My pet died. I think his death was preventable. Help me cope.
May 10, 2012 4:43 AM   Subscribe

My pet died. I think his death was preventable. Help me cope.

A week ago, I found my pet hedgehog dead in his cage. We don't know exactly why or how he died, but my best guess is that he suffered heatstroke, went into a coma, and then died. Along with the grief of losing a pet, I'm consumed with guilt around his death.

We had just moved into a new apartment in a city, and the stress of the move probably affected our pet. Then, since it was cold out, we turned on the heat to keep him warm. We learned the next day that the heat was broken, and we couldn't turn it off. It started blasting dry, warm air, and though we tried all sorts of things to get it to turn off, we couldn't. This went on for Tuesday, Wednesday. I was starting a new job and was tired, and I wasn't thinking straight. The heat still on with a window open to balance the temperature, I went to bed Wednesday night. When we checked in Edgar on Thursday, he was dead, and his water bowl was empty.

We could have moved his cage. We could have insisted that the landlord bring someone in to turn off the heat sooner. On top of all this, the pilot light in our stove was off for about four days after our move, and there was gas streaming into the apartment. That couldn't have helped our pet's health. The bottom line is that our hedgehog is dead and things I did and didn't do most likely caused it.

I'm beside myself. I can't concentrate at my new job. I guess I'm looking for advice, stories, or resources about pet death and guilt to help me get through this. Thanks.
posted by prior to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you're going through this. Please remember that he is at peace, and is now beyond this.

Two years ago I had to euthanize my pet toad, Peanut. I did my best to take care of him, but he ended up with a bacterial infection. I remember crying in the aisle of the drugstore, having spent hours researching the humane way to euthanize him - which is Anbesol, as it turns out - and the indignity for him of my having to choose between mint and cherry flavour. I've learned from my experience, which is the only good thing that's come from it.

I found this article, "Breaking the Power of Guilt" to be incredibly helpful. It's a shame the page is hideous, but it has some good advice in there and how to implement it, under the concepts of "Choose not to rehearse guilt. Choose to accept what cannot be changed. Choose balance. Choose forgiveness."
posted by peagood at 5:05 AM on May 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

From the sounds of it, you did everything you could in that moment. You tried for two days to get the heat turned off, and you cracked a window open to compensate. It's not like you had the heat on, shrugged, and said "eh, fuck it, we'll just go naked; you can't take your skin off, hedgehog, so sucks to be you, I guess." You did try to do something, and you did so for two days.

And I hear you hindsight-second-guessing things -- but all you can do is the best you are capable of doing in a given moment. You may be feeling like if you'd only had more sleep or been less scattered you'd have thought of something more -- but the thing is, you hadn't had more sleep, and you weren't capable of thinking of anything else. You can't do more than what you're capable of doing in a given moment. You did the very best you could with the resources that were available to you at that moment in time. That is all any of us can do.

And I promise you that your hedgehog knows that that is what happened. He knows you did the very best you could.

Be well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:22 AM on May 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Sometimes you just can't predict the outcomes no matter how much hindsight says you could. Know that you loved him & cared for him & that you did your best for him. His daily life matters so much more than this horrible accident that took him away from you. When God says "it's time to go," you go, and it was his time. I'm sorry. Hedgie knows you never meant for this to happen.
posted by Ys at 5:39 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had something similar happen many years ago -- I was traveling back to college in Upstate NY from my parent's house in Houston after break, and had my pet chinchilla with me. It was hot out, and we were driving through Louisiana in my boyfriend's car. I didn't have a car or even a license then, so that was the only option. His car didn't have working A/C.

As long as we kept moving with the windows open, the temperature in the car was fine. But then there was a huge accident and we were stuck in traffic that absolutely didn't move for hours. We couldn't get off the road, as it was a highway and we weren't near any exits. There was nothing we could do even as I knew the heat was killing my pet. She also was in the back of the SUV, and we had the hatch window open for air flow, and I worry now that she may have been exposed to carbon monoxide and other fumes as well.

As soon as we got to an exit, we drove to a gas station and bought tons of ice and made some ice packs for her... but it was too late. She died in my arms a few hours later.

