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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Grief Can Be Complicated

Updated: August 27th, 2019

One of the problems in dealing with dog cancer is what to put your attention on.

Truly, there are so many aspects to a life chapter like this one.  The grieving process is no exception.  We experience sadness and pain at so many different times, and in so may different ways, while caring for a dog with cancer.

For example, remember getting the news that your dog has cancer? Many are so shocked that they feel only a numbness, with the sadness totally buried.  Some may have expected the diagnosis, and may experience a downpour of their worst fears come true.  Others are surprised, and then it hits them soon afterwards, realizing they have a dog with cancer.

This period of chaos can be tough to deal with, and getting support from counselors, family members, close friends or spiritual advisors can help.

As time goes on, the sadness can surface at different points in treatment.  Perhaps your dog has a hard time getting blood drawn, and you can feel every needle.  Maybe your dog is suffering from a drug reaction, and is sick and not eating.   This can be agonizing to see.  Perhaps your dog is recovering from a surgery and seems disoriented and uncomfortable, maybe even painful. There are few things harder than feeling your dog’s pain.

As time passes, we can start to wonder about what it will be like one day, when our dear one leaves.  The sadness can be quite sudden during times like these, and feel very sharp.  Often we push the notion away, busying ourselves with some chore or activity.

Almost all of us will outlive our dogs, and at some point will have to deal with their departure. This is usually more intense than we expect it to be. For the lucky few, there is, instead of intense and overwhelming sadness, intense relief.  Usually these are individuals who have had the opportunity and prepared themselves first. There are several techniques to help with this in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

Sometimes the grieving process can involve spouses, children, other family members, other pets, or just people who have been close to us.  There can be reminders and entanglements as time goes on that seem to make the sadness longer than one would expect.

Many have no idea the place that these four-legged family members actually hold in our hearts. And they have no idea what it is like to lose a loved dog.  Those with grief that lasts a long time may feel wrong or like they are abnormal.

Everyone is different, and everyone experiences life passages in different ways.  Just as we are different people with different histories, genetics, beliefs, and lifestyles, we have different ways of experiencing the passing of a loved dog.

Allowing yourself to go through your version of grief, at any point along the way, is absolutely critical.  Do not let preoccupation with treatment decision-making mask your honest feelings.  Do not spend all your time in your mind.  Take a few minutes here and there, and more if you need to, to experience what is really going on.

And don’t be afraid to ask for a helping hand.  You are not alone.

Best to all,

Dr D

Leave a Comment

  1. Lucee on April 29, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I had my pooch who was almost 15 put to sleep yesterday and I can’t seem to stop crying. An enormous amount of guilt overcomes me and knocks me down. I feel perhaps it was too soon, the tumor on his thigh bled and ooze a great deal and he was uncomfortable but he was still alert and eating, walking, climbing stairs, we even walked to the vet’s office. Especially unbearable because it took 3 shots of sedative before he would go to sleep, first it took a long time before he buckled down from standing position and then longer before he stopped swaying his head and licking his nose, then horribly his muscle relax so much that he couldn’t get his tongue back in his mouth and once in awhile it would curl, then it would flutter occassionally when we stroke his head to tell him to ‘go to sleep’. I know its antropomorphic but it felt like he didn’t want to go yet and everytime we touch his head he would try to come back. And I saw his eyes watered and a tear run down, its irrational but it seems like he was crying. I research and read that canine tear ducts run to their nose, is that true. Do dogs cry tears?

    I miss him terribly and I regret not having the foresight to give him a donut or something equally devilishly forbidden before I sent him off and worst of all I forgot to give him one last big hug on the day of the procedure.

  2. Mary Beth C on March 8, 2010 at 5:33 am

    Luke had been doing so well, but in the last week, he’d weakened. I’d talked to the vet on Monday a week ago about coming out to the house on Friday when I have off to have him put to sleep. I wanted it done before he really suffered and as I said I could tell he was weakening. I guess Luke’s plans were different. Instead, he died this past week at approximately 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, in my arms, at home, with Tillie (our other rottweiler) and me beside him. Even that day, he was asking to go outside to go to the bathroom, eating well and enjoying his rides around town, sitting up on the back seat of the van looking all around. Around midnight, he asked to go outside and I followed watching him water a bush. Then he came back inside and went to sleep. He woke me at about 3:45 a.m. vomiting. After cleaning up his bed for him, he laid back down, but he couldn’t seem to get his breath. He had very labored breathing. I knew he was dying, and knew he’d rather be at home. I knew I’d never get him to the emergency clinic in time. And what for? He was safe and warm in his home and all I’d have to go through to get him there and it wouldn’t be in time and as I said, for what? God I love that boy so much. I hugged him and held him in my arms and kept kissing him and telling him how much I loved him. Tillie was laying right there beside us. He only lasted about an hour before passing. I can’t imagine how I’ll manage without my beautiful boy. He’d had a heart attack; he just couldn’t take anymore. I’m not sure how much I can take without him. This was such a special boy.

