Coping with the loss of a pet

David R. Topor, PhD, MS-HPEd

Over a third of American households own at least one pet, and people often have close bonds with their pets. In one study, 13 of 16 people said they would give a hard-to-get lifesaving medicine to their pet over non-family people.

The death or loss of a pet can be a traumatic experience and result in grief and bereavement. The loss is unique in a number of ways. While pets may die naturally, through accidents, or by trauma, pets can also die through euthanasia, which often means that the pet owner must decide exactly when his or her pet is put down. Pets can also be lost when they run away, with no opportunity for closure. Or pets may have to be given away, due to logistical or financial reasons.

There is a lack of formal societal or religious processes for grieving and mourning the loss of a pet. For example, if the pet is cremated, the ashes are usually collected at the veterinarian’s office or even sent through the mail. And family and friends may not acknowledge the depth of grief brought on by the loss of a pet (“It’s just a dog”), the need for a period of bereavement, or the inability of a person to quickly replace the pet (“Just get another one”).

If you are grieving the loss of a beloved pet, these strategies may help:

  • It is important to recognize the depth of feelings of the loss. Your pet may have been with you through the ups and downs in life and may have even helped you cope with other losses. Give yourself the necessary time and space to grieve. Individual, group, and family psychotherapy may be helpful to process the loss and make meaning of the pet in your life.
  • Keep focused on your daily and weekly schedules of personal and professional responsibilities, and make sure to incorporate pleasant activities for yourself into your days.
  • Identify triggers for your grieving and identify ways you can cope. Triggers can include the pet food aisle in the grocery store or driving by a special place you shared with your pet.
  • Try to find ways to meaningfully grieve. This can include creating a memory book, journaling, building a memorial, or donating money or time to a pet welfare cause.
  • Explore self-help groups at a local animal shelter or ASPCA. Almost all schools of veterinary medicine have telephone support hotlines. There are also a number of online community forums that allow people to receive support while they grieve and process their loss.

Sources

Grief and bereavement issues and the loss of a companion animal: People living with a companion animal, owners of livestock, and animal support workers. Clinical Psychologist, March, 2010.

Can pets function as family members? Western Journal of Nursing Research, October 2002.

Pet loss and disenfranchised grief: Implications for mental health counseling practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, October 2012.

Continuing bonds and psychosocial adjustment in pet loss. Journal of Loss and Trauma, May 2011.

Comments:

  1. Tracy Morgan

    Thanks for an amazing blog post David, it was very helpful. I took your advice and started focusing more on my daily and weekly schedules and now I feel a bit better. I have a question for you. My friend recently mentioned memorial diamonds that are made by this company – http://www.everdear.co/ . I am thinking about sending the ashes to them and getting a diamond made that I would wear as a ring. Would you think that it will help? I have a feeling that I would be more comfortable if I knew that my lost friend is with me again, even in a form of an accessory.
    Looking forward to your answer!

  2. Thomas Braxtan

    I too am attached to my pets and have lost 4 to old age. However, to give pets limited resources that would then be denied to people (eg. chemotherapy) is inappropriate. In fact I am opposed to putting animals through painful or debilitating proceedures when there is no hope for recovery. Veteranary medicine goes too far, sometimes. Dialysis for dogs? Really, that is too much.

  3. Bonnie McColpin

    My baby boy went over the Rainbow Bridge 02/07/17. It was much more difficult than the loss of some family members who passed.
    He had been with me during some very difficult and stressful times. He loved me so much and lived 2 years longer than the vet thought as he had CHF. I know he stayed because of our bond. I have his little sister who is doing all she can to fill the spot he left. Because she misse him too, I tend to her needs and give her extra love. I’m comforted by my belief that I will see him and all the other dear furry babies I’ve had on the other side.

  4. Anand

    I faced immense stress when i lost my pet dog couple of years ago in an accident. I have had symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and lack of concentration, which affected by personal and professional life. It was then i read an article on stress management naturally. I used to do a lot of meditation and oil massages which helped me in finding quality sleep.