MIAMI -

"I would have taken a bullet to protect my dog," says Dawn Hanna, describing the love she had for Liesel, her 14-year-old German shepherd.
In June 2006, Hanna, the owner of Oh Behave! Dog Training in South Florida, could no longer deny that her beloved pet pal's deteriorating joints and spinal issues had become too painful.

She made the difficult decision to end Liesel's suffering."When a dog's body gives up, it's time to say goodbye," Hannah says.

The Rainbow Bridge

Losing a pet, whether from illness, accident or simply because it has served its earthly purpose and is ready to move to the Rainbow Bridge, is one of the most devastating experiences in the life of a pet parent. The mystical bonds we form with our pets make it especially difficult to resolve the wave of emotions that overcome us when it's time to say goodbye."

I was sad -- deeply and painfully sad. I also felt confused and frustrated," says Peggy Cassidy who, nine years after rescuing a dog from a shelter, recently said goodbye to River.

There's nothing wrong with those emotions, experts say.

"Intense grief over the loss of a pet is normal and natural. Don't let anyone tell you that it's silly, crazy or overly sentimental to grieve," says Moira Anderson Allen, author of "Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet."

"Our pets are perpetual children to us," says Gary Kurz, author of "Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates." "They remain utterly dependent upon us throughout their lives."

Kurz's book gently and compassionately explores a concept that people rarely consider: animal afterlife. Whether you accept these beliefs or scoff at the idea that animals live on, the book offers the comfort for which pet owners yearn.

Final Act Of Love

"I feared it from the moment I realized River had lost the use of his leg," says Cassidy. "After consulting with two different vets, neither offered any easy answers. The final realization came when the light left his eyes."

"Nothing can make the decision to euthanize a pet easy, but it is truly the final act of love that you can make for your pet," Anderson advises.

Once you decide the loving thing to do is to euthanize your pet, your next decision is finding a vet who offers the service in a manner with which you're most comfortable and that will be the least stressful for your pet.

"Never euthanize your pet if you are not ready. If you cannot bear to be in the room during the process, have a friend who knows the animal be there. Give your pet permission to go. Remind her that she has taught you about a very special bond and that you will never forget," Hanna says.

Anderson reminds people to think of themselves as well."

Remember that being present during the euthanasia procedure can be traumatic for you.

Uncontrolled emotions and tears, though natural, are likely to upset your pet," Anderson advises.

Hanna wanted to be in the room, however.

"I refuse to let my dogs die with strangers, so I was there for the euthanasia procedure," Hanna says. "I spent some time saying goodbye to Liesel's lifeless body. I touched her and pet her. The vet took the leash and collar off and put them in a plastic bag. They are sitting on a shelf, and I am still unable to touch them."

Home Euthanasia

Some veterinarians are also willing to euthanize a pet at home.

"I was so glad to have that option," Cassidy says. "River always hated to go to the vet's office."During the last minutes of his life, River heard Peggy saying the same things she said the day she brought him home from the shelter: "It's going to be OK, River. It's going to be OK."

Normal Feelings

Guilt, denial, anger and depression are all normal feelings that accompany the loss of a pet. Acknowledging and finding ways to express those feelings will help you through the grief process.

"I came to the euthanasia decision in my head long before my heart would allow me to do it. I still question the decision, although my heart knows that I made it out of love for my River," Cassidy says.