    • Dr. Dressler on March 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm

      Dear Mary Beth
      We are all thinking of you during this sad time of separation. You did the right thing, and I believe you will meet again one day somehow or other. Best,
      Dr D

  3. Mary Beth C on February 22, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Just before Christmas, we found out that my precious rottweiler, Luke had cancer. The diagnosis is mast cell cancer and it’s spread throughout his stomach, intestines and his spleen and lymph nodes. Surgery is really not an option since it’s spread so. We’ve started him on prednisone and cimetidine, tumeric and pounds of supplements in a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable and we’re spending the hours we have left together just loving him. This boy has been my life for almost ten years and I can’t imagine a life without him. I’m trying to keep all sadness, crying, frowning away from him . . . only enjoying each other, loving each other. It’s getting harder as this once strong beautiful boy becomes weaker and weaker.

  4. Kathy on February 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you so much. You’re so right (also looking for a job).

    Thank you so much for the e-book and your priceless information and encouragement. It made our limited time together cherished.

  5. Kathy on February 18, 2010 at 7:27 am

    We’re not alone, they’re still with us.

    Last evening I lost my 5-year-old cocker spaniel. He first had a lump removed (adenoma) from his neck earlier this month; and then after having him groomed, I found another one that seemed to be a sebaceous gland. However, at that same time I noticed something in his abdomen, but then thought it was okay. The first two vets were quite concerned, and I took him back to my own vet who did x-rays that looked “cloudy” and we scheduled surgery. I had a week to cater to almost his every whim — 15-20 minute “doggie” backrubs almost every day, playing ball, chicken liver for dinner, other gourmet meals with the cancer diet of chicken, liver, low-fat cottage cheese and a few green beans that I had to chop to keep him from spitting out (way too smart!). Even yesterday I thought he was going to be okay (denial, I guess) and told him yesterday morning, “I’ll be back.”

    He had a tumor the size of a grapefruit and besides the spleen, one kidney was well involved. I think dogs should be able to fill out DNR’s; it would be so much easier — I don’t like playing God, especially with my best friend.

    Although we tried to save him, he died in surgery and I can’t help but think that it was probably for the best — He was such a “macho dog,” and it would have been very tough — He hid it so well. Hopefully, his suffering has been minimized.

    My legacy for him is a revolution and call to action — perhaps a quiet one, at that — to restrict inbreeding and encourage stray adoption, fight long-ignored practices of toxins and carcinogens in pet food, and so much more — Greed and apathy have taken over common sense.

    • Dr. Dressler on February 21, 2010 at 12:21 pm

      Dear Kathy,
      This is such momentous time for you in so many ways, both in suffering and in metamorphosis.
      Sending you my best
      Dr D

  6. Kelly Kaliszewski on February 17, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Dear Dr. Dressler,

    “Grief can be complicated” is so adequately put. My dog Cain was diagnosed with a primary lung tumor in April 2008. I was fortunate that surgery extended his life and though cancer became very much a part of our lives for a year and a half; it pales in comparison to the emotional roller coaster I’ve been riding over the past few months. Cain lost his battle on November 12, 2009, and each day since then has been different. I thought I had prepared myself, given the time I had been afforded, but I have learned just how tricky grief can be; overwhelmed at times with its unexpected visits. Do not spend all your time in your mind is wonderful advise, as it so often can keep you “stuck” and slows down the process of moving forward. I, like so many, have kept a journal that I post on my blog at It’s not always happy stuff, just my version of grief and how I’m working through it. I’m going to create a link to your blog and this post in hopes that it will help someone suffering with loss. Thanks again for such a wonderful article.

    Have a wonderful day,

    Kelly K

    Beautiful boy who reminded us how to find joy in the face of pain and that every act of love returns to us magnified. Who taught us that every moment is a wondrous new discovery. Even though you have left us behind, we will listen for you in quiet moments and know that you are near. -Cain’s memorial at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

    • Dr. Dressler on February 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm

      Dear Kelly,
      we are thinking of you during this hard time of departure. You are doing just the right thing.
      Here’s to bright days in your future
      Dr D

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