Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Do's and Don'ts When Your Friend's Pet is Ill or Dying

     It can be difficult to know what to say or do when you hear that someone has an ill or dying companion animal at home.  Your own feelings, experiences and judgments mix with those of your friend and loved one.  Here are some ideas to consider:


     1.  Do acknowledge the situation.  Your friend or loved one needs to know they are not alone and that you appreciate the difficulty of the situation.

     2.  Do say, “I’m Sorry.”  Sometimes that is all anyone wants to hear in a difficult situation – whether an illness or loss.  You don’t have to fix the problem, you just have to show empathy.

     3.  Do offer to help out.  When a human is ill, offers of all sorts of help great and small come in.  Not so with pets and yet there may be a lot that needs doing.  Offer to drive the pet to an appointment or for a treatment.  Offer to pick the kids up at school so the parent can take care of the animal.  Offer to come over and watch the pet for an hour or so in order to give the caregiver a break.  See if you can pick up something at the pet store or vet for them.

     4.  Do visit.  Your friend or loved one may feel overwhelmed and alone.  Being there with him or her can provide grounding and relief.

     5.  Do make yourself available on short notice for emergencies.  Make it clear to your friend or loved one that if they need help in an emergency situation, you can help.  Whether that is coming over to watch children in the middle of the night while the parent takes the pet to an emergency clinic, or taking the pet to the vet when the person is at work, or checking in on the pet who is going through a tough time, this assistance can be critical.  Make sure that your friend knows when they can call you.  It is Ok to call in the middle of the night?  Or only when you are awake?  What is too early and too late to call?  When are you available?  What are you able and willing to do?  Fill in the blanks for the person.  Don’t assume they know.  Be clear about your availability and your willingness to help. 


     1.  Don’t ignore the situation or dismiss the gravity or the illness.  A companion animal is a family member.  Imagine the pet is the person’s human child.  Don’t say anything about the pet or the pet’s illness that you wouldn’t say about a child.

     2.  Don’t recite stories about other pets in a similar situation.  Unless there is an idea that can help the person’s animal contained in the story, most people do not want to hear endless stories about other animals, especially if they end badly.

     3.  Don’t offer a miracle cure or unrealistic expectations.  All creatures get sick; all creatures die.  This pet may or may not live, but hope for an unlikely cure or treatment can bring more sadness, disappointment and frustration to the family.

     4.  Don’t offer religious advice.  Unless you know the person’s religious leanings and share them with him or her, words like “It’s God’s will” and the like can be hurtful and frustrating for many.

     5.  Don’t act like the person is crazy as the animal is “only a pet.”  If this is your belief, keep it to yourself.  

     6.  Don’t suggest that the person can simply replace this animal with another pet.  What if someone said that about your child?


  1. This is a so needed, much appreciated topic that you addressed.

    As a caregiver for companion animals, I frequently am called in to offer respite for the human counterparts in the pets' life and to just "be there" to offer physical and emotional comfort to said pet, or in many cases, to just check to see how things are "progressing" and relay that to the humans while the are away doing life: work, unexpected emergency travel, etc.

    In our society, life doesn't stop easily for the act of human death, with work obligations and the like, and the impending death of a pet is qualified even less.

    This is great advice for everyone with those that have pets in their lives.

  2. Thank you, Lorrie. You are so right - we need to give people the time, space and support to grieve all losses, human and animal. Sounds like you are doing wonderful work. Your families are lucky to have such a conscientious and kind caregiver.