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

Grief: Not A Four Letter Word

Updated: August 27th, 2019

Let’s face it.  In the world of dog cancer, grief is part of the deal.

But, the truth is that it is often ignored.  Honestly, when many of us hear the word “grief”, we kind of turn away and try not to think about it.  “Let’s deal with this.”  “Let’s get the job done.”  “How long does my dog have, Doc?”  Not much thinking about the grief bit.

There’s a problem with this though.  The problem with grief is that it can happen long before we lose a dog.  Who has thought of the passing away of their loved four legged friend?  Most of us get a hit of a bad feeling, and then try not to think about it.

Yes, we can experience grief before the event has happened.  (It’s called anticipatory grief. We talked about it in last week’s webinar).

So what is wrong with what is happening in this area?

Here is the problem: when we don’t deal with grief, whether it’s grief about a future event or an event that has passed already, the grief messes up our ability to function well.

People don’t realize that avoided emotions tend to pop up in strange and unexpected ways.  Sure, some of us with avoided (bad) emotions  get angry or sad or whatever, or just “emotional” at times when it really is not appropriate.

When this happens, it is fairly obvious that it is not helpful to us or to our dogs.

But, there is more to this story.  The less obvious, avoided grief also saps our attention without us realizing it.  We get fuzzy headed. We lose our ability to think clearly about what is really going on.  We lose motivation and decisiveness.  We feel like a massive weight is pushing down on us, and we simply perform at a lower level.

And those around us suffer for it.  Our dogs, our loved ones, our friends, and the general public.

Are you coping with a dog cancer diagnosis?  Does your dog have cancer?  You are experiencing grief.  Grief has many forms.  Look at the definitions.  One involves overwhelming sorrow, or bereavement. Another involves what we alluded to above, anticipatory grief. We also have the word used to describe irritation or stress, as in, “stop giving me grief about this!”

So yes, the vast majority of you are experiencing grief.

Another type of grief that you should know about is “disenfranchised” grief. This is when our society does not have a place for the grief about something.  It is not considered really worthy of grieving.

Pet loss, or grief around pets, would fit pretty well in this category.

So what do you do with this information? Well, you have taken step one.  Identify the problem.  Identify there is not really a good place to deal with pet grief.  You need to make your own space. Take the next steps.

Don’t be afraid to get a little help with a counselor, either in person, by phone, or by Skype. Talk to someone who understands how real your love is for your dog. Do the coping exercises in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide and The Coping Guide.  Talk to a spiritual advisor.  Join an online group (Yahoo has a nice one). Call support lines at vet schools.

The bottom line is that you need to put time aside, in your calendar, to do it.  Your dog will feel the difference and you will be a much better guardian with less grief.


Dr D


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  1. Janet Warrick on November 7, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Hello, Dr. Dressler,
    My ten year old Blue Heeler was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma on October 19th. We couldn’t afford chemo and so he was put on prednisone. They gave him three to four weeks, but we had to euthanize him yesterday after just eighteen days, as his quality of life had gone down so much, and we didn’t want him to suffer. His neck suddenly swelled up the day before and he started excessively drooling, had difficulty walking for anything but the shortest distances and could no longer go up the stairs. His nights seemed uncomfortable and he wasn’t moving much during the day.

