Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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CARE Helpline Encourages Pet Lovers
to Express Feelings


Pet Column for the week of February 7, 2005

Related information:

Services - Pet Loss

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

The depth of the emotional bond between people and their companion animals often goes unappreciated, so the Companion Animal Related Emotions (CARE) Pet Loss Helpline at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana is marking its seventh anniversary with an event to celebrate the relationship between people and their pets, past and present.

The Pet Lovers' Expo will be held on Saturday, February 12, at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Atrium, from 1 to 3 pm. The Expo is open to the public and will celebrate the human-animal bond with a showcase of adoptable pets from the Champaign County Humane Society, a raptor presentation from the Wildlife Medical Clinic, and live demonstrations of veterinary rehabilitation equipment.

According to Cheryl Weber, client counselor specialist at the college's teaching hospital and adviser to the student-run CARE Helpline, events like this can provide a great way for people to express their love of their pets.

We humans develop deep love for our pets, and if we recognize and celebrate our connections to our pets while they are alive, we can better understand and prepare for the grief we experience when we have to say goodbye. Weber worked in human hospice before joining the veterinary hospital, and notes that the stages and styles of grief are similar regardless of whether the loved one lost is a human or a pet. "With any traumatic event in our lives, we may experience a broad range of intense emotions such as denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, sadness, or acceptance."

Unfortunately, society doesn't always recognize bonds with pets as true relationships, or the death of a pet as a legitimate loss. Pet lovers hear, "It was just a dog" or "Get over it!" Others may not understand our grief and offer needed support, and we may not take the time we need to grieve; often we are expected to work, socialize, and go on with our lives as if nothing happened. Pet loss can also be overwhelming because we don't expect to be so affected, and we are unprepared for the magnitude of our grief.

According to Weber, there's not one right way to grieve. Different people have different styles of grieving. Some people are "intuitive grievers" and are very emotional and need to express their feelings to someone. These people may find comfort in talking to a friend, calling a pet loss hotline, or attending a pet loss support group. Web sites such as www.petloss.com and www.aplb.org enable pet lovers to post photos, poems, and other tributes to their pets. Some Web sites offer chat rooms where people can share their stories and learn that they are not alone in their grief.

Other people may be "instrumental grievers," who have a more intellectual or action approach to grieving. These people may need to be alone to think through their feelings or to read a book about pet loss. Some may grieve by doing something active, such as planting a tree for a living memorial or creating a scrapbook. Weber suggests that people find their own individual ways to work through their feelings and celebrate the life of their special pet.

"Since 1997, the veterinary students who staff the CARE Helpline have helped several hundred pet lovers from all across the nation cope with the death of their companion animal," Weber says. The CARE Helpline is a free, confidential phone service staffed by veterinary students of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine who are specially trained in grief counseling and understand the depth of human-animal bonds. It can be reached Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 7 to 9 pm Central time at (877) 394-CARE (2273)--or (217) 244-CARE (2273) in the Champaign-Urbana area. You can leave a message any time, and calls will be returned during these times.

While the death of a pet can be a painful loss, most pet lovers reach a point where they are ready to open their hearts to another animal. So the February 12 Pet Lovers' Expo will feature many lovable, adoptable animals from the Champaign County Humane Society who are looking for a caring owner to take them home.

"Adopting a new pet doesn't mean we forget the pet that's died," explains Weber. "That pet will always be with us in memory. It just means we are ready to love again."

For more information about the animals and services of the Champaign County Humane Society, call 217-344-PAWS or go to www.cuhumane.org. For more information and list of books and Web sites about grief and other pet-related emotions, visit the CARE Helpline Web site at www.cvm.uiuc.edu/CARE, or the Web site of the American Veterinary Medical Association at www.avma.org.