What Happens to Your Pet’s Belongings After They Have Gone?

After a pet dies, we’re faced with the decision about what to do with their belongings. You’re likely to fall in one of three camps. In camp one are the people who throw out, give away or pack up their pet’s belongings immediately. In camp two are the people who can’t bear to move a single thing. Camp three sits somewhere in the middle.

Out of sight, out of mind?

As we’ve said time and again, there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

For some people, coming home to an empty bed, an unruffled blanket, a silent cage, toys that are no longer played with, is too distressing. Every item is a reminder that the animal who loved them is gone.

It’s completely understandable that the people in this camp decide to pack everything away straight away. It isn’t that they want to forget their pet, just that they can’t face the daily reminders of what has been lost.

Some words of caution, if this is your immediate reaction to your loss, is to take a moment to breathe and avoid getting rid of everything while you’re immersed in the first hours and days of grief.

There may be a time, weeks or months from now when you want something tangible to remind you of your lost friend. Many people eventually find comfort from being able to touch a favourite toy, a well-worn collar, a special blanket because of the memories associated with the item.

If it’s too painful to see your pet’s things around the house, could you pack them away for now to be revisited when your pain is less raw?

As though they’re just in another room

In Henry Scott Holland’s poignant poem, Death is nothing at all, the narrator tells us to think of death as though “I have only slipped away to the next room”.

Many pet carers find it unbearable to move their companion’s belongings, preferring instead to keep things as they last were when their friend was alive.

Maybe your house right now feels as though your pet has just slipped away to the next room and may come back at any time.

People often feel that they can’t clear their pet’s belongings away. They worry that it’s a betrayal or that, if the pet knew, they would feel disposable.

In some homes, water bowls remain untouched until the last drop evaporates; favourite blankets stay on the sofa, a collar and lead hang by the door, toys lay waiting in the toy box.

If you sit in this camp, it’s important to remind yourself that grief is a journey rather than a place to stay. Some people find that constantly being surrounded by reminders of their loss keeps it current and taunts the mind with hopes that the parting is temporary.

How would it feel to pack a few things away in a special memory box or donate a few things to someone you know who has a pet who will enjoy them?

Again, there is no right or wrong, only what feels right for you.

What to do with your pet's belongings after they have gone?

When time is against you

We should recognise that one group of pet carers – those with horses – don’t always have a choice about clearing away their loved one’s belongings. It will depend on the livery yard where your horse was stabled and the terms of the contract you have with them.

Some livery yard owners recognise that bereaved horse carers need time to grieve and to decide whether they may want another horse a couple of months down the line. In this case, they may hold the stable for you. Whether you pay full price for this or not will again depend on your arrangement with the yard owner.

Other livery yard owners, especially if they have a waiting list, may not want a stable to sit empty. If you’re not ready for another horse, it’s understandable that the stable owner will want to fill it.

In this situation, you may be faced with packing away your horse’s belongings before you’ve even had time to take stock of your loss.

If this happens, do try to get a loved one to come with you to help with what may be an emotional experience. Perhaps you know someone at the same stables who can hold on to your horse tack for the time being?

A middle ground – keeping your pet’s most precious belongings

Eventually, most people find they sit in camp three when it comes to handling their pet’s belongings.

This usually means keeping some items that have special associations – a dog’s well-worn collar, a cat’s favourite blanket, a rabbit’s snuggle bed, a budgie’s hanging bell toy – but letting others go.

One option is to look out photos or videos of your pet enjoying their belongings. In time, this will be a source of joy and good times remembered.

You could also create a memory box of some of the items that evoke strong memories to be rediscovered for years to come.

There are no rules about what to do with your pet’s things. Whatever camp you fall into, the most important thing is that you’re kind to yourself and that you do what feels right for you.

If you’re struggling with any aspect of pet loss right now, The Ralph Site Facebook group offers a community of people who ‘get it’ and can offer a safe space to talk about your feelings. You can also find details of pet bereavement services on the main Ralph Site.

