Euthanizing and Herd Anxiety

“I’m wondering if you could address animals and grief in one of your columns. We’ve lost a horse and a dog in the last two months. The horse that was a pasture mate is still occasionally calling for Jake. Lily is really struggling with the loss of Essie Lou. I now see the value of letting an animal see and smell the body of their partner. The depth of Lily’s confusion and sorrow is just heartbreaking.”

First, my condolences to anyone who has suffered the loss of a beloved. I want to talk about this touchy subject, and there is never a good time, so to the friend who sent me this note, I hope this helps in some way. Even as I know it won’t change a thing.

Warning: I’m sharing somewhat rational thoughts about irrational loss. 

When I met Essie Lou, she was the Good Dog, adult and polite, confident in her position, and kind beyond reason. Lilly was a wild puppy who had a bit of time-share on the older dog’s brain until she grew into herself. Older dogs can give a pup a good launch in life, but when they die, there is a loss of confidence which might have really been Essie Lou’s all along. Lily has to be the Good Dog now, with big paws to fill. She’s lost a big sister/mentor and a friend. Lost as in the last thing a herding dog should do. And for now, she’s an only dog. We can say Lily is mourning but it might be separation anxiety. Confusion and sadness for her aloneness. Too pragmatic?

Just the previous month, my friends lost Jake, their longtime companion, to colic at 24. He was a perfect horse like they all are. Jake’s pasture mate remembers him, of course, but is it mourning or separation anxiety. Changes in the herd, horses coming or going, always create stress. Horses and dogs don’t like change any more than we do. Is it more than the usual stress of bringing a new horse into the pasture? I’m not saying horses don’t mourn, but does our loss color how we read the others in the herd, if it’s even possible to see through our tears? Is that too cold? 

Maybe the problem is we think separation anxiety is merely a training issue.

My friend’s losses were sudden and unexpected. Emergency losses are quick and horrific. Old-age euthanizing comes like a slow train with months of hard questions but in the end, are quick and horrific. And also a bit easier to accept. Is there something to learn that would help us with the sudden deaths?

When my Grandfather Horse was euthanized, I thought we would all die with him. The herd took a short look at his body and went back to lunch. His goat fell asleep by his back, as I sat by his head and had a good think about who was mourning and who wasn’t. My Grandfather Horse had been frail for so long, I’d seen other herd members act like caregivers, feeling stress and giving calming signals of all sorts. In some ways, they shared his pain. Now they seemed almost relieved. Do horses get compassion fatigue? Last year, our senile old dog was euthanized and the other dogs showed so much relief that I felt guilty for waiting too long. 

Animals have emotions similar to ours, but without the same brain functions, by definition, they do not experience what we do. For all of our similarities, there are as many differences. 

When my younger gelding was four, I bought his dam and brought her home. They recognized each other but had no interest. It wasn’t a tearful homecoming. No one thanked me.

Rather than overwhelming my herd with my own emotions, I try to listen to them. Sometimes there’s a profound relief when a herd member or a pack member is no longer in pain. It’s natural that their pain impacts everybody in the herd but if it grows gradually that we might not admit to seeing it. But when their pain is gone, everyone lightens. Maybe animals, living more in their bodies than in their minds, move through grief in a more functional way. Maybe not thinking about the future gives them a simpler perspective. 

Humans juggle these three over-ripe tomatoes: mourning and relief and guilt. Then we remember childhood dogs hit by cars and horses sent to slaughter by our fathers. The pain is still there. And none of us is getting younger. We are caregivers, or ex-caregivers to our parents, spouses, and dear friends. We worry about death and have anticipatory grieving. Once we get to a certain age, if someone hasn’t died lately, we know someone will soon. And then we think we hear Old Yeller barking out back. It’s hopeless. We are bottomless pits of mourning, relief, and guilt counterbalanced by this one thing. We also love.

