Meet the people who treat their animals like family
They are known as man’s best friend because of their unconditional love and loyalty and in Northern Ireland more than half of us couldn’t imagine life without our pet dogs.
In fact, there are more dog lovers here than in any other part of the UK and most of us share a bond with them which is so close that we treat them like part of the family.
The terrible cost of this devotion is paid when we lose them. The heartfelt pain of a pet’s passing has been captured in a moving documentary to be shown by the BBC this Monday.
Pets at Peace explores themes of love and loss both through the personal journeys of people facing the imminent death of their beloved dogs, and bereaved pet owners who are still struggling with grief years after their four-legged friends have passed away.
Castlerock couple Trevor and Diane Armstrong talk about their 15-year-old dogs, Mena and Lahl, as “surrogate children”. They also have a pet cat called Patti, who is nine.
The programme films the couple as Mena is nearing the end of her life and captures their pain when they have to face the inevitable and take the decision to have her put to sleep.
Diane (57) is a receptionist in Coleraine Grammar School and her husband Trevor (59) works as a sales adviser.
Their pets are such a huge part of their lives that the couple now sleep in separate bedrooms to accommodate them.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of tonight’s programme, Diane said she has cried more over the loss of Mena last October than over the death of her own mum.
Diane said: “I’ve cried every day since I lost Mena. I never cried as much over my mummy as I have over the dog. I’ve had dogs all my life and people do say they are child substitutes and they really are.
“They are a priority in our lives and we don’t go on foreign holidays because we wouldn’t leave them. We are from Belfast and we bought this holiday home in Castlerock, which we have now moved into, so that we could take the dogs on walks along the beaches.
“It was our silver wedding last year and we hope to take a trip to San Diego and Las Vegas, but that is on hold until we have no dogs.
“The dogs get from us what we get from them, which is a lot of love. We’ve had great pleasure with them over the years and now every time I get upset over Mena I have to remember how much pleasure and joy she has given us.”
Mena had an inoperable tumour on her back for three years. It wasn’t causing her pain, but Diane and Trevor were alarmed when it started to grow rapidly last year and they knew that Mena’s days were numbered.
When the end came though it was still a trauma for the couple and now, five months, on Diane’s grief is still very raw.
“We had arranged when the time came for the vet to come to our house to do it, but it was still very hard. It was a Monday night when the tumour burst and we knew it was the end. I now hate Mondays,” she says.
“She was a rescue dog and such a quirky wee dog, she sang for the postman and sang at the TV. Everyone loved Mena.
“There is not one day since that I haven’t cried. I miss her in the morning, I miss her when I come home from work and when I go to bed at night. I think people who have never had dogs cannot understand the grief. I always said there are two different types of people — dog owners and dog lovers — and we are dog lovers.”
The couple’s Westie, Lahl, is also 15 and in failing health. She wakes numerous times in the night and to accommodate her Diane and Trevor now sleep in different rooms. Lahl sleeps with Trevor so that he can get up and let her out.
The couple also try and organise their work life so that one of them is at home with their pets.
Mena’s ashes rest on the mantelpiece in their living room and when the better weather comes in the couple plan to scatter them in their beloved pet’s favourite place.
Diane adds: “Mena loved to swim in a place called Monks Pool and I would get in the water and swim with her, so we have decided that will be her final resting place, a place where she had lots of joy, so when the spring comes we plan to let her rest at peace here.”
Gale Kane (48), a civil servant from Carrickfergus, was left broken-hearted when she lost her white German Shepherd Spirit three years ago to lymphoma, aged five. She now has two new dogs, Angel and Solo, but Spirit still continues to have a special place in her heart.
Gale attended the same pet seance as Gill Gillespie and was given a real lift when she felt reunited in spirit with her pet, who she lovingly nursed through a year of chemotherapy.
She believes that she and Spirit were meant to be and is grateful she was given the chance to care for her when she was sick and dying.
"When Spirit was diagnosed, the cancer was so aggressive that she was not expected to live long, but we went down the chemotherapy route and she did very well with it," she says.
"I cooked her a special diet which I found online for dogs with cancer and I got tablets from a vet in America and my vet at home liaised very closely with the American vet.