Until next time,

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Life after loss: Five ways to honour your pet

After the passing of a loved pet, it can feel like to you’ll stay locked in a place of grief forever. It can be hard to imagine a time when the pain doesn’t consume you. It can also be hard to focus on what your friend gave you when all you can think about is what you have lost.

Thinking about ways we can come through or, perhaps more accurately, live more harmoniously with our grief, the five suggestions below stood out as ways to honour our loved ones.

1.We can honour our memories by living a happy, if different, life

As we’ve said in numerous articles, one of the things that makes animals so special is their capacity for unconditional love and their ability to live in the moment.

Your lost companion would not want you to be unhappy. You gave them a good life, whatever the length of time you had together, and they would want the same for you.

Yes, life will never be the same. It will be different but different can still be happy.

Caring for a pet is a constant reminder that life is too short, so honour the memories you shared by promising to make more happy memories in the future.

2. Grief teaches us to be more compassionate to others

As a vet, compassion has always been important to me but it was when my rescue cat Ralph died that I really connected with the unheard community of people just like me who were suffering the immeasurable loss of a pet. That special cat inspired me to reach out to others and, in doing so, he truly lives on.

A kind word to someone else who is grieving, a smile, a hug, a gentle message of support – these small kindnesses can turn grief into a ripple of goodness that’s felt for years to come.

3. In turn, we can support others more

Following on from point 2, the experience of grief can encourage us to support others more. Within The Ralph Site Facebook group I’m always touched by the number of people who choose to ‘payback’ the support they received at their time of loss by offering the same to new members.

I always think of the animals represented by each person and how the existence of those animals has inspired so much that’s good.

4. We can risk loving a pet even though it will mean another loss

This can be a big, daunting issue for bereaved pet carers – do you have it in you to love another pet knowing you will probably outlive them and have to go through all this grief again?

Some people choose a new companion straight away, some never have a pet again; many fall somewhere in the middle. There is no right or wrong, only what’s right for you.

Personally, I think one of the greatest ways we can honour a pet we’ve lost is to open our hearts to a new companion. It won’t push your old friend out – I find the heart has a way of growing instead.

5. We can grow as a person

There’s a beautiful saying that, “Grief never ends… but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay”. And like many of the life-changing journeys we experience, I think grief gives us an opportunity to grow as a person.

If we can learn to be kinder, more compassionate, more able to love with the risk of loss, then we can grow in so many essential ways. And, above all, that growth is a tribute to the ones we have lost but will always love.

If you’re struggling with any aspect of pet loss right now, The Ralph Site Facebook group offers a community of people who ‘get it’ and can offer a safe space to talk about your feelings. You can also find details of pet bereavement services on the main Ralph Site.

Until next time, Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Grieving the loss of your horse

If you’ve come to The Ralph Site because you’re grieving the loss of a much-loved horse or your horse is nearing the end of their days, then please accept our deepest sympathy and support.

The worst news

According to research by Advancing Equine Scientific Excellence (AESE) only nine percent of horses in the UK die from natural causes. More often, horses pass as the result of a tragic accident or because of an illness or old age leading to a deterioration in their quality of life.

This means that you may be facing or have recently faced the heart-breaking decision to have your companion put to sleep (known as euthanasia). Many animal lovers struggle with the weight and responsibility of this decision.

A friend for all seasons

The death of a horse can be hard to process. After all, a healthy horse can live for 25 to 30 years, which means that your equine companion may have been with you for half of your life or more.

With a lifespan that long, it’s easy to imagine a horse will be by your side forever until the tragic days comes when suddenly they are not there anymore.

Horses often see their carers from childhood into adulthood or watch the seasons of their life unfold – a constant, loving companion through every high and low.

A bond over many years

As you know from experience, a horse is very much a member of your family. You may have spent years together building an unbreakable bond, while investing emotionally, physically and financially in your friend.

For most people who care for a horse, their companion shapes their lifestyle. You may be used to visiting the stable before and after work and spending hours of your leisure time riding and training.