Humans can romanticize death by dressing it up and giving it the imaginary power to take something away, even as we know we will never let go. Mourning is the period of time we figure that out.

I don’t want to confuse an animal’s mourning for my own or overshadow their feelings with my loud wet tears. Is anxiousness why they get quiet and seem sad? Are they pulling inside, nervous about my emotions? We do know they get over loss faster than we do. Why does it matter? 

Animals read our primary-color emotions like anger, happiness, fear, and surprise. The other designer-mauve feelings, like ambivalence, pity, or compassion, are more confusing and might just seem like anxiety to them. Anxiety is that catch-all place for things horses and dogs don’t understand. Of course, it makes them quiet. Half-closed eyes don’t mean the same thing to them as they do to us.

Can we tell where our feelings stop and our animal’s feelings begin? Rather than flood them, we could try to understand what it means to be a dog. And if that isn’t challenging enough, to understand what it means to be a flight animal who feels weakness.

The strange thing about a lingering death is that the world tilts on its side until the worst thing possible begins to look like a gift. Seen from that side, death is a sort of blessing. A sweet escape from a long slow debilitation isn’t the worst thing, but that’s human thinking and a question that never crosses their minds.

I confess I’ve shed an ocean of tears onto the shoulders of generations of slightly nervous horses and dogs. Did I use them as emotional dartboards? Probably but I’m not proud of it. The more I learn about animals, the more respect I have for their feelings. Working with rescues especially, I see so much practical resilience. If I could, I would take all of those tears and emotions I threw around back again. I would cry and commiserate less. I would praise more.

And I’d keep my eye on the bigger truth. One day, Lily will give mature guidance to an excitable pup. She is Essie Lou’s legacy. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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37 thoughts on “Euthanizing and Herd Anxiety”

  1. Thank you for this, Anna. Folly lost her big brother Dillon (an Irish Setter and a very good dog) suddenly. None of us got any warning and we were all bereft. Folly definitely felt completely lost without him and stuck to me like Velcro for weeks. Now she’s big sister to Loki and has stepped up to the task of filling some very big paws beautifully.

    Bracken, my Highland Pony, died at the ripe old age of 36. I think we all knew it was his time, but it still came as a shock. Finn couldn’t go near his body; his horror was palpable, but Mulberry had a sniff and seemed to accept what had happened. There doesn’t seem to be any way of preparing for death, sticking to the usual routines of day to day life seemed to help all of us a little in the days that followed.

  2. Thank you so much for this! It is so true about anxiety and confidence. Lily used to chase squirrels with wild abandon while Essie Lou stayed behind, occasionally joining the fun but mostly keeping an eye on me and the trail. Now it’s like Lily doesn’t have the backup she relied upon, and she stays near. I am curious how long she will look and sniff over my shoulder when I return home in my car as if trying to scent her partner who is long overdue to come home. Or how long she’ll sleep next to the door for half the night before she quietly comes to her usual place in our bedroom. Weirdly she wants little to do with Bill which feels an awful lot to him like blame — but that’s layering our emotions on her, and not fair. Mostly I think she’s confused. There will be another pup in our near future. I’m not ready but a certain horseman and dog will be relieved for some goofy, youthful energy around here. Thank you for your kind and pragmatic words.

    • Really great questions & mulling over of the so short lives of the animals that live with us – only yesterday took my Juliette cat to the vets for her final visit – she was 15 & it was time. NOT time for me or for my son who she owned before he moved out and she switched “ownership” to me, but for her? Time to get a restful sound sleep – and she did. Axel (dog) I’m sure wondered why she left & didnt come back but they had sort of a difficult relationship and she was boss! I think its the first time in 40? 50? years that there hasnt been a cat living with me. I’m really grateful for Axel.
      I hope & believe your Lily will be better over time – with or without another goofy energy.

