GOD-DESS

Sensational Living®

Autumn 2007
© 2007 by Bret S. Beall

OUR ANIMAL COMPANIONS DESERVE LOVING LIVES AND LOVING DEATHS

I met Dr. Tamina Toray during the summer of 2005 when we were both doing work for the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). Observing her work and contributions, I was immediately impressed, and that was only enhanced when I began talking and communicating with her, not only because she is a magnificent human being, but also because her research specialty is pet bonding and death. I've known since then that I wanted to offer a column on pet bonding and death, because my own pets have always been truly important to my quality of life, and I know they have been important to many of you. Even though neither of us is involved with ADEC any longer, I contacted her about the possibility of doing an interview for Global Organic Lifestyle Services, and she immediately agreed.

However, that contact was quite a while ago, and other columns seemed to have priority. Alas, I like each column to have a personal touch, and a couple of recent events in my own life have made a column on pet bonding and death/grief relevant. One of my dearest friends recently had to have her beloved fourteen-year-old Keeshond dog, Kodi, euthanized. And to make it even more personal, my own white Persian, Luna, had been diagnosed with renal insufficiency, so her death was pending at the time of this interview; shortly after completing this interview, Luna had kidney failure and I euthanized her on September 28, 2007. To honor Kodi and Luna, and to help you appreciate the bonds you have with your own animal companions, and to better deal with their deaths, here is an exceptional interview with Dr. Tamina Toray.

Bret S. Beall (BSB): Tamina, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I know many, if not most, of my readers have pets, and love them beyond words, and will appreciate your sharing of your knowledge. How and when did you develop a relationship with animals? And how and when did you choose to study/research human bonding with animals and human response to animals' deaths?

Tamina Toray (TT): I've always had a tremendous affinity with animals, even in childhood. I never had as many animals as I would have liked. It was in my early adult years I had the opportunity to focus on the world of human-animal bond and loss. That was when I was teaching at Colorado State University. There was an amazing oncologist (cancer-specialist) at the vet school, Steve Withrow, who wanted to find a way to help grieving clients cope. So a couple of us Masters-level folks in counseling started an organization at the vet school, one of the first in the country, to help bereaved pet owners make decisions about end of life issues. That organization is now called the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine. Now I'm back in Oregon, and am a professor of psychology at Western Oregon University, and adjunct faculty at Oregon State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

BSB: I like to emphasize the living relationship with animals; cats, dogs and other animals have been an invaluable part of my own life. I also think my awareness of my animal companions' eventual deaths deepens the bond. Is this typical? Or is any other single response to death or pending death typical? Do you have any suggestions for how people can maximize their relationships with their animal companions?

TT: With regard to whether the knowledge of pending death increases attachment, attachment is so variable when it comes to our pets or companion animals. Some people are very attached; some are not so attached. If one is very attached, then the likelihood of pending death definitely increases the attachment, and it makes grief more palpable. So, like I say, the more attached we are, the more impact our pet's illness and death will have on us. However, there's no single typical response to our pets' illnesses or pending deaths. Everyone grieves differently. Grief is a completely unique experience. No single recipe, no one way of doing it. So grief, when it comes to our companion animals, would be as unique as the relationship itself. Most people find animals so inherently satisfying, that even with the pending death and potential grief, there's really no need to work to maximize the relationship.

BSB: There are many words to use for "dying" and "death." You prefer some over others. Please elaborate.

TT: This is when I get to get on my soapbox. I feel very strongly that we need to stay away from euphemisms when it comes either to the death of a pet or the death of a person. We use euphemisms because of our discomfort with the subject matter. But they almost always do more harm than good. As an example, we use euphemisms such as "passed away," "gone to a better place," "went to heaven," "went to sleep," and others when it comes to death and dying. Such euphemisms can be very confusing, especially for children, but even for adults; they can actually complicate our grief process. In my teaching at the vet school, I work very hard instructing vet students, when they are involved with the process of euthanasia, after the pet has died, once they are checking the heart, that they acknowledge that the pet has died, and to use the word "died" instead of saying "gone" or "they're not here." The reason is that the clients are really looking for the truth. There is always a gap when using euphemisms, a gap in terms of reality or truth. That gap creates confusion. In the case of a child, one can imagine, if you say you're going to put your dog or cat "to sleep" (in terms of euphemizing), and later that week you say to your child, "It's time to put you to sleep," that can be very frightening to a child. Another notion that is a euphemism would be "gone to heaven," which might be part of the value system of the family, but "heaven" is a very abstract term, and a child may not understand what that actually means. So we just need to be as clear as we can around death and dying.

