October 8, 2008 12:00 p.m.

Advice for Pet Owners

Linda Anderson
Author and co-founder of Angel Animals Network
Wednesday, October 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

Linda Anderson helps animal lovers address the emotional turmoil and unhappiness that comes with the loss of a pet in her co-authored book "Saying Goodbye to Your Angel Animals: Finding Comfort After Losing a Pet." Anderson and her husband, Allen, are the founders of Angel Animals Network, an organization dedicated to helping people discover and benefit from the powers of animals. The Andersons are also the authors of "Rescued: Saving Animals From Disaster," "God's Messengers: What Animals Teach Us About the Divine" and several other publications. She was online Wednesday, Oct. 8, at noon ET to answer questions.

Please join us again Thursday, Oct. 9, for another discussion on pet care with John Garcia from National Geographic's DogTown. And check out washingtonpost.com's Pets section anytime!


Linda Anderson: Pet loss may be one of the most debilitating experiences you have had. You probably never expected it to hurt as much as it does. The grief is often compounded by people who underestimate depth and length of your need to mourn and who make comments that are hurtful. Dealing with pet loss makes us face death closeup, in our own homes. It opens us to questions about the afterlife and whether we'll see our dear friend again. For children in the family it's often their first exposure to death. You may feel at a loss for how to answer their questions, especially when you're still vulnerable. The other animals in your family are also grieving. How to help them? Let's take this journey together today. We've all been there. We all understand.


Norfolk, Va.: We just lost our second of two English Cockers, both from chronic and devastating diseases -- diabetes and liver cancer. Are certain breeds susceptible to these horrendous diseases and what is the best source to identify these breeds? The usual books and Web sites seem to gloss over species health issues. And what part should breeder have in improving the health of their breeds?

Linda Anderson: To have two losses like you've experienced is very emotionally draining. It's no wonder that you want to research more about breeds and the diseases they are prone to have. There are three sources you could try. First, ask your veterinarian about the breed. Most of them are knowledgeable because they see the animals who consistently suffer from certain diseases. Second, go online and research the groups that form around various breeds. They often have Q&A and FAQ that allow you to get some hands-on information. English Cocker Spaniel Club of America Inc., http://www.ecsca.org is an example. Third, check with organizations that rescue the type of breed you are researching. They, too, are very knowledgeable. And yes, responsible breeders are careful about health issues.


Fort Bragg, Calif.: My lovely Lily, a 15-year-old Siamese, is dying. I try to be certain she has fresh water and just a bit of her favorite tuna...although her appetite has slowed down to almost nothing. I just don't know what else to do. When I fuss too much over her, she haltingly walks away. She still enjoys a morning sniff in the front yard with a small crunch of grass. Even though she's becoming weaker each day, I still find her waiting for me upstairs when I get up in the morning. I have to take a occasional break just to emotionally get through this yet i feel so guilty that I'm not doing more. Lily doesn't seem to be in any pain; she still gives me a weak purr and and yet I can't help wondering if there's anything I'm overlooking.

Linda Anderson: Lily has a dear friend in you. I'm sure she appreciates all the loving care you are giving to her. You are making her comfortable and keeping up with her routines as much as possible. Those things help her not be stressed. You might check out the information on The Nikki Hospice Foundation for Pets, founded by Kathryn Marocchino (http://pethospice.org) Pet hospice is an area that is growing now that most people view pets as family members. And as you say, give yourself a break from the sadness of saying goodbye to Lily. Know that her love and spirit will always be near.


Dumfries, Va.: I lost my beloved dog in 2006 after 18 years. I believe he's in Heaven. Do you?

Linda Anderson: I actually do believe this is true. Only the physical body is gone. The spirit lives on and of course, the love you shared will never die. Sometimes people see the animal in a vivid dream and are reassured that the pet is okay. So pay attention to your dreams!


Ashaway, R.I.: We went on a vacation and had a pet sitter living in our house to care for our two beloved cats. She left one of them outside either to freeze or starve to death. I can't get over how Pumpkin must have suffered, especially seeing all of his scratches on the doors and the places where light shows on the porch. I can hardly stand the pain. Please help me.

Linda Anderson: The guilt and regret you are feeling now is a natural part of the grieving process after pet loss. Yours is increased because of the circumstances with an irresponsible pet sitter. Try to reassure yourself that you did the best you could in this situation. No doubt, with how much you love your cats, you were careful about hiring this person and had no idea something like this would happen. Also, it may sound odd, but it's helped many people, consider writing a letter to Pumpkin. Pour out your feelings of regret and express your love and longing for him. Keep writing these letters for awhile until you start to remember the good times and aren't feeling as sad. You can place these letters with photos in a special memorial box. Know that Pumpkin loves you and wants you to be happy again. Give yourself the time and space to mourn him.