    • We say change is hard, even then we don’t get it until we are in the middle of it. I’m with that certain horseman and dog. Goofiness is an antidote to grief. And I think Essie Lou would approve… but we are who we are, each dog, horse, and human. Take care, my friends.

  3. Cappy and Dover were thick as thieves for over 20 years. I often pre-mourned the day when they would be separated, worrying that Dover would be lost without him. Toward the end, though, I thought I recognized Dover saying his good-bye. The day finally came and, surprisingly, Dover never showed signs of grief.
    It might be fanciful, but I hold onto a belief that when we lose a dog, a cat or a horse, it is their way of making room for another in need of our care and love.

  4. It hurts every single time and it never gets easier. Why do we put ourselves thru it? Simple answer – because it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

  5. I’ll read this again. there are thoughts upon thoughts, and words with meaning far beyond the sentence’s intent, I’m sure. My recently injured sheep was quickly banished from the flock. Now that she’s going to live through the injury, she’s back in her old place. I have a thought that death for animals has a meaning and a purpose that we may never allow ourselves to understand, so immersed in our human reasoning we are.

  6. What timing you have Anna.

    Received news yesterday that our farrier of 13 years had been hospitalized with Covid-related pneumonia. Today he needs his spleen removed due to a blood clot. Not a good candidate for surgery, and he’s being monitored for organ failure.

    Spent the morning with anticipatory grief over his potential death, because that is how I roll. He has generously and patiently shared his knowledge over the years, so that in a pinch I can take over trimming duties. Remembering my grandmother’s reminders about not borrowing trouble.

    Also feeling sorrow for what Will’s family and close friends must be going through. And then guilt, as texts go around our tiny horse community about finding someone to fill in, or replace him. It’s been nearly 8 weeks since our last trims…

    I doubt our non-human animal friends are jealous of our higher reason and overly complicated consciousness.

    • You’ve spoken about your farrier and it’s sad in a few ways. So sorry to hear this, and for his family, heartbreaking. No, we are not vnciable. Thanks, Christian, and best wishes for everyone.

  7. Great thoughts, Anna. Food for consideration.

    When an old quarter horse died at EquestHunter some years ago, after a couple of years of COPD,
    the mares gathered in a circle, close to her burial site. She had just been euthanized and we sat
    with her (her owner was flying out for Thanksgiving, and chose not to cancel her flight).

    Thought of her last morning still haunt me, as she collapsed in her stall and all muscles gave out.
    We had to get her up, somehow, and it was very difficult to move her outside the barn. We all
    kept our voices cheerful (Vet and three others), the sun was shining on a chilly November day,
    and she seemed accepting. It was, as always, so hard to lose her.

    Five mares stood in a circle, outside the wood fence, while she ‘rested’, with a blanket covering her.
    It was their goodbye. But they did not return to grazing for about an hour, all standing with their
    heads quite low, moving little. It was absolutely a respectful good bye to the beautiful mare.

    She was buried. The herd returned to grazing. I was brushing out the barn and some wind whipped
    up, sun shining through the stall windows. The mare’s stall door flew open, and a strong wind just
    blew past me, engulfing me in wind and light. I was almost knocked backwards. It was not just
    sunlight, it seemed to emanate from her stall — it seemed, very definitely to me, that she was saying
    goodbye; now free of pain. I was the only one there at the time.

    The evening before that, I had looked out to the small pasture, where she stood, alone, and brought
    Jack (my OTTB) out to his adjacent pasture. The mare turned to look at me. I knew the look, as I
    have been a professional rehabber of wildlife. We always know when they have had enough.
    She was having difficulty breathing, she was cold. I walked out to the pasture, and gave her some
    rubs. I said, quietly, “It’s OK to go if you want to.”

    The next morning, at 10, she collapsed. I will always remember her and I keep her photo.
    We held a memorial service for her at the barn, with friends and the barn owners. Her owner
    could not attend that, either. We read poetry, told stories of her time at the barn (many years)
    and had afternoon tea. It seemed she was there.