    I first noticed something was wrong nine months ago (February, 2017), when he began having trouble sitting down. He seemed very stiff in his hind end and would sit very slowly as if it hurt to do so. He also began constantly licking his front legs and paws. His vet said Hunter had arthritis and gave him Maloxicam. About a month later Hunter began collapsing and seemed to be having seizures. At that time the vet said he had Lyme disease and prescribed doxycycline, but he didn’t do any blood tests. This bothered me because, while I am aware that Lyme disease doesn’t always show up in blood tests, I am also aware that many illnesses have similar symptoms and the vet hadn’t even tried to make sure it was not something else. I was also concerned that Hunter could be having a reaction to the Maloxicam. So I took him to a different veterinary clinic in the next town. This vet immediately did blood work, which came back negative for all tick-born illnesses, but it showed that Hunter had a slight anemia. He took him off all medication and we re-checked his blood a week or two later, which showed the anemia improving. Well, things kept happening, and we kept bringing Hunter back, telling the vet everything that was going on, but to no avail. We couldn’t seem to get an answer to what was wrong with him.
    Then on one visit in June or July a technician found that Hunter had swollen lymph nodes in his neck. I felt them and they were about the size of marbles. I asked the vet if that meant that he had an infection, but he didn’t answer my question. Then in September Hunter began excessively and constantly panting, even when just sitting. Something was clearly wrong. It was a Sunday, and we had to call the vet for an emergency visit. We met him at the clinic and he gave Hunter an injection for allergies which didn’t really help. Next, he gave him prescriptions for Doxycycline, prednisone and Hydroxyzine. I asked him how we would know what is helping him, and his answer was, “I don’t know.” Well, I should have known by now that this was not the vet to be taking Hunter to, but really didn’t know where else to go. A short time later Hunter began having collapsing episodes again and this time the vet did a hurried ultrasound which showed a mass on Hunter’s spleen. Through all of this he never mentioned that it might be cancer. He wanted to take out Hunter’s spleen, but I was uncomfortable with this since I still didn’t know what was going on. Out of sheer frustration we drove to the University of Madison Veterinary Care Hospital where Hunter finally, and sadly, was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. In the meantime I had come across your Dog Cancer Survival Guide, which I purchased and was very grateful to have found. It answered many questions. I also purchased Apocaps, modified citrus pectin, and changed Hunter’s diet, but it was already too late.

    I am so very frustrated since it only took about two minutes, once I found out Hunter had lymphoma, to find out that swollen lymph nodes is the number one indication of lymphoma in dogs. Why had the vet ignored this? And why, when I specifically asked him about it, did he ignore my question? I can only come to two conclusions: one is that he didn’t have a clue, which, to me is outrageous. Or two: he did have an idea that Hunter had cancer and didn’t say anything, because we kept bringing him back, and running up quite a bill. Either way, I think it’s shameful, but I forgive him. I also forgive the first boob who diagnosed him with Lyme disease without bothering to check for anything else.

    Hunter was the most beautiful friend I could ever ask for and had been constantly by my side since getting him from the local shelter seven years ago. He was my shadow and followed me everywhere. I know I did the best thing for him, but I keep apologizing to him for euthanizing him, since he was so keen to be by my side right up until the end. I would never want him to think that I didn’t want him.
    Right now the grief at losing my dear friend and constant companion is about as raw and full as it gets, but through the tears, I realize just how lucky and incredibly blessed I have been to have had such a sweet, dear friend in my life. Dogs are truly a gift to be cherished always. How lucky we are….

  2. Anna Maroni on June 9, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    I can say that losing a dog is the same grief as losing a close friend or family member. Its downright hard no matter how you look at it, I don’t think anyone has the right to say it was only a pet or animal because in reality you loved that pet that you cared for every second of its life.

  3. Carol Ann Davis on May 16, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Your publisher suggested I contact you through your e-mail