Perhaps you competed with your horse, travelling the country together, or your horse kept you mentally and physically fit.

The chances are that your friends have horses too and that much of your social life revolves around the stables.

Your sense of loss will naturally be deepened by the huge change to your lifestyle that has been caused by your bereavement.

A disenfranchised grief

We talk about disenfranchised grief quite a lot on The Ralph Site because it is something most pet carers have to wrestle with. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t always recognise how devastating the loss of a pet can be, whatever their shape or size.

Many people feel there is some sympathy for people who lose a dog or cat (although this isn’t always borne out experience), but that small animals or larger animals such as ponies or horses pass away unnoticed.

Too often, grieving pet carers hear comments like “It’s only a horse”, “You’re not still upset, are you?” or “You can always get another one”, which can add to the sense of disenfranchisement and, indeed, of isolation and loneliness.

People often feel embarrassed about their grief as a result of societal attitudes – “I should feel better by now” or “I don’t know why I’m so upset” – but, in reality, there is no timeline for feeling better or scale for how upset you should be.

Your horse mattered and your grief matters too. It would be strange to spend years with such a close bond and not feel a massive sense of loss.

Be kind to yourself

However long it’s been since your bereavement, it’s important that you’re kind to yourself. If a friend experienced this loss, what would you say or do to support them? This is the kindness you need to show to yourself.

If the bereavement has just happened, you may be facing tough decisions about where or how to lay your horse to rest. Try to talk through your options – your vet, the stable owners and/or the other horse carers at the stable may be able to offer advice and recommendations.

Another milestone for horse carers is having to pack up a horse’s stable and belongings; if the stable is rented, there may be some urgency to this. It can be tempting to ask a friend to pack everything up on your behalf but many people who have lost a beloved horse say this task actually helped them deal with the grieving process.

If your life extensively revolved around your horse – and what loving horse carer’s doesn’t?! – then you may be waging an internal war about if and when it would be right to get another horse.

People who are passionate about horses often say that being part of the equine community is in their blood. It can be very confusing to know what to do next.

Give yourself time

If you can, try to give yourself time to grieve before you make any decisions. We appreciate that this can be hard for people who compete professionally on the equine circuit but, for most people, there isn’t a deadline on making any decisions about the future.

Try to speak to supportive friends and family about your grief. Have any of your friends at the stables lost a horse before? Perhaps they will be willing to offer you a listening ear.

If you’re finding it hard to talk about your loss, you could keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings or write a letter to your equine companion about your grief or what they meant to you.

Some horse carers find it helpful to volunteer at their local stable or horse rescue centre. This is a positive way of maintaining some of the aspects of the life you enjoyed with your horse while giving you the space to mourn their loss.

If this is too hard for you at the moment, you might get comfort from fundraising for a local horse charity or making a small monthly donation. Some people donate some of their horse’s belongings to a local charity, gaining comfort from knowing that the belongings will be used and enjoyed by another horse.

There’s no right or wrong, only what feels right for you.

Friends at the End

In case you’re not already aware, The British Horse Society has a voluntary service known as ‘Friends at the End’.

If you’re facing decisions about your horse’s end of life care or euthanasia or you’re struggling with an equine bereavement, this service is available for you.

‘Friends at the End’ volunteers are all experienced horse carers who can offer support and advice. It may even be possible to arrange for a volunteer to be with you when your horse passes so that you’re not alone. Some volunteers have held horses in their final moments if their companions don’t feel able to.

Every volunteer has received training in bereavement counselling.

You can find more information about this invaluable service at: http://www.bhs.org.uk/our-work/welfare/our-campaigns/friends-at-the-end

Bereavement counselling and support

If your horse has already passed away, whether it was hours or years ago, support is still available through a variety of sources.

The Blue Cross has a fantastic pet bereavement counselling service – you can call between 8.30am and 8.30pm on 0800 096 6606 if you need to talk to someone (or visit https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss for more information).

