Dealing With Guilt - Did I Do Everything I Could?

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Dealing with guilt - did I do everything I could?

From A Viewer:

CAROLEMU writes: "We just had to put our much loved dog to sleep and I am having tremendous guilt about how he died. We knew it was likely time to put him down because he was in pain so we were cleaning him up to take him to the vet and while we were cleaning his hind section we discovered that he was infested with maggots. I feel that I let him down when he needed me the most and I should not have let this happen to him.

I can't help but wonder if the pain he was in was because of the maggots or because of the cancer. I just feel so guilty I do not know what to do."


First of all, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Please accept my sincere condolences. Guilt often intensifies the sense of loss and can initiate feelings of self doubt and prolong the healing process. Even in times of pet illness, guilt can play a role.

Sometimes these things just happen. Animals can't talk, and clinical signs may be few or very subtle. As animal lovers, we do the best we can and try to learn from each experience.

A disclaimer: I am not professionally trained in human grief counseling, but will share some tips and resources that I have found to be helpful in this FAQ.

What is Guilt?

Many definitions exist for the word guilt, but the one that I feel fits best for pet-related guilt is this: "feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy" (Chicago Manual Style (CMS): guilt. Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (accessed: August 07, 2007).

Pets depend on us for food and shelter and cannot directly tell us how they feel, so when something happens to our pet (i.e. illness, accident, death), the feelings of "letting our pet down" often turn to feelings of guilt and anger or denial.

The questions of "why didn't I notice this problem?", "did I act quickly enough?" and "did I do all that I possibly could?" are common. It is hard to be objective when it comes to our pets.

What is the Purpose of Guilt?

Mild guilt may actually be helpful; learning from a mistake or learning how to better observe a pet for signs of illness are positive results from guilt-induced self examination. When the guilt intensifies or won't "go away", it can be damaging to self esteem and to other relationships.

How Can I Deal With Guilt?

Guilt has been described as anger turned inward, and is often associated with the emotion of anger, one of the "5 stages of grief". Everyone recovers from grief at different rates, but here are some tips to reduce the amount of anger/guilt and start the process of healing.

  • Go easy on yourself. Stop the critical self talk. Know that you did the best you could under the circumstances. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. People make mistakes.
  • Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend or family member; someone with a some perspective on the situation.
  • Try to redirect the feelings of inadequacy or "wrongdoing" to the times that you shared with your pet in good health; the times that you provided for your pet and took great care of your pet.
  • Speak to your veterinarian if you have lingering questions about your pet's condition.
  • Speak to a grief counselor or phone a pet loss hotline for support.

Releasing the guilt doesn't mean that you don't/didn't care for your pet. Getting rid of the angry and destructive feelings of guilt is healthy for everyone involved.

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