
One of the biggest problems that those of us trained in Western medical philosophy have to deal with is an attitude that death is a failure. Certainly, those of us in the medical profession are taught to feel that we have failed, or the medicines have failed or the machines have failed, if death occurs. It is as if we are supposed to hold off the inevitable forever, which we know for a fact is not possible. So whenever, we as veterinarians face the loss of a pet that was our patient, and we are made to feel as if we have failed, then the pain of the situation is that much increased. The owners also feel that they have failed, by not doing enough or not catching a disease soon enough, etc. etc. So a large burden of guilt and bad feelings descend and surround the death of a pet which can make the death almost emotionally unbearable. The guilt can go on for years and years and cause great damage to people’s lives.
In my heart, I have somehow always felt that this was a wrong approach,
and I have talked to other veterinarians that felt the same way. We have seen the suffering pet, the animal that begs us with its eyes to let it slip into a more peaceful existence, and we somehow know that death is not a failure, but a release to the next stage of the journey that we call life. I have seen where more pain was created for the pet when owners clung so desperately to the physical shell of its poor little body that they did everything to prolong a life in misery, rather than allowing the release of the spirit from its body to move on to the next plane of existence.
Of course, none of us really know what happens after death, nor why death occurs in the way and the time that it does. We have the benefit of thousands of people who have now shared near death experiences which are all amazingly quite similar. There are hundreds of stories of people experiencing phenomena involving a deceased pet days to years after that pet has passed away. We have the benefit of our own personal religions and beliefs to explain where we will go after our physical selves are no longer functional.
Many of us believe that there is a purpose and reason for everything that happens and even the time and nature of the death of a pet can have a lesson for us, a gift, as I like to believe, that can be learned for future positive use. Many of us also believe that life, or rather the spirit or soul or whatever you choose to call it, does not end when the physical body is gone. So many of the ancient cultures had no doubt about it, back in the times when humans were more in tune with nature and less “civilized.” It gives me great comfort to believe that when my body is done and my spirit enters the next part of the journey, that I will be surrounded by all the wonderful animal friends that I have encountered in my professional and personal life. I have every reason to believe that animal souls are just as precious and important as human souls. These wonderful creations of nature give us so much joy and ask so little in return that I know they continue on.
I know that many will not agree with me, and feel that when the body is finished, the story is over. For these people, the pain of losing a pet is great indeed, because there is no comfort in knowing that the spirit goes on. But if you search your heart and your own soul, and find hope for a beautiful place for your pet’s spirit after his body is worn out, then there can be a certain beauty to the release of death. The sadness we feel at the physical loss of a friend must never be overlooked, because it is real and it is painful and it must be experienced and dealt with. But perhaps it will be a little easier to let go when the time comes if you believe that your friend has moved on to a place of great peace, beauty and painlessness and will be there to bring you along on that spiritual journey when your turn comes.
I have many people ask me how they know when it is time to let go of a pet, either by euthanasia, or by allowing a natural death, if you know your pet well, and you spend a lot of time with him or her, you will intuitively sense by the body language and the eyes when your pet is ready. For those of you who are so closely attached that it is difficult to see, ask a trusted friend or family member who also cares for your pet to help counsel you. Of course, your veterinarian can also give you very helpful guidance, but the decision is ultimately between you and your beloved friend. Ask yourself, if you were in that pet’s position, how you would wish to be treated. Some animals ask to go early, and others want to stay right up to the end. If you feel comfortable with it. I think that it is preferable to have the pet pass away at home, if he or she is not in great pain or discomfort. If you choose to do this, realize that many pets prefer to die quietly alone at night or when you are out of the house. If you are trying very hard to keep them with you, I believe that they sense that it is easier for you and for them to let go if they die in a quiet place alone. If it is determined by you and your veterinarian that the best choice is euthanasia, then I recommend that you or a person close to your pet be in the room with him to comfort him on his passage out of this life. Do not feel badly if this is something that you cannot do, because it is very difficult and painful, and it requires a great deal of courage as well as the love you already feel. If you cannot be with your pet, you might ask that a member of the animal hospital staff that has become familiar with your pet be the one to hold and comfort it during the procedure.
Above all, remember that it is the quality of your pet’s life that you must keep in mind whenever you make decisions for him or her, whether it is what kind of cage to keep him in, how much time you can spend with him, or what extent of medical care that he will receive. Our pets ask that we do what we can to make them comfortable and happy and keep them with us as long as we can. But they also ask us to let go with love and remembrance when the time comes that they must journey from this life into the next one.
As always, give them all hugs and kisses for me, and I wish them all long and happy lives and beauty and peace in the next world.