The Ralph Site is also here to support you. Our private Facebook pet loss support group has an active community of bereaved pet carers who support and encourage one another through the best and worst of times.

Some words of comfort

While writing this blog, we found some beautiful words of comfort for bereaved horse owners. This quote stood out:

"Somewhere...somewhere in
time's own space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow
Some Paradise where horses go.
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again."
- Stanley Harrison

Whatever your beliefs, your horse lives on in the memories you made together. Many pet carers find comfort in this with time.

Until then, know that you’re not alone.

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Grieving a therapy or assistance animal

As part of our series of blogs looking at pet bereavement issues related to therapy animals and assistance pets, this week we’re exploring the impact of grieving for a therapy pet.

What are therapy or assistance pets?

Therapy and assistance/service pets are animals that have been specially trained or chosen for their ability to provide either emotional or practical support to humans.

Assistance or service pets will usually live at home with the person they help, whereas animals that are part of an Animal-Assisted Therapy service will live with the therapist but may go out to care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, etc. and interact with many different people to support their mental health and wellbeing.

In either scenario, the death of one of these special companions can be absolutely devastating.

The role of assistance animals

There are many different schools of thought about bereavement. One is that our feelings of pet loss grief are heavily influenced by three key factors:

  • The role the pet played in our lives
  • How they died
  • What else is happening or has happened in your life, particularly in terms of other losses both human and animal

With therapy pets, the role they play in our lives is extremely significant.

To any pet lover, animals are companions, protectors, assistants, and a bridge that connects us to other people. They can even fulfil the role of a family member or significant other.

But these roles are potentially more pronounced for people with assistance or therapy animals who may rely on their animal companion to get through every day.

And, equally, Individuals who work with therapy animals build their personal and professional lives around their animal companions, which can challenge their whole way of life – and career – if their companion passes away suddenly.

A life-changing, sometimes life-saving relationship

Some assistance pets are quite literally life savers – for example, a ‘seizure dog’ may be able to tell when someone with epilepsy is about to have a seizure and get them to safety before it happens or they may be able to raise an alarm during the seizure or protect their handler from injury.

Some seizure dogs are trained to safeguard children with epilepsy by alerting the parents to an oncoming seizure. The peace of mind that comes with sharing your life with an animal like this is incredible.

Assistance and therapy pets give people independence, a better quality of life, and improved mental health. They’ve been shown to transform the lives of some of society’s most marginalised groups – people with disabilities, looked after children, individuals with psychiatric problems, and prisoners.

Dogs, in particular, tend to give their handlers more opportunities for social interactions, which can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.

And the joy of all animals is that they’re completely non-judgemental – they don’t care if you have seizures, use a wheelchair, have panic attacks, etc. They just accept you as you are – if only more humans could do the same!

Studies have even found that assistance or therapy pets of all shapes and sizes give their carers a greater chance of surviving a heart attack or living with cardiovascular disease. We’re not just talking about dogs here and handlers who might be fitter because of daily walks – any species can make their human’s heart healthier!

These special animals are truly life changing.

And that, of course, makes saying goodbye so much harder.

Filling the void

The loss of a therapy pet can be particularly confusing and hard to process. Many pet carers struggle with whether or not they should get – or, indeed, whether they’re ready for – a new pet. But for someone who is supported by an assistance animal, the issue may be a lot more pressing.

Whether they’re emotionally ready or not, the person may need another animal companion to maintain their quality of life. This can lead to feelings of guilt and worry that they’re treating their old pet as dispensable and interchangeable with the new one.

And, of course, suitable therapy pets don’t appear from thin air. An animal with a suitable temperament, etc. needs to be found and trained before he/she an do everything the previous service animal could do. This can cause feelings of frustration, anger, loss of confidence, anxiety, regret and more.

People who work with therapy pets may have to deal with their clients’ grief at the bereavement as well as their own, which can be challenging.

