Bereaved pet owners struggle with grief

Jane Shaw called Jake her angel dog. Jake saw her through vet school, through her father’s death, through a divorce and into private practice. He even did therapy work.

Doreen Disbro

Doreen Disbro

LOS ANGELES — Jane Shaw called Jake her angel dog. Jake saw her through vet school, through her father’s death, through a divorce and into private practice. He even did therapy work.

“He had a good sense about him. He was very reasonable. He kind of went through life at a good pace. He wasn’t lethargic or excitable,” Shaw said.

But 11 years ago, Shaw lost Jake to a car accident. She didn’t just lose a pet, she lost her hiking partner, someone she took care of, someone she’d built her life around.

Through the grief came a question familiar to those who have lost a special pet: Should she get another pet? And when?

“It is healthy to have a transition period. In grieving, we’re taking time to honour the pet we lost. Grief is so miserable,” said the veterinarian, who is now director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

People used to think getting a new pet right away was as important as getting back on a bicycle after you fall off. But a little time will generally help, Shaw said.

There are no wrong answers about if and when to get a new pet — just a few wrong turns. Some people will mistakenly try to “replace” a lost pet, she said, trying to find an animal that looks, sounds and behaves the same. Some people will even give the new pet the same name.

A few have tried cloning, but “while you can get a genetic replication, you can’t get the same personality or temperament,” Shaw said.

It took Shaw 11 months to get a new dog.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t pull the trigger too fast. Whoever this new dog was had really big paws to fill. I wanted to make sure he had a chance,” she said.

It’s been 10 years now and Cliff — another mutt from a shelter — is everything she could want in a best friend.

Doreen Disbro of Indianapolis, Ind., lost her German shepherd named Tandy to hip disease in 2003, and she’s still grieving.

“I didn’t put her things, her toys, away for several weeks. I would lay next to her bed,” she said.

For two months, she came home to an empty house every night and was miserable, said Disbro, an administrative assistant for a medical informatics firm and a pet blogger.

“There will never be another Tandy,” she said. But she knew she could give another dog a good home and lots of love, so about eight weeks after Tandy died, she adopted Millie, who is seven now. Soon after, Millie was joined by Riley Elizabeth, 6, a Lab mix; and Kiko, a year-old Boston rat terrier.

The shepherd’s loss still hurts, especially when she sees a dog that looks like her, or an old photo or a stuffed animal like one Tandy used to play with.

“Lost love and memories can beautifully coexist with new love and happiness,” Ingrid King wrote after her cat Amber died in May.

A month before Amber died, King adopted a kitten named Allegra.

“I will eventually add a second cat to our family, but I’m just not ready,” said King, an author and former veterinary hospital manager from Herndon, Va.

Some people use time between pets to travel, start a family, move, take a new job. Some older people are reluctant to take in a new pet for fear the pet will outlive them. Every person, every pet, every relationship is different. Most people know when it is time to get a new companion, Shaw said. Or the pet will find them.

Brett Holmes was fresh out of college when he found George at a shelter near Dallas. For 14 years, Holmes and the yellow Lab mix were inseparable, living in Los Angeles, where George went to work with Holmes every day and they ran each morning or night — or both.

When Holmes was a single parent, George ran alongside him and his son, wearing out three strollers in four years.

“I’ve come to understand that George represented the best of life — during a special period of mine in which he inspired me to seize each day and do my best to make my life extraordinary,” said Holmes, who now lives in Austin, Texas, where he works for a pet food company.

It’s been 10 years since George died. Holmes hasn’t gotten another pet because “I couldn’t seem to get past my memories of George.”

But he’s met others who had similar relationships with their pets and “I’ve learned to be more honest about my feelings about George, and acknowledge to others and to myself my profound sense of loss and sorrow,” he said.

So he has been visiting shelters and is openly looking for a new friend to share some different times with. It won’t be the roller-coaster ride he and George took. Maybe this time they will walk more than they run.

Terri Lebo of Denver met Shaw when she took her dog Blue to Coloardo State for consultation when he was sick.

A month or two after Blue died of cancer in April 2009, Lebo started looking to adopt another dog. She found Whisper on a rescue website but was hesitant to adopt because the dog was about four, undergoing heartworm treatment.

“I was hesitant about adopting her because I was afraid of losing another pet too soon after losing Blue, but the vet reassured me that she could live a normal life if the treatment was successful. Whisper came from a very bad place and was completely shut down — terrified of everything.”

In the year since the adoption, Lebo said Whisper has blossomed, helping her deal with Blue’s loss.

“It really was the worst time of my life when Blue got sick but for some reason I managed to live through it,” Lebo said. “Maybe it was so I could help Whisper.”