BSB: How do you feel about bringing spirituality into pet grief counseling? Personally, I believe it is potentially important and relevant, but this is about your opinions.

TT: Spirituality and religiosity are very, very personal areas of one's life, and can be very, very important in the grief process. However, in supporting a friend or family member's grief, one needs to allow the bereaved to bring up the issue of spirituality or religiosity, and not the other way around. So it's not about a friend's values or a family member's values, or the counselor's values, it's about the bereaved person's values. An example might be that my dog is dying, and you're my good friend, and if I say to you, "I don't know why God is mad at me, I've done everything right, I've prayed and prayed and my dog's just not getting better"; I've now opened the door for you to make some supportive comment relating to my religiosity. Where I see this going wrong, for instance, is when people might impose their values on someone who is grieving. An example might be that my cat is dying, and I haven't told my friend about my spirituality or religiosity. That friend says, "This could be a good thing for you in the long run. You're a very spiritual person, and you always come out on the other side of this type of situation in the best way." Even though this might sound supportive, people get very defensive and angry when a value or outcome is imposed on them.

BSB: When a friend's beloved pet dies, what is the best thing I can do for, or say to, my friend?

TT: Well, I would not worry so much about one says, but instead turn it around, and be a very good listener. Listen, listen, listen, is what I would suggest. And among the very few things we should not say is anything that minimizes the pet, like, "Oh, she was just a cat. You can always get another one." I always suggest that bereaved pet owners find friends or family or coworkers that "get it." What I mean by that are people that you know are going to provide compassion and empathy. People do know that, and have a sense of whom to say something to, and whom not to say something to. Other suggestions would be sending a card with very specific information about what you noticed in the pet, and the relationship between the pet owner and the pet. For instance, writing something like "Every time I saw you and Barney out for a walk, he always had a tennis ball in his mouth" really personalizes the card. Just don't be afraid to reach out. The anniversary date of the pet's death, the year after, can be an especially painful time, so it would be nice to get a call or card from a friend or family member. So those are the kinds of things that are very important.

BSB: What are your opinions about so-called "heroic measures" when one's animal companion is very ill, or on the verge of death, and one has to choose between the pet's quality of life and quantity of life?

TT: Let's start with my overall feeling about this question. Every pet owner has to make the bottom line decision about treatment for his or her pet based on the information that the veterinarian has made available with the medical case. The veterinarian will present the diagnosis, treatment plant, and costs involved, and then the pet owner has to make those decisions. Those decisions are based on level of attachment, values of the pet owner, finances, all those kinds of emotional situations that only the family can come to grips with when making a decision. This is one the toughest questions in veterinary medicine. I just spoke with an incoming freshman class at Oregon State University Veterinary School about this issue. There are no easy answers to this question because every case is different. We now have the technology in veterinary medicine to do so much more than every before. As you have mentioned, the quality of life versus quantity of life is a big issue, but this is a very personal decision. Some pet owners will spend thousands and tens of thousands of dollars that they don't really have in order to buy a little more time with their beloved pet. All of the veterinarians I have ever worked with have been very good at laying out medically what they think the outcome will be for different kinds of heroic measures. They're very realistic and pragmatic in their approach, but our attachments are not very realistic or pragmatic. One change that I've seen that is very nice is the advent of hospice care in some cases for companion animals. Such care is not curative, but it is palliative, which is supporting the pet in terms of pain management and providing other kinds of comfort care. So the clients who may feel they don't want to take heroic measures, but are not ready for euthanasia or choose not to euthanize, have other options.

BSB: I've never heard of hospices for animals. How does this work? Where are these hospices?

TT: I'm going to lead you to the website for the Argus Institute, http://www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu/, where your readers can get information about Argus' hospice, and then they can get direction to other pet hospices in the country.

BSB: Pet insurance is a relatively new phenomenon. Do you have opinions on pet insurance?

TT: I'm going to leave that one to each individual's veterinarian, because there are so many policies out there, and they vary so much regarding quality and value. There are some wonderful policies that are excellent value. Consumers need to read each policy very carefully regarding what they include, and what they exclude.