Many veterinary colleges now have counselling and bereavement services because they recognise the impact on staff and students of dealing with animal loss and the grief of each animal’s human carers. However, as animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new field, many therapists aren’t able to tap into this kind of support through their own employer or network. This can throw life and work up into the air.

Sources of support

Thankfully, in many cases, this situation doesn’t occur. In our most recent blog, we looked at the process of retiring a therapy dog and training a new companion during a kind of ‘crossover’ period so that you’re not suddenly left with a void to fill that threatens your independence.

Equally, many animal-assisted therapists work with a number of animals or begin training a younger pet while still working with their older companion.

Sadly though, there are times when therapy pets pass away naturally without warning or because of a tragic accident. Or, with smaller emotional therapy pets, because they simply reach the end of their too-short lifespans.

If you have been affected by the sudden loss of a therapy pet, you may feel that your friends and family don’t fully understand the depth of your grief, especially if your pet helped with emotional support rather than practical tasks that others could see and appreciate.

It’s important that you reach out for support if you need it, be it on an emotional or practical level. If you had a service pet through a particular organisation, they might be the first people to contact about what to do next.

We’d also urge you to talk to friends or family members who will listen to your feelings of grief, even if they don’t understand them fully.

The Ralph Site pet loss support group is full of non-judgemental animal lovers who are dealing with pet loss in all kinds of circumstances – you’ll always find a listening ear in there.

Organisations such as The Blue Cross have a dedicated pet bereavement service you can talk to about your feelings.

Please know that you’re not alone.

Until next time,

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Retiring Your Assistance Dog

More than 7,000 assistance dogs are hard at work every single day in the UK. These amazing dogs have been specially chosen and trained to offer emotional and/or physical support and independence to their handlers.

This might mean acting as a person’s eyes or ears, helping with practical tasks at home, detecting seizures before they happen, calming someone who has panic attacks or providing many other life-changing services.

If you have an assistance dog or emotional support animal at home, you’ll know better than anyone what a positive impact they have had on your life.

Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, even the most beautiful of partnerships.

Over the next few blogs, we’ll be exploring some of the issues around pet loss that specifically affect people with assistance animals.

This week, we’re looking at the decisions and feelings you might face when it’s time for your assistance dog to retire.

Do all assistance dogs have to retire?

Being a working or service animal of any kind can be physically and emotionally demanding. Dogs, for example, are carefully chosen for their ability to carry the load required of them.

But just like humans, dogs eventually begin to age and slow down. There typically comes a point when even the most enthusiastic of service dogs lose their working capability, meaning they can no longer provide you with the support you need.

Retirement gives these special dogs a chance to enjoy their twilight years as a pet rather than as a working companion. After a lifetime of faithful service, of doing their job to the best of their ability, they can kick back and relax while the role of assisting you is passed down to a younger pup.

When is the right time for retirement?

Unlike us humans, dogs don’t reach an official retirement age, complete with pension. It can be hard to pinpoint when the moment for retirement has come.

You know your dog better than anyone else in the world so, if your instincts are telling you that retirement is looming, you’re probably right.

Many assistance dogs work until around age 10, with some retiring before and a few retiring after. It will really depend on your dog’s health, personality, their working role and your ability to care for an older dog.

The best advice is to gradually wind down your dog’s working life rather than going from all to nothing overnight (unless a vet recommends an immediate stop due to health issues).

As your assistance dog will have come from an organisation, they should be able to help you manage this transition period so that retirement comes gently rather than as a massive, unexpected change for your companion.

By taking things slowly, the organisation can begin finding you the best possible match for a new assistance dog to take over this vital role when the time comes. They can also help you explore the best retirement option for your pooch.

Signs to look out for

The following signs often show that a dog is nearing retirement:

  • They don’t seem as happy or enthusiastic about working or going out
  • Their mobility isn’t what it once was – they seem slower or more accident prone
  • The dog is having behavioural or memory issues
  • They’re missing your cues for familiar tasks
  • They become less flexible about changes to routine or lose confidence doing things they once took in their stride
  • They want to sleep more than in the past
  • They lack energy after a full night’s sleep
  • Your dog has been diagnosed with a long-term health condition

If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it is probably time to start thinking about the options for retiring your precious friend.