"She stayed very strong until the last couple of weeks. One day I got up and I knew she was really sick and even though it nearly killed me, I couldn't watch her suffering and I got the vet out.
"It was very, very hard and she didn't go quickly, she fought it. The vet told me she was expecting this very sick dog and was surprised at how healthy she looked, even though she was very ill.
"I got her from the dog pound and from the very start we had a special bond.
"She was very affectionate and very special and when I look back I am really glad I was given the opportunity to care for her and show her love."
Shortly after Spirit's death in 2014, Gale got Angel, another white German Shepherd, which she rescued at 18 weeks old and then Solo, a mongrel terrier a few months later.
While she is devoted to both pets, she believes that Spirit was "a once in a lifetime dog" and describes her as "the dog of my heart".
What happened at the seance was a huge surprise to Gale and in the BBC programme we see the moment the medium makes contact with a white German Shepherd who is sitting at Gale's feet.
"It was very emotional and gave me goosebumps all over," she says.
"The way he described the dog sitting at my feet, it was exactly what Spirit used to do. She would put her head into my legs and I knew that she wanted a cuddle and I would get down on my knees and cuddle her. I couldn't believe how he described that, it blew me away.
"I would be open-minded to that sort of thing and I went with the hope that she would come through for me and it was a huge comfort."
The producer of Pets at Peace, Patricia Moore, says: "In the course of making this documentary, we spoke to many people who have experienced pet bereavement, both recently and several years ago.
"Some pet owners allowed us into their lives to film the final weeks of their pet's life, at what was a very traumatic time for them, but the care and attention they bestowed on their pets was very moving.
"All of our contributors had a special bond with their dogs, which gave us a lovely and very real insight into our relationship with our pets."
Gill Gillespie (56), from Belfast, lost her Westie Murphy four years ago. Murphy helped Gill recover from mental illness and it is only now four years on that Gill says she is starting to cope with her loss.
She says nothing prepared her for how deep and raw her grief was at losing Murphy and in tonight’s programme she is seen attending a pet seance in the hope that the medium will connect her with Murphy’s spirit.
Gill, who is bipolar, had been in hospital on and off for 10 years before she got Murphy.
It was on the very day she left hospital after a long spell of illness that she went against medical advice and got herself a pet dog.
“The advice was to not even get a plant because you had to look after yourself first, but a friend of mine took me to look at dogs and when I saw Murphy that was it,” she says.
“After I got her I never had to be hospitalised again. If I felt myself going into a real depression or a high, I recognised the signs more quickly maybe because I had the responsibility of Murphy and knew she needed to be looked after. It would have pained me so much if I’d done anything to affect her wee life.
“She would also sense any change in my mood and would have given me comfort and stuck to me like glue. The companionship we shared got me through hard times.”
Murphy developed canine Alzheimer’s and had been ill for some time before Gill realised that her pet couldn’t go on anymore. She was put to sleep on her 16th birthday four years ago in 2011.
It proved a particularly traumatic time for Gill as three weeks later her mum died suddenly and three weeks after that Gill suffered a severe stroke which has left her partially disabled.
“It was just grief upon grief and I didn’t know what to do with all the grief. Going through the stroke was really difficult not having my wee fur ball with me,” she says.
“There was such a bond between us that I didn’t come to terms with her death very easily and I felt guilty that maybe I was grieving more for Murphy than mum. There were a lot of mixed emotions.
“My parents were dog lovers and I was able to talk to my dad about how I was feeling and he understood and reassured me.
“It is difficult to express your grief to other people as some people don’t understand that you can have such grief over an animal.
“It is just over four years and it is only now I am starting to come out of the real grief and I don’t cry everyday any more, although I could still have a wee cry.
“I am still quite aware of Murphy’s presence and I know she is around us and that brings me a bit of comfort.”
Gill’s belief that when we die we continue to exist in spirit form made her want to explore if the same was true for animals, which is why she went along to the pet seance.
She was determined not to give anything away and was stunned when the medium was able to describe things to her that only happened when she was alone with Murphy.
“He did a great job for all of us. There were things that no one would have known about that he talked about.
“I just felt it was Murphy letting me know he was there and that brought me comfort,” she adds.
Pets at Peace was made by Tyrone Productions as part of BBC NI’s True North documentary series, and is on BBC1 NI tonight at 10.45pm