I am tearing up thinking about it, but the guilt has lessened. It's not gone completely, even though this was many years ago, but I did the best I could and that's what you did and it's all anyone can do. Guilt is often a part of grief, and as with grief, the only thing that really helps is time.

Don't beat yourself up and try not to run through a bunch of 'what-if' scenarios (it's hard, I know). You did your best, and it's ok.
posted by misskaz at 5:41 AM on May 10, 2012

Hedgehogs are prone to a lot of diseases including cancer. It's entirely possible that it was NOT preventable.
posted by imagineerit at 6:00 AM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

I can relate, I ran over my old cat a few weeks back and feel terrible. I had him for 16 years and I just drove into the driveway like I do every day and that was it. I don't think there are words, but you cared for your pet, and I'm sorry for what you are feeling.
posted by mattoxic at 6:06 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had many pets and it's always hard to lose one, no matter how it happens. One thing that helps me is to make a donation in their honor to a relevant agency, like a humane society or wildlife preservation group.
posted by phoenix_rising at 6:11 AM on May 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I was little, my brother and I had a pet mouse. My mom would clean her cage every week or so, and we also had a cat. While she cleaned the cage, the black and white spotted mouse we had at the time used to run around on the counter top. My mom went out to the garage to dump the bedding in the garbage can and forgot that the cat was in the house. She was outside for less than a minute and our cat had killed the mouse. My brother and I knew it was an accident and we were sad, but she had literally done the exact same thing countless times before without incident. It was an accident. I'm not mad at her but she is still upset about it 15 years later. Please don't be the same way. You did everything you could to help him. Don't beat yourself up about it.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:14 AM on May 10, 2012

I see a connection between this On top of all this, the pilot light in our stove was off for about four days after our move, and there was gas streaming into the apartment and this I wasn't thinking straight.

Carbon monoxide doesn't leak from unlit pilot lights, but combustible/natural gas does. The symptoms of combustible/natural gas poisoning are pretty similar, though, and can cause confusion, coma and death. I don't know how much natural gas it would take to kill a hedgehog, but I can't tell you whether this is what killed him, or excessive heat, or dehydration, or something entirely unrelated, as I don't have that kind of expertise. I don't think your concern that this could have caused his death is unreasonable, though.

Another hazard of having combustible gas streaming into your apartment is that it's combustible; even flicking an electrical switch could have sparked an explosion, and yet here you are alive and well enough to post this. I'm guessing that opening the window for your hedgehog made enough difference to keep you and the rest of the household alive, even if your pet perished.

I'm really sorry this has happened. I suggest that, since you're still having trouble concentrating at work, you consider the possibility that there is another cause for that besides emotional distress and get your gas appliances serviced by a licensed professional, immediately - don't wait and don't second-guess the expense. If you think that any of them could be leaking now, there will be an emergency telephone line to call in the first pages of your phone book, but you can't use it unless you actually think there is a leak; if no leak, no emergency, so look for licensed gas repairers instead. If you can smell natural gas, that means there is a leak - it has no smell, the scent is added so you can detect it; and even if you can smell only a tiny bit of gas in one area of the room I can tell you from personal experience that that can belie a very very big leak.
posted by tel3path at 6:31 AM on May 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'm sorry about your hedgehog. My cat died this week too and we can't figure out quite why, and so I too have run through the scenarios again and again trying to think of what I should have done and berating myself for doing what I wish I hadn't....and then at the end of every 'session' of this, I realize it doesn't matter because there's nothing to be done now. However, what has helped with 'coping' is to let myself go through this fruitlessness for a while every day now, but not in the middle of the day when I have other stuff to do. I try to 'save' it for later.... I think this is generally not a good strategy for dealing with problems that have a solution, but it seems to be ok for my perpetual ruminations....

Also, it was helpful to read your story and feelings about your hedgehog and to hear that others have struggled with pets' deaths and guilt. I hope another story will help you too.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:16 AM on May 10, 2012

I went through something similar last fall. I went on a vacation and left other people in charge of my cats, and they failed to notice that one of them was getting sick. By the time I returned home, she was in rapid decline -- and I couldn't afford the kind of rigorous treatment I'd have liked to provide, because I had just returned from such a long vacation.