    I still say hello to her, when I can.

    Thank you for this lovely article.

    • Why does it make me so sad that her owner chose not to cancel/change her flight? Trying not to judge while my heart aches for that good horse and for the next good horse that owner might have. They are never “just an animal”, as if not worthy of our priority. Thank you Nuala, and also to the others to whom she was never “just an animal”. Her time on this earth is worthy of our time, respect & heartache of loss.

      • Nuala, I will have to speak up here and didn’t want to. First, the horse got a shot of anesthesia, like any inoculation or meds for floating. That is all the horse knew. Then release. Horses do not think about the future, euthanizing is a kindness and no one’s first choice. I don’t feel sorry for the horse. Second, we don’t know why the owner traveled. Was she off to visit elderly sick parents or some other crucial event? We don’t know her story. Why assume she doesn’t love her horse?

  8. This post was so weirdly timely. We euthanized our 27 year old mare yesterday. The short part of the long story is that it was time. I’m SO blessed that I’m mature enough to realize that and it was not to early nor did she suffer because I held on to long. The rest of the herd was able to participate in anyway they wanted to. Peace to anyone who has to make the decision. It was a perfect ending yesterday. A person actually can know when the right time is! I didn’t think that was possible. 💛 TAZ

  9. Over here shedding tears again for my heart dog we had to let go somewhat suddenly almost two years ago. I wish I could live more in the moment, like animals… instead I carry my grief close…

    These are helpful thoughts for framing my human sense of loss too. Thank you for sharing them.

    • So sorry, Elisabeth. It is hard to survive loss. Might even be the hardest part of the situation. When I’m grieving, and I think I will grieve every day for the rest of my life, I let another dog lick it off of me. Maybe it’s the real meaning of the adage “Hair of the dog.” Take care my friend.

  10. Thank you for this much needed and timely post Anna. Today is my old little dog’s last day on this earth. I made the decision in my mind yesterday when she looked at me after backing away from food she would normally gobble up. As people say, she is my shadow. She always went down the path to the barn no matter the weather. It was 9 months ago my other dog was euthanized after an emergency of a cute pancreatitis. Still mulling that one over and only now learning my horses and dogs are so much more sensible than their human.
    “ My friend’s losses were sudden and unexpected. Emergency losses are quick and horrific. Old-age euthanizing comes like a slow train with months of hard questions but in the end, are quick and horrific. And also a bit easier to accept. Is there something to learn that would help us with the sudden deaths?”

    This paragraph! So true! Again thank you Anna, for this post. I continue to learn treasured lessons from the dogs and horses who put up with and forgive their teary eyed human. Melanie

    • Me, too, Melanie. I feel like every year the learning curve gets steeper, and I love it. Best wishes to you and your good dog.

  11. Equine loss has always been harder for me than canine, maybe because I spent so many years working with young horses who seem almost immortal in their strength. The last few years have been a reality check. My perfect old gelding lost to a sudden mystery freakish falling-apart-from-the-skin-inward limb ailment. Then the decision to euthanize the kids’ magical unicorn pony after a years-long battle with laminitis, who was preceded by two days by her best horse friend of 10 years who colicked inexplicably in her pasture. Then my Grandmother mare who probably would have kept suffering on those old busted knees until the end of time. I got small comfort when I took Grandmother mare’s (much younger and highly devoted) boyfriend out to see her body. He gave it half a glance, then let out the loudest neigh to the sky, as if to say that lump of flesh was clearly not her, and she was gone.

    Thank you for the prompt .. I think the practical resilience modeled by our animal friends is a healthy example. And it’s also OK to bawl like a baby for our own sorrows. As long as we show up to muck out and throw hay in the morning 🙂

    • It’s been quite a time of change at your barn, Shaste. Sorry for your losses. And yes, soak the couch, smiles in the barn. Thank you for sharing with us.


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