MOCKSVILLE, N.C.: My true 'best friend,' my 16-year-old long-haired chihuahua passed away three months ago while I was visiting my children in Arizona. My husband said he found him unresponsive in his favorite sleeping place early in the morning, four days before I was due home. I can't get anything done around the house, I'm even unable to unpack my luggage from that trip. All I can think of is my Freddy, who was born in the same litter as his sister, Mary. I still have Mary and two other chihuahuas, Tucker and Duke. Mary is now blind, but I seem to need to hold her constantly in my arms and on my lap. Freddy never ever left my side during his entire life. He followed me everywhere and my new husband seemed jealeous about him. I wonder if Freddy died from lonliness, thinking I wasn't coming back. Is that possible? I was gone only 11 days. How do I go on and stop this continual crying all times of the day and crying myself to sleep at night? I miss him so very, very much and really wonder if my husband might have taken the opportunity that I was absent from the home and did something to him. Freddy was the picture of health and extremely alert. He did have a seizure about six months before passing. Please help me sort out my thoughts! Thank you so very much.

Linda Anderson: Please accept my condelences over your loss of Freddy. An animal who has been such a close companion will be sorely missed. Two things come to mind to help you sort it out. First, we have received many stories of pets who died while their most beloved human was away. It seems that they sense how hurt you will be and try to spare you the pain by leaving when you are not physically present. This happens a lot! Second, this is a good time to sort out what emotional needs Freddy was filling for you and to see if you can meet those needs in other ways. Perhaps it's a conversation you could have with your husband. He probably feels bad about Freddy dying on his watch, too.


St. Louis, Mo.: Hi. What's the best way to comfort your pet when its best buddy passes away? I have two dogs and am left with one very sad pup.

Linda Anderson: There are several things you can do. It might sound unusual, but sit down with the surviving pet and tell him/her everything that happened as if you were explaining it to a child. Don't change the pet's routines. When he/she is playing or perking up, reward with affection and your attention. If it's possible, consider another animal companion, preferably younger than the survivor. That's worked for us in most cases but not every time. Each animal is individual. You'll know if the pet would relish a new relationship after the initial getting-used-to period.


Canada: Good morning: I lost my cat who was about 14 years old last week -- she was very healthy for her age -- until last week when she began to show signs of not being well and then deteriorated very quickly, we ended up having to put her down, and I am so sad. I miss her more than I ever thought I would, and I'm beginning to feel guilty and wondering if there is anything I could have or should have done differently... I find myself fighting tears at work... Do you have any advice as to how to get through this difficult period? Thank you.

Linda Anderson: When you've had a pet for a long time, you are losing one of your very best friends at her death. Understand that you are going through the process of grieving. It's messy. It lasts as long as it lasts. The feelings of guilt and regret are actually part of the healing. Try making a list of everything you did to show your pet that you loved her. Then read it over. You'll know that you gave your very best and your pet appreciated it. Try talking with people who understand. Don't talk about this with people who are insensitive. Take care of yourself in all the self-care ways that work for you.


Washington, D.C.: Our cat just passed away at home a few days back but our family is racked with guilt because he was clearly ill (he had come home from the hospital just a few days) but our doctors said that he was ill but felt it best for him to recover at home. He died in his favorite place and we were with him at the end but we are really ill at the thought that he suffered at the end (we would have preferred he be put to sleep without any pain). Our doctors have told us that he did not suffer from pain (he was suffering from renal failure) but this doesn't ameloriate the pain at all -- we cared for him so much but I feel like I failed him in the end. How can we move forward?

Linda Anderson: Your doctor was wise to tell you to take the cat home. Cats get very stressed out when they are out of their familiar territory. What a blessing that he passed away with his family and comforted by your love! You absolutely did the right thing and have no reason for regret, especially since he wasn't in pain. Take time now to remember the cat and have a memorial service for him. Invite family and friends who knew him. This will help you find the peace your need.