Common retirement options for assistance dogs

Keeping your dog

In many cases, assistance dogs live out their days as a pet in their lifelong home.

Your dog may not be able to carry out working tasks any more but they can be an ongoing source of emotional support and companionship long into their retirement.

If that’s an option for you then it’s definitely worth exploring.

But what if you’re unable to keep your dog?

Although most people would prefer to keep their assistance dog until the end of the animal’s life, it isn’t always possible.

Caring for an older dog can be physically and emotionally demanding. Due to the nature of your disability or your personal circumstances, you may not be in a position to look after your assistance dog into his or her old age.

Could you clean up toileting accidents or administer medication as needed?

Another situation that sometimes crops up is that former assistance dogs struggle to accept the presence of a new assistance dog in the home. After years of faithful service, it can be hard to watch another dog come in and take over the working role. In these situations, a change in living arrangements might be better for both dogs.

You may also be in housing where assistance dogs are allowed but pets aren’t.

In these situations, you may need to consider rehoming your retired companion, especially if you’re involved in training a younger assistance dog to ensure you have the support you need.

Rehoming the dog with friends or family

A good compromise to keeping a retired assistance dog at home is having him or her adopted by a close friend or family member who can provide a loving home but will also ensure that you continue to see your dog. The bonus is that your dog will already know and have a bond with their adoptive family, which can make the transition from working dog to retiree easier.

Returning your dog to the provider organisation for rehoming

Some organisations that train and provide assistance dogs have a clause in their contract with the handler that requests the dog is returned to them for rehoming once they reach retirement age.

If this is the case, you should have been made aware of this from the outset and have this agreement in writing.

You can also ask the organisation to rehome your retired dog if your circumstances mean you can’t keep them with you.

Organisations that work with assistance dogs usually have a waiting list of people who want to adopt retired assistance dogs or an agreement with the people who raised the dog as a puppy to give them first refusal in the event of the dog being rehomed.

Even knowing that your assistance dog will go to a fantastic home can be tough. It may feel like a bereavement. Please speak to the organisation concerned to find out how you will be supported through this process.

Will you still be able to see your retired companion?

Will you receive regular news and updates from their adoptive family?

Coping with your dog’s retirement

Retiring an assistance dog can be an incredibly emotional experience, even if they don’t have to be rehomed.

You and your dog have spent years together learning each other’s needs and cues in a way that few people will ever experience. Your furry friend has given you independence, peace of mind and unconditional support. It may be that you’ve never been apart.

And now that phase of both of your lives is coming to an end.

The best advice we’ve heard from other assistance dog carers who’ve seen a faithful companion retire is to celebrate the fact that they’re getting to retire as a sign of a job well done.

Instead of thinking about what you stand to lose or have lost, try to think about all the things you gained from each other and how, if you plan to have a new assistance dog, your past experiences will make you a better trainer, handler and carer.

Your ageing assistance dog is starting a new chapter where they can relax and take life at a gentler pace. Hopefully, they have many good years ahead in a loving home, whether that’s with you or with an adopter.

It can be hard to imagine ever loving or trusting another assistance dog the way you love your current companion and you’re bound to make comparisons. Remember, a new assistance dog will be different but different doesn’t mean better or worse. You’ll share a new adventure together and teach each other new things.

You’ll never forget your previous assistance dog; your heart will just double in size to love your new companion too.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be tears and hard times for a while. Try to tap into the support available to you. Talk about retirement options throughout your companion’s life so you’re prepared when the time comes, whatever the future holds for you both.

Look at ways to make the transition from working life to retirement as gentle and easy as possible – again, ask the organisation who provided your dog for advice about this.

The Ralph Site Facebook group is always there for support about any aspect of pet loss, including those who have had their assistance dogs rehomed upon retirement.

Until next time,

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support