This Vet Talks About College Students and the Dogs They Leave Behind

As any dog lover will tell you, the absolute best part of sharing your life with them is the unconditional love they give you. Indeed, recent studies suggest that having a dog is especially beneficial for adolescents, precisely for this reason.

But the hardest part of living with and loving a dog may well be watching how quickly his life passes. One minute he’s a frisky pup, jumping up and stealing bites of pizza off your kids’ plates and the next—starting at age seven, say veterinarians—he is considered a senior, spending what feels like most of the day snoozing.

Dog at home
The hardest part of living with and loving a dog may well be watching how quickly his life passes. (Twenty20 @simitko)

“What’s difficult for those who love dogs,” says veterinarian—and father of four, including one college student—Dr. John Pisciotta, of the Rye/Harrison Veterinary Hospital in Rye, NY, “is realizing how short a time they are here relative to our own lives.” Smaller dogs on average live to age 14 or 15, larger dogs only to about 10 to 12, he explains.

We adopted our yellow Lab puppy Maggie when our youngest, Adam, was about ten and she passed away when he was a senior in college. Like with many families, this was our kids’ first real dog—we had a much older dog from our pre-children days that was, admittedly, not much fun by the time our human kids came along as by then she was spending most of her days in her dog bed. Maggie, however, was Adam’s combination best pal and furry buddy for the 12 years she was part of our family. Her loss for him—and us—was profound.

How to Prepare Your College Student For the Loss of Their Dog

How best to prepare your own college student—and you—for perhaps the first big loss your child may experience? I asked Dr. Pisciotta for suggestions on how to support your child during this difficult time.

Before your teen leaves for school…

Have a frank discussion with him about the possibility of the family dog falling ill or passing away while he is at school.

Ask him whether he wants to know if his pet becomes ill or dies suddenly while he is away. Some may prefer to wait until they are home again to receive this news—or to have it postponed until after Finals or other stressful times.

If your dog becomes ill or passes away while your teen is at school… 

Ask your veterinarian if he will chat in person or on the phone with your child to answer any of his questions about the pet’s condition or the process of euthanasia.

If your resources and your child’s schedule permit, offer to bring him home to say goodbye. If not, use FaceTime or Skype to connect them.

If your pet’s medical condition permits, consider waiting to euthanize him until your child can come home. But don’t prolong the process if your pet is in pain—no one wants your dog to suffer.

If you do have to euthanize your dog, ask your child if he would like to be present in the room while the procedure is done. Some may want to remain in the waiting room and others at home.

After your dog passes away…

Share your own feelings of sadness and grief so he knows he is not alone in feeling this way.

Ask your child what you can do to help him.

Offer to have a small family gathering to mark the pet’s passing and ask your child what he would like it to include.

If you can, have a family meal and share your happiest memories of the dog. If your child is at school, arrange a joint phone call.

Consider having each family member reflect on the one quality that the dog embodied that they’d like to incorporate in their own lives.

Think about framing photos of the dog or making a scrapbook about him as a family project.

Check in with your student more frequently—quick texts are fine—right after the dog’s passing.

Assure your child that his feelings of sadness and loss are normal. But if they persist—or interfere with everyday life—encourage him to seek counseling on campus or via phone with an at-home therapist.

Encourage him to reach out to friends at school who may have undergone similar experiences.

Offer to include your child in family discussions about arrangements such as burial or cremation. If you choose the later, ask if he’d like to keep the cremains at home in a special container or sprinkle them in an area of particular significance to the dog.

If your child would like your dog buried in your backyard rather than a pet cemetery, check local ordinances. Some towns do not permit backyard pet burials.

What You Might Also Want to Read:

Once Kids Are In College, Dogs Replace What’s Missing In Our Hearts

5 Ways to Stay Close as Your Family Grows Apart 

Journalist Laurie Yarnell was one of the first “mommy bloggers”—she created the popular humorous blog, “Embedded in the ‘Burbs” (“A peek over one mom’s cyber picket fence”) for NBC’s back when few people knew what a blog even was. She was also a longterm Features Editor for Westchester Magazine. With occasional laundry visits from her daughter and son, Laurie lives in a mostly empty nest in Rye, NY with her husband, two Labs, and various fragile saltwater fish. She writes frequently about her family, friends, neighbors, and assorted acquaintances. Amazingly enough, some of them still speak to her.

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