Southwest Pa.: How do you help the other pets in your house greive? I lost the older of my two cats, Choo Choo, this past Sunday. He died here at home. I'd heard from several sources in recent years that it helps the surviving pet to see the dead pet's body. So I showed Choo Choo's body to my younger cat, Booker, who very gently stroked Choo Choo's paw twice. It's clear to me that he knows his buddy is dead. Booker has been hanging around me -- it's helping me grieve. He seems okay, except that sometimes he sits and looks like he's wondering what to do with himself now that his friend of several years is gone. Is there something I can do for him?

Linda Anderson: Booker seems to be handling Choo Choo's passing well. As long as he's still eating and not doing anything destructive, he's on a good track for healing and recovery. It's wonderful that he's helping you to grieve. Showing him Choo Choo's body is one of the best things you could have done for him. He gets the scent and understands instinctively that Booker is gone. Now, continue to be patient with him and yourself as you both take time to mourn Choo Choo.


Ashburn, Va. : How do you help children deal with the loss of a pet, when you're hurting and trying to deal with the loss yourself?

Linda Anderson: Children deal with their feelings and with death differently than adults. One of the best things you can do is to ask the child to sit with you and draw pictures of the pet and their life together. This will help your child begin to talk and express emotions. Questions will arise. Don't use euphemisms, e.g. Fluffy went to sleep. It scares children about going to sleep. Answer with age-appropriate answers. "Fluffy is gone. He's not coming back here. He was sick. We miss him very much."


Washington, D.C.: I love all dogs and have two little ones. The thing about little dogs is that generally they live longer than big dogs. It's like you can postpone the inevitable. Having been through this, I can say that nothing compares to the sadness of losing a dog.

However, large or small, the thought of their death would never keep me from the joy they bring to life every day!

Linda Anderson: You make a great point. Although their lifespans are so much shorter than ours, would we really want to give up all the joy they bring? I know I wouldn't!


Westfield, N.J.: My 17-year-old cat was diagnosed last week with a probable brain tumor, which has been causing seizures (about 8 seizures in the last 10 days). The vet has put her on an anti-seizure medication -- which isn't working too well so far -- and says that's all he can really do beyond extremely expensive treatment that he doesn't recommend. She doesn't seem to be in pain, but is somewhat disoriented (probably from the medication) and generally doesn't seem very happy. I'm trying to decide what's best for her, but it's so hard... I don't want to keep her alive just so I'll feel better, but also don't want to have her put down prematurely in case the medicine kicks in and she improves. Any advice?

Linda Anderson: My first instinct is that if she is not in pain, follow your vet's advice and be patient. It's always amazed me at how well animals communicate that it's time for them to go. From what you've said, you're not getting indications from her that she wants to leave yet other than the disorientation. If she begins to suffer and it's clearly she who is unhappy, you can consider next steps. Again, talk with your vet if you have a good relationship and trust his/her judgment. You will know what to do.


Rochester, N.Y.: Thank you for the work you do. In the last year, I had to leave my beloved dog in a place that was very good for him but dangerous for myself. He was treated like gold. But I had to leave for my own safety and couldn't take him with me. I wanted to go back to get him later but it wasn't possible. I know it was the right thing to do, and know he understands but how can I heal this pain of leaving someone I loved dearly. How can I get past the pain of leaving him?

Linda Anderson: Your grief sounds as if it is compounded by the other circumstances that caused you to have to do what was best for the pet and for yourself. This is known as complicated grieving. It's tied in with the other losses you're experiencing. As you sort through the layers of pain, hopefully with professional help, the feelings you have about your dog will also start to heal. As long as you know the dog is safe, you also know you did the best you could. If there is any way for you to volunteer at an animal shelter, it will give you an outlet for the love you want to express and receive. They always need dog-walkers and people to help reassure the dogs that not all humans will hurt them. Rescued dogs, cats, etc. rescue us.


Nokomis, Fla.: Do you think that the person from CA will have to take Lily, her precious cat, to the vet to be put down or should she just let her die slowly at home?

Linda Anderson: Some vets now do home visits for euthanization. If Lily begins to suffer and takes a turn for the worse, this may be an option for her. I'm in favor of a home visit for this procedure, because it's less stressful for the animals and the humans can spend all the time they need in comfortable surroundings while they process what has happened.


Sudbury, Ontario Canada: My concern is for my daughter who is about to lose her friend and dear companion of 17 years. Her beautiful Burmese cat "Elmo" He is very ill. In dreams he has told her that he's staying around only for her. He feels compelled to stay in a painful body because he knows it would be very hard for her. How can I help her learn to let him go? ...she is almost there but not quite. Thank you for your help.

