Pet Loss & Grief Support
Many of us share an intense love and bond with our animal companions. For us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. A pet can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life, and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. So, when a cherished pet dies, it’s normal to feel racked by grief and loss.
The pain of loss can often feel overwhelming and trigger all sorts of painful and difficult emotions. While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend.
While we all respond to loss differently, the level of grief you experience will often depend on factors such as your age and personality, the age of your pet, and the circumstances of their death. Generally, the more significant your pet was to you, the more intense the emotional pain you’ll feel. The role the animal played in your life can also have an impact. For example, if your pet was a working dog, service animal, or therapy animal, you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of your independence, or the loss of emotional support. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with their loss can be even harder. And if you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong your pet’s life, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of owning a pet, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and when the time is right, perhaps even open your heart to another animal companion (taken from HelpGuide – see here for more information). We hope that the valuable resources listed here will help comfort you through this journey…
Hotlines and Support Groups for Handling Grief after the Loss of a Companion
Below are some resources to help you or a loved one cope with the loss of a pet.
- The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) - is a nonprofit association of concerned volunteers who are knowledgeable about the tender subject of pet death and dedicated to helping people during this very special kind of bereavement. The website contains an extensive list of resources related to pet loss.
- There are numerous resources for those suffering from grief and/or depression over the loss or anticipated loss of a beloved pet. Resources include safe and non judgemental support groups, pet loss counseling and live person-staffed phone hotlines. Please click here for a list of ready resources around the country.
- Grief Resources offered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine include counseling for Seniors, recognizing symptoms, self care tips and mental health counseling. Find out more at https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/client-support-counseling-services
- National Suicide Prevention Life Line: 800-273-8255
- Grief counselor: toll free at 855-PET-LOSS (855-738-5677) – fee based
- UC Davis offers grief consultations. Contact Client Support Counselor at 530-752-7341
Anticipating Pet Loss and How to Prepare
Knowing your beloved pet's days are numbered can be the start of the grieving process for many and Everlife Memorials has articles that can help you understand and prepare for the inevitable.
The death of a pet can sometimes be the first loss that a child faces. Just like us, children can develop strong emotional attachments to our pets and the link below has information relating to age-related developmental stages and responses related to the death of a pet.
Topics that are covered:
- How children can be involved in memorializing their pets
- Questions that children may ask
- Should others in the child’s life be informed of the passing of a pet?
- Helping Children Understand Pet Loss: Do’s and Don’ts
Helping Your Surviving Pet Deal with Loss
Grief is a natural response for someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, we know this for ourselves, but what about our pets? The answer is 'yes', but just like us, their grief is unique and can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. This expression can depend on how close the pets were, the type of illness and the pet’s temperament. After assisting hundreds of pet life-to-death transitions, I have witnessed a wide spectrum of responses from the surviving household pets after the death of their housemate. Reponses have varied from apparent avoidance of approaching the deceased pet, to a lengthy sniffing of the pet to complete ‘apparent’ unawareness of the situation. 'Apparent', because as their owners, we may not recognize some of the signs of grief that a pet will experience even before their friend has passed. It is not unusual to notice a change in the household pet’s interaction with the dying pet long before they actually pass. Sometimes pets show more 'traditional' grief-like symptoms with decreased appetites, depression and constant searching for their friend. This link provides more information on recognizing and helping our pets deal with grief: 5 tips for Helping your surviving pet(s) deal with a loss.
The Journey of Grief and Loss
The relationship you have with your pet is special and sacred. When this relationship changes, you may experience many different feelings. And that’s ok! Grief and loss is the necessary journey of healing. Things to know about this journey include:
- Grief is a personal response to loss. The hurt you’re feeling is because the relationship with your pet mattered.
- If you pet is diagnosed with a terminal illness, you may experience anticipatory grief.
- Whether death, a chronic medical diagnosis, or behavioral changes in your pet, loss can come in many forms.
There are two types of loss: Primary and Secondary
- Primary loss is the actual loss such as death, a medical diagnosis, or change in behavior.
- Secondary losses are incurred as a result of the primary loss. These might include, but are not limited to, not being able to walk your dog, giving away your pet’s things, and/or changes in your daily routine.
The grieving process is individualized. You may grieve differently for each loss you experience.
- The grieving process has no time limits. People may ask, “Aren’t you over it already?” Some losses we never fully “get over.” Instead, we adjust to life in a new way. Your relationship with your pet never diminishes; your pet lives on in your thoughts, heart, and memories.
- The grieving process requires us to share our losses with others in order to heal. This part of the process is called mourning. In some cultures, mourning might be wearing black clothes or engaging in a ritual that lets others know you are grieving. Share your grief with those you trust, including joining a Pet Loss Support Group.
- Pet loss sometimes is considered a disenfranchised loss. A disenfranchised loss is any loss that society does not deem as important or does not allow for the openness of grieving. Some people will not understand the depth of your relationship with your pet and will minimize your feelings. Choose who you share your loss with to get the maximum support you need.
- Rituals are important during this time because it allows us to express our grief. Find ways to memorialize your pet.
- Grief may express itself physically as well as emotionally and mentally. It’s always a good idea to follow up with your doctor to make sure the physical symptoms aren’t something more serious.
- There are different types of grief and some require the support and help of a mental health professional or grief counselor. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
- Self-care will be more important than ever but it will be challenging to do. Don’t allow guilt and/or shame to trick you into thinking you don’t deserve to be taken care of during this difficult time.
For more information please see UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine’ Client Support Counseling Services page at https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/index.php/client-support-counseling-services or alternatively schedule a grief consultation at 530-752-7341.