Putting a beloved pet to sleep is a source of devastation for any pet owner, but it also may surprisingly cause a lot of guilt as well. Guilt often intensifies the sense of loss and can initiate feelings of self-doubt and prolong the healing process. Even in times of pet illness, guilt can play a role.
Sometimes these things just happen. Animals can't talk, and clinical signs may be few or very subtle. As animal lovers, we do the best we can and try to learn from each experience.
What Is It?
Many definitions exist for the word guilt, but the one that fits best for pet-related guilt is "feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy". Pets depend on us for food and shelter and cannot directly tell us how they feel, so when something happens to our pet (i.e. illness, accident, death), the feelings of letting your pet down often turn to feelings of guilt, anger or denial. The questions of "Why didn't I notice this problem?", "Did I act quickly enough?" and "Did I do all that I possibly could?" are common. It is hard to be objective when it comes to our pets.
Mild guilt may actually be helpful; learning from a mistake or learning how to better observe a pet for signs of illness are positive results from guilt-induced self-examination. When the guilt intensifies or won't go away, that is when it can be damaging to self-esteem and to other relationships.
How to Cope
Guilt has been described as anger turned inward, and is often associated with the emotion of anger, one of the "five stages of grief". Everyone recovers from grief at different rates, but here are some tips to reduce the amount of anger/guilt and start the process of healing.
- Go easy on yourself. Stop the critical self-talk. Know that you did the best you could under the circumstances. Accidents happen, illnesses happen, and people make mistakes.
- Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member; someone with some perspective on the situation.
- Try to redirect the feelings of inadequacy or wrongdoing to the times that you shared with your pet in good health; the times that you provided for your pet and took great care of your pet.
- Speak to your veterinarian if you have lingering questions about your pet's condition.
- Speak to a grief counselor or phone a pet loss hotline for support.
Releasing the guilt doesn't mean that you don't or didn't care for your pet. Getting rid of the angry and destructive feelings of guilt is healthy for everyone involved.