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Grieving the Loss of a Pet
by Margaret Muns DVM
GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PET
Grief is the normal response to any important loss in life. It occurs
regardless of whether death followed a prolonged illness, or a sudden accident.
Grieving people experience both physical and emotional traumas as they try to
adapt to the upheaval in their lives brought about by the loss.
Psychologists have long recognized that the grief suffered by pet owners
after their pet dies is the same as that experienced after the death of a
person. The death of a pet means the loss of a non-judgmental love source. There
is no longer anything for the pet owner to nurture and care for. Furthermore,
the owner looses his or her contact with "the natural world." These feelings can
be particularly intense for the elderly, single people and childless couples,(
for whom the pet also is a child substitute).
THE STAGES OF GRIEF
In truth, the process of grief is not a cut and dried process that can be
subdivided into strict categories. Rather, the grief process is a continuum,
with each person experiencing it in a different way. Dividing the grief process
in to "stages" helps the grief stricken person to understand that their
experiences and emotions are normal. Some people will quickly progress through
all the phases, while others appear to get "stuck" in a particular phase.
Briefly, the stages of grief are as follows:
1. SHOCK AND DENIAL-
The reality of death has not yet been accepted by
the bereaved. He or she feels stunned and bewildered-as if everything is
The grief stricken person often lashes out at family,
friends, themselves, God, the Veterinarian or the world in general. Bereaved
people will also experience feelings of guilt or fear during this stage.
In this stage, the bereaved asks for a deal or reward
from either God, the Veterinarian or the Clergy. Comments like "I'll go to
Church every day, if only my pet will come back to me" are common.
Depression occurs as a reaction to the changed way of
life created by the loss. The bereaved person feels intensely sad, hopeless,
drained and helpless. The pet is missed and thought about constantly.
Acceptance comes when the changes brought upon the
person by the loss are stabilized into a new lifestyle.
The depth and
intensity of the mourning process depends on many factors. The age of the owner,
circumstances surrounding the death, relationship of the animal to the owner and
to other family members, are all significant. Recently experiencing the death of
a significant person in the owner's life can also affect how the pet's death is
handled. Usually, children recover more quickly, while the elderly take the
longest. Sometimes, the death of a pet will finally enable the bereaved to mourn
the loss of a person, whose death had not yet been accepted.
PET LOSS AND CHILDREN
Many people do not realize how traumatic and confusing death can be on a
child. Although children tend to grieve for shorter periods of time, their grief
is no less intense than that experienced by adults. Children also tend to come
back to the subject repeatedly; so extreme patience is required when dealing
with the grieving child. Some helpful tips for helping the grieving child
1. Giving the child permission to work through their grief.
their teacher about the pet's death.
- encourage the child to talk freely
about the pet.
- give the child plenty of hugs and reassurance.
discuss death, dying and grief honestly.
2. NEVER say things like "God took your pet," or the pet was "put to
- The child will learn to fear that God will take them, their
parents or their siblings.
- The child will become afraid of going to sleep.
3. Include the child in everything that is going on.
4. Explain the permanency of death.
DO PETS GRIEVE?
What many people find hard to believe is that animals can form very firm
attachments with each other. Even pets that outwardly seem to barely get along
will exhibit intense stress reactions when separated. In fact, grieving pets can
show many symptoms identical to those experienced by the bereaved pet owner. The
surviving pet(s) may become restless, anxious and depressed. There may also be
much sighing, along with sleep and eating disturbances. Often, grieving pets
will search for their dead companions and crave more attention from their
How can an owner help the grieving pet? By following the following
1. Keep the surviving pet(s) routines as normal as
2. Try not to unintentionally reinforce the behavior changes.
- if the pet's appetite is picky, don't keep changing the food. All that
does is create a more finicky pet.
- don't overdo the attention given to the
pet(s) as it can lead to separation anxiety.
3. Allow