BSB: Recently, our supply of pet food has caused a variety of health problems and death. What comments do you have on this horrific situation?

TT: This has been devastating to the world of companion animals and their loving owners. One of the biggest issues they have found is that so many brands of pet food come from the same huge manufacturers, even though they are marketed under different names. I think things have gotten much better now due this atrocity, so that things have changed. I would advise readers to be in very close contact with their veterinarians, asking them for their knowledge. Veterinarians have become very in tune with this problem, and have local databases and national databases, so they are doing everything they can to protect the pet populations. Another source that I have found very helpful are small local pet stores. Not the "big box" ones, but the local stores that have been in business for a long time; they have products that don't necessarily get into "big box" stores. They know their products very well, and are really in touch with what pet owners need and want. Talk to those folks. Lastly, in the September-October 2007 issue of Bark Magazine (http://thebark.com/), I found an article on this very issue for lay pet owners who want to make their own pet food, and they make two book suggestions. One is Donald Strombeck's "Home Prepared Dog and Cat Diets," and another is "Dr. Pitcairn's Complete guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats." Making one's own dog and cat food is very doable (but one has to follow the direction of people in the know about what percentages of protein and carbohydrates are appropriate), so making your own pet food is yet another direction.

BSB: You currently have faculty positions at both Oregon State University's veterinary school, and at Western Oregon University. What message about pets, their bonds with us, and their deaths do you want the students to remember?

TT: First, that our relationship with companion animals has changed so much over the past decade. We now live more socially isolated lives, and thus our relationships with our companion animals fill a much-needed place in many of our lives. Pets provide unconditional love that many people don't otherwise have. So in my teaching, I really want to increase my students' awareness of the impact that illness and death of companion animals may have on their owners. For the vet students, I want them how to support their clients' emotional reactions to end of life issues and illness.

BSB: One of the most tragic situations that I have observed is when the human companion of an animal dies. So many scenarios can play out. Do you have any comments on this phenomenon?

TT: To think that a companion animal is unmoved by the death of their human companion is absurd. We spoke of attachment earlier, and attachment is bi-directional. It goes both ways. So what might one see? Our companion animals can't talk, but they show us behaviorally that they are affected. They may withdraw from play, or they might stop eating. They may act out by tearing up things in the house. There are so many possibilities. They may get very, very ill. I know of a situation where the human didn't die, but moved away for a year, from a companion dog; though the companion dog was being taken of by someone else, that dog just refused to eat. That dog almost died. The human companion decided to come back, and the day that human companion came home, that dog started eating again. These bonds are very, very strong, and are nothing to take for granted. Broken hearts go both ways. On the other side, because so many animals are survivors, some look unaffected, and will go on, in order to survive. They'll eat and sleep just fine. Thus, having no reaction should not surprise us, because each relationship is unique.

BSB: What final information do you want to share with my readers? What message would you like them to leave with? Are there any easy-to-access resources you'd like to recommend?

TT: I want to recommend the Argus Institute (http://www.argusinstitute.colostate.edu/). That is one of the best resources for your readers. There are so many links to great information on that website: reading materials, children's books, guidance about how to walk though the very difficult process about how to euthanize, grief resources, and so many other topics. That is the one I would recommend.

TT: In terms of other information, I want to share some quotes from "The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

Prince to the Fox: "I am looking for friends. What does 'tame' mean?"

"Something that is frequently neglected," said the Fox. "It means to create ties."

"To create ties?" said the Prince.

"Precisely," said the Fox. "To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys, and I have no need of you. And you, in turn, have no need of me. To you, I'm just a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world." The reason that I share that story in a lot of talks and work that I do, is because I believe it epitomizes the human-animal bond. We are ever changed by these special beings.

BSB: Thank you, Tamina, for sharing so much information about pet bonding, pet death, and pet grieving. I truly appreciate your contributions.

In conclusion, I hope that all of you will remember that pets are not possessions. They are our chosen companions, and should be treated as such. Love them, honor them, feed and water them well, take them for regular veterinarian visits. They offer us unconditional love, and providing them with the best quality of life is the least we can do. If you need some guidance regarding how to treat your pets like royalty, and thus enhance your life, don't hesitate to contact me at 773.508.9208 or bret@god-dess.com . If my life is any example, pets will only enhance your life. Visit your local Human Society to adopt a companion when you feel you need to do so.

 

BACK TO HOME DECOR