Linda Anderson: Your concern is well-taken. Animals will definitely stay for us long after they would have chosen to make the transition from life to afterlife. Dreams are a powerful way that animal souls communicate with humans. In dreams the mental censors are mercifully silenced for awhile and the person is more spiritually open to soul-to-soul communication. Your daughter is fortunate to have such a clear message from Elmo. Encourage her to consult with her vet and see if he/she confirms Elmo's message. She'll heal and recover from this better if she knows she did what was best for him.


Springfield, Va.: I lost my 15-year-old cat Tiger back in the '70s. I was only a teen at the time. In 2006, as I was waking up, I felt what seemed to be a cat walking past my head. As I looked up, it was Tiger, my wonderful friend and favorite cat. Shortly after that I woke up and could still feel warmth on my shoulder. I don't know what I believe in, but I sure believe in something. I know that was Tiger, years later... and I haven't had a cat since that time. So there's a Heaven for them and they are still with us...

Linda Anderson: As we say here where I am in Minnesota, "You betcha!" We have been writing books in the Angel Animals series for over a decade now. We receive stories all the time about animals who make after-death visitations. Most of the letters to us start with saying, "You're not going to believe this. . ." But we do. What a blessing you had with Tiger returning in spirit to reassure and comfort you. The love never dies.


Washington, D.C.: I'm sorry this is not about the passing of a pet, but a question about whether to leave our 2-year-old cat Maggie home alone for the upcoming long weekend with someone coming every day to change her food/water and play with her for at least an hour, or bring her with us to New York. I just feel like we upset her more when we bring her with us since she is out of her element, but I don't know if it's worse to leave her alone for several nights with a stranger coming in once a day (the "stranger" is my wife's sister, so she knows her somewhat.) Again I'm sorry that this is off topic but I want to do what is best for Maggie and make her feel comfortable.

Linda Anderson: Of course, you'll have to decide what's best based on Maggie's disposition and her usual pattern when you travel from home. Considering your sister-in-law is someone Maggie has met, perhaps she could spend a bit more time playing with her so Maggie associates her with fun. She could also come over while you're there and be the one to feed her. Cats tend not to like their routines changed. They're creatures of habit and love to keep those home fires burning.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for having this discussion. No real question, just needing to vent.

I had four indoor cats and have been taking care of a number of outside strays for a number of years. From mid-March to early July of this year, I lost three of them. My oldest indoor 15 year old to cancer. Three weeks later, one of the outside strays just died on my couch at only six years old (autopsy revealed he had an enlarged heart). The last one, another outside stray, who was old and developed an oral tumor, was put down on July 1.

The hardest thing was that all of them died during one of the busiest and most stressful times at work and entailed two big business trips. Also, NONE of the folks that I work directly with have pets or are animal people. I still feel quite exhausted and drained. Luckily though, I still have a number of cats that require my daily attention and love so my routine has more or less stayed the same.

Linda Anderson: Thanks for all you are doing to help the stray cats. Do you know about Alley Cat Allies? This is an organization that provides support, techniques, equipment, and information for people who want to care for the stray and feral cats. You might find that there are other people near you in the organization that share your love and interest. It's tough to go through all this alone. Maybe some cat-loving allies will help you as you continue your service.


Help! My girlfriend and I want to get a dog -- we're both 28. I want a big dog I can run with, like a golden or a lab. She wants something cute that won't shed -- a goldendoodle or a cockapoo? Any suggestions how we compromise?

Linda Anderson: I'm not a breed expert but a friend of ours got a standard poodle who doesn't shed and is big enough for a good romp in the park. If you do some Internet research or look at dog breed books, you'll probably find exactly the type of dog that works for both of you. A good exercise in compromise. Something I know about since my husband Allen and I have been married for 25 years AND work together.


Linda Anderson: I hope this chat has been helpful to all of you who are or have gone through pet loss.

I'm reminded of a story in our new book, Angel Dogs with a Mission, about the first service dog for a person with a physical disability. This was back in the 1970s when it was a brand new idea. The dog, Abdul, served Kerrill Knaus-Hardy and was trained by Bonnie Bergin. He grew from mischievous puppy to incredibly tuned in service dog. He gave Kerry and all the people since then who have service dogs the freedom they so much deserve. When Kerry was in Canada going to school, she had to part with Abdul who was too old and sick to make the journey with her. On the day, the very moment, that Bonnie sent a new dog to take Abdul's place, Abdul passed away. His job was finished.

That's how it is with people and animals. The love bond transcends death. Always remember this and it will console you as you heal and love again.


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