The veterinary staff were very compassionate, and told me that even if I had ten thousand dollars to throw into tests, she very likely would still not survive -- or worse, her poor system might not be able to withstand the tests, and she'd die anyway. Anyhow, they made me feel better about making the decision to have her put to sleep.

I felt tremendous guilt. I was haunted by the idea that all this started because I selfishly decided to take a vacation, and hadn't saved up a war-chest of money to deal with cat care, and that I could have prevented it. She would still be here now if I had been just a teeny bit more responsible or vigilant, etc.

But you know what? Life is fleeting for the best of us. We care for people and animals the best we can, but most of us will never know what direction death is coming from. The important thing is that you cared for your pet as best you could, while you could. This stage of grief you are going through is quite natural, you will come to recognize it as you get older and lose more loved ones. You will always wonder what you could have done. The important thing is what you do now, in response to this feeling. Welcome to the sadder but wiser club, my friend. The dues are steep but we live our lives a bit better and safer and more compassionately than we used to, now that we have seen a thing or two.
posted by hermitosis at 7:18 AM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm not too familiar with gas systems and carbon monoxide poisoning, but gas from the gas lines is not itself poisonous; it's methane with an added artificial scent. Gas leaks don't poison, they kill by suffocation - kind of like drowning but in a gas cloud instead of water - and small amounts of gas aren't harmful as long as you're breathing in the requisite amount of oxygen. Even assuming you had a massive enough gas leak to displace a significant amount of oxygen, natural gas is lighter than air and so would rise up to the ceiling; if your hedgehog's cage was below your head-height and you weren't having trouble breathing, it's unlikely that natural gas killed him.
posted by Fen at 7:19 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Guilt and shame can easily sweep a person up into a sense that they are a uniquely bad person, but the truth is that in many --many, many, many, many -- deaths, deaths of animals, deaths of human beings, people are feeling guilty. When someone I knew died, I heard from maybe a DOZEN people that they wished they'd done something more, or maybe it was their fault that the problem went untreated as long as it did. When I felt this guilt it was like you say, completely all-consuming, and I was nowhere near the closest family member.

I think this must be a common thing the human brain and emotional system sometimes does when someone dies. Maybe it's a way of making sense out of otherwise senseless pain. (If you feel such pain, the brain figures, maybe it's because you deserve to.) The human mind looks for patterns, and a lot of us -- when struck by calamity like job loss -- asks what we did wrong. That's probably useful in many situations. It can even be a somewhat comforting assumption, though I know it's not comforting you in this case. But if we "caused" the bad things that happen to us, we can prevent it in the future, so we won't ever get dumped or fired again.

So I think it's really natural that you feel this, a feeling this is something that the brain does before moving on to just grieving about an event. Heat, gas, the vibration of the neighbor's stereo, food poisoning, a virus.... honestly, your chinchillas may have died from many things, and
posted by salvia at 9:00 AM on May 10, 2012

Oops, scratch that last "and." And the other grammar problems. I hit post prematurely, but you get my point: even if the factors you now are considering did contribute in some way, this sense that you caused the death, and the search for those contributing factors in the first place, are a common part of grieving in my experience, even in situations where the likelihood of culpability is vanishingly slim.
posted by salvia at 9:14 AM on May 10, 2012

Sorry about your hedgehog <3
One thing that really helped me cope with my own Pete's untimely death was doing a lot of grieving ceremonies. I attended a kind of corny online pet loss vigil (every Monday night on the pet loss website) where it helped to talk to others who had recently lost pets. I had my own little candle lighting ceremony and wrote little memorium poems for each candle. I walked to his favourite field and carved his name in a tree. It's hard, especially when you feel like you could have somehow prevented it, but just try to get as much support and healing rituals as you can, and forgive yourself for things you feel you could have done differently. Your pet was lucky to have a caring, loving owner.
posted by whalebreath at 9:26 AM on May 10, 2012

Wow, also, I am so sorry I referred to your hedgehog as a chinchilla.
posted by salvia at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2012

I'm really sorry for your loss. I have a little bit of a different perspective because I'm older and have had many pets, and have had to be responsible for life/death decisions more than once. You are obviously a loving, conscientious and kind pet parent.