    Aloha Dr Dressler,

    I have been devastated about the diagnosis of cancer of the soft tissue on my dog Athina’s rear leg. She is my most important support since I lost my husband 2 years ago to multiple myeloma. Any suggestions you could give to me would be appreciated.I live on Kauai…originally from Oahu…my dog and I fly to Oahu for Athina’s treatment. just noticed in the photo of Athina a year ago and now…that the white fur around her nose has decreased. 12 years old -13 this June-1/2 lab 1/2 Doberman. Athina was trained as a search dog and is now a therapy dog…presently in retirement. She developed soft tissue sarcoma around the knee on her back left leg in the fall. As a 10 month old pup she was hit by a car as a pup and the leg was pinned (VCA)-the ball broke off the femur. ..She developed a rapidly growing sarcoma and from the time of discovery, (a tiny tumor which we thought was an enlarged lymph gland), in October to a very large, fist sized tumor in December. After seeing local vets I flew Athina to Oahu (she is service dog certified so can fly on the plane) Dr Eric Pierson of Oahu is her treating veterinarian. The tumor was diagnosed as a soft tissue sarcoma (very rapidly growing) An amputation was performed in January followed by 5 treatments with Doxorubicin which she did well on. She is going to begin taking Palladia this week…small doses 3x a week. She has done very well on Doxorubicin and her blood work looked good through the whole 5 dose treatment time.

    Athina is also on a special diet of swiss chard, kale, spinach, red pepper, green beans, sprualina, solid gold seameal, olive oil, broccoli, vitamin E, fish oil caps(omega 3) glucosamine, liquid vitamin C 500 units, astaxanthin with L-Arginine HCL, occasionally mushroom powder (from mushroom matrix) with added wild salmon or hormone free chicken breast. virgin coconut oil, (she will not eat ginger and I recently read that garlic is bad so do not give that)….she also takes Resources Incontinence support for an incontinence problem she developed last fall…she no longer has the problem since she started taking this herbal medicine…they tried veterinary hormones, proin and other synthetic medication which did not work…but this works the best. She drinks alkaline water which a friend provides…I do not have a machine…too expensive with the cost of her treatment. Dr. Pierson does not recommend raw meats etc because of the problems with possible contamination…I agree…Athina eats raw salads often.

    I watched your video and read the information on your web site but saw no reference to soft tissue sarcoma in your treatment modalities. I have all the blood work from Athina’s tests. II am pretty well versed on diet. Dr Pierson is a friend of the head of the national veterinary oncology society and consults on Athina’s case with her often. Do you have any suggestions or changes I should make for Athina.


    Carol Ann Davis-Briant
    >> 2381 Kipuka St
    >> Koloa, (Poipu Beach) Kauai HI 96756
    >> (808)742-1700(office), (808)639-1936(cell) , (808)742-6523 (home)
    >> PS good web site…who created it?

    • DemianDressler on May 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      Dear Carol Ann,
      Sorry to hear this tough news.
      If you are including everything in her diet it is deficient in calcium. Please request a calcium supplement/calcium containing foods for your dog from your veterinarian’s recommendation. Also I would suggest apoptogens as well which are blogged about extensively in this site. Also consider artemisinin as an additional supplement, also blogged about (use the search bar, upper right) and discussed in the Guide as well.
      Hope this helps,
      Dr D

  4. mary on May 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Hi:; our dog maggie was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer ; she is a 10 yr. old brittany spaniel; and my worry now is what to feed her i tried white rice today mixed it with some tuna and plain yogart i found this recipe online is this ok she is such a sweet , gentle dog, and we were very upset with this news:::;; would appreciate some advise on her diet and what to expect thankyou so very much mary

    • DemianDressler on May 18, 2011 at 9:37 pm

      Dear Mary,
      I am very sorry to hear this sad news.
      Your veterinarian or oncologist should of course be advising you on proper diet. If this were my patient, I would consider the use of the Dog Cancer Diet (free download at the top of this page), along with apoptogen supplements, immune support, and the consideration of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation if appropriate. The type of cancer is important information to help narrow down the treatment types since different cancers affect the stomach. Also consider artemisinin and Neoplasene.
      Please consult with your veterinarian when choosing treatments like these. The Guide is useful in times like this.
      Dr D

  5. Karen C Bender on March 21, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Hi Dr D – I put my Golden, Mack, to rest July 2009. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor 11 months before. Yes, I grieved long before he left, but more importantly I had 11 months to celebrate him and we shared a long, loving good-bye. I still am sad about his leaving, but so appreciate all he gave me in life.
    Thank you for all you do,
    Karen Bender

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