Three years ago, I had to say goodbye to my little cocker spaniel, Bella. As well as being the official co-founder of Chow Bella, she had been just THE best little companion for over 14 years. When I went full time with Chow Bella, she spent every day with me in the studio. We had a routine: 9am game of tug, 9.10am, off to work - Bella would run to the back door, and once opened, would lead the way to the studio door, tail wagging as ever. She had three beds in the studio as she always wanted to be close to me. At the end of the working day, she would come and tell me it was time to stop, giving me a gentle nudge and looking at me pleadingly with her beautiful, chocolate drop eyes.
She made me laugh for every single day of our 14 years and 3 weeks together. She really was my Dog of a Lifetime. She'd appeared in books, calendars and of course was very well known as the Chow Bella dog. She'd also beaten a rare form of skin cancer with the help of immunotherapy - she was quite something.
In her last 3 years, she was obviously ageing. She'd gone completely deaf, and then developed kidney disease. She also lost her sense of smell, and that, coupled with some dementia, meant that she really lost alot of confidence and stopped being the bomb-proof little girl she'd always been. I kept a close eye on her, and she had regular check ups at the vet, and we managed her various issues pretty well until the last couple of months.
People will often tell you that your dog (cat, horse, rabbit etc) will "tell you" when they've had enough. I am a bit torn on this. Animals are extremely good at hiding their pain - it's a survival instinct. Some will lose their appetite - not so with Bella. Some will lose interest in life. Well Bella was still enjoying her walks, maybe a bit shorter ones, but still loved going after the ball and meeting other dogs.
What I decided was that I needed to keep remembering the things that she loved doing: eating, walking, swimming, playing. I did not want her to suffer. And I certainly didn't want to wait until the very bitter end. So when we had a couple of mornings where she asked to have her 9am game of tug, but then couldn't really manage it, I decided that was the sign that I needed. She was still liking her walks, perhaps as they were such a distraction for her, but that game of tug? She had never missed one.
I booked her in to be put to sleep at our home. She had become really fearful of the vet so we had discussed sedating her first (I have my friend Briony Price to thank for this, who had managed her dog's death so well, with so much dignity, that I swore to follow suit). We had tried her on valium a couple of weeks earlier to see how she reacted to it, and it wasn't good, making her very hyperactive with a racing heart. So we had decided she'd have a sedative injected when the vet first arrived.
Having booked her in, we had a few days to just try and have some (more) really lovely times with her. We took her to some of her favourite places and fed her lots of lovely food. We stopped putting pills in her meals. Her last dinner was steak and chips.
As we took her out for her last walk, I remember being on the end of the lead and really trying to remember the sensation of that, having her at the end of it, the strength of her pull.
We brought her home, and shortly afterwards the vet and nurse arrived and administered the sedative, and then left us for ten minutes or so whilst it took effect. She gradually got a bit slower, and then sat squarely in front of me and looked into my eyes for what I knew was going to be the last time.
The sedative had made her blood pressure lower, so it wasn't easy for the vet to find a vein, and as Bella, despite being barely aware of what was happening, was still trying to pull her paw away, I absolutely knew that the sedative was the best possible thing we could have done. In the end, she went quickly, and as she was injected, I held her in my arms and whispered in her ear, "thank you". For everything, for every single day, for the smiles, the laughs, the picnic raids, the rolling in fox poo, the biscuit nicking, the ever wagging tail, the amazing times that we had.
It's over three years since that day, and as I write this, tears are streaming down my face. It still hurts so much to have lost her.
So how do we cope with the grief of losing a pet?
The loss of a pet and the grief felt is absolutely up there with losing a human loved one. For some it can feel even worse, because your relationship with your pet is often so unconditional. Dogs especially will just love you, they don't care what you look like, how much you earn, whether you've done the washing up or not. They think you are the best person in the world. I have lost people close to me (my father and my brother amongst others) and I think my grief over Bella is definitely the simplest that I have been through - I just missed her terribly, that was it. I had no regrets, nothing that I'd wished I'd said or done, I just missed my best little friend, plain and simple.
It is important to make sure that you give yourself time to grieve. If you can take a day or two off work, do so - some employers won't be so understanding, but some may let you take time off at short notice.
Try to find people who understand - other pet owners - most of us have gone through it at some point because that's the nature of owning pets, we tend to outlive them.
Thankfully now there are also organisations that you can go to for help. Blue Cross offer a free Pet Bereavement Support Service. They say, "Lives are transformed by the love and companionship pets bring. So, saying goodbye to one – whether due to death or separation – is always sad, difficult and often traumatic. It affects people in many ways. But, remember, you are not alone. If you are grieving for a pet, or facing loss, our free and confidential Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) is here for you by phone, email or webchat."
Their website also has lots of really good information on saying goodbye, including signs to look for in your pet, and details of what happens during euthanasia.
Supportline.or.uk have a list of some other organisations that offer counselling for pet bereavement, including Animal Samaritans and a cat specific service. They say, "It can sometimes be hard for others to recognise the extent to which the loss of your beloved pet may be affecting you and it is not uncommon to hear 'it was only a dog' , 'you can easily get another one' etc. As with any bereavement it is important for you to have someone to talk to who does understand exactly how you are feeling and what the loss of your pet has meant to you."
You will also want to think about what will happen to your pet's body. Vets offer a cremation service which will either be a communal cremation (where your pet is cremated with others, and their ashes then scattered), or an individual cremation, where you will get your pet's ashes back. You may also choose to go privately to a pet crematorium. This is not cheap, but you can have your dog's body collected from home, or you can take it in yourself. We chose to use a local crematorium, Dignity, who I have to say were brilliant in the way they handled the two dogs that we have taken to them.
There is then the decision of what to do with their ashes - you may want to scatter them at your pet's favourite places, or you may want to keep them in an urn. With Bella we did both, scattering some of her ashes at her favourite places, and I then made an urn for her, which lives in the studio, and since then have been offering them on the website. Prices include your pet's name, any wording you'd like, and either their pawprint or a picture of them.
You may also want to opt for a home burial, meaning you can create your own little service for them, if you wish. Do bear in mind that you will need to bury your pet at least 3-4ft deep to ensure that foxes do not try and dig them up.
Whatever you choose, please do give yourself time to deal with the loss. The grief may hit you in waves and it really can be a very difficult time. But at some point, you will be able to look back and remember all the happy times that you had with your beloved pet. They are such wonderful companions, always to be treasured.