You are also human, and Edgar was not. What I'm saying is, I urge you, as you move through life and increasingly understand the obligation of these relationships vis a vis with humans, to modulate when you think about mortality. You have to enjoy them as best you can, while realizing that their lives are more fleeting (although maybe more joyous, which is the payoff!)
posted by thinkpiece at 12:09 PM on May 10, 2012

Thanks so much, all. Each one of your answers has helped in one way or another. Edgar had a great life while he was alive, and I have to remember that.

@Tel3path, I did have a guy from the gas company come in and check out my place. We're in the clear!
posted by prior at 1:01 PM on May 10, 2012

I'm so sorry, I know how hard this is. Echoing the sentiments of many people above, I had something similar happen a few years ago. My cat ended up getting sick after eating part of a fake decorative plant, and it took a couple weeks before my boyfriend and I noticed that he had been vomiting/having litter box issues. When we finally took him to the vet, it turns out his intestine was inflamed and possibly perforated, so he had to have surgery. He died a few hours later due to complications (likely a blood clot, they said). He was only four years old.

I beat myself up about this for months. If only I had noticed him chewing on the plant, or had paid enough attention to notice he was sick. If only I had gotten him to the vet sooner. The vet had given us other options too-- more x-rays / other tests before resorting to surgery. If only I had chosen another option. He had also recommended some blood tests beforehand, but being a poor college student, I couldn't afford a gazillion tests on top of surgery, so I decided against them. I often wondered if I had gotten the tests, whether they would have discovered that something was wrong with his blood clotting factors, making surgery a bad idea.

There were so many places along the line where I felt that if only I had made the right decision, the outcome would have changed. But I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time. Not knowing he was sick was a matter of ignorance, and in a way, it helped me learn a lesson. Now I'm very vigilant about my cats' health, and about showing them lots of affection and making sure they're healthy. It sucks that the cost to learn this lesson was so high, but my current and future pets will benefit from it for years to come. I also dealt with the guilt and grief by simply allowing myself to feel them. I hadn't realized just how much I was trying to block these painful emotions until I let go, and said to myself "Yes, I feel like it's all my fault, and I'm devastated, and it feels terrible, but that's okay." -- which is applicable to any sad situation, really.

You didn't just stand by-- you knew it was a problem, and you tried to turn the heat off. You had his best interests at heart. There are plenty of people in the world who don't care about animals at all, and who would have just said "Whatever, it's just a hedgehog.", so the fact that you are hurting so much counts for something. Everyone has to die someday, and you probably gave him a good life while you could.
posted by aldebaran at 2:01 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was little, I had a pet iguana named Larry. He was the greatest iguana ever. Really.

One day when I was at school, my mom decided Larry might like to bask in our driveway, since it was an unusually warm autumn afternoon. She put him outside and promptly forgot about him. When she finally remembered a few hours later, Larry had died from the heat.

So this was totally preventable, and she felt terrible. I told her that I was glad Larry had died happily basking in the sun. She'd put him outside to be nice. He'd had a pretty good life, and I'm sure Edgar did too. You tried your best.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 2:22 PM on May 10, 2012

Oh buddy I feel for you. Last year an entirely preventable error on my part resulted in killing off my entire fishtank population of vibrant, thriving fish, in about five minutes. And there was nothing I could do; I didn't even figure out the possible error until days after, and even then I was unsure.

I was really cut up about - far more cut up than I've been when my fish had died from natural causes in the past (cause fish, especially little ones, die pretty frequently). I was so upset because I knew they would be living if not for me.

To console myself, I thought about the great quality of life I had given them, the fact that most of them would never have lived that long in the wild, and most importantly, I think: I vowed that I would never make that particular mistake again and more broadly would strive to be a more conscientious steward for my little buddies. This sounds so trivial and melodramatic when talking about tiny fish with 2-4 year lifespans, but I promised myself that their deaths would not be in vain; no other fish I care for would suffer the same fate. If they had to die, the least I could do was learn something from it.
posted by smoke at 3:30 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is hedgehog awareness week (6-12 th May 2012). PDF on the state of British hedgehogs.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:57 AM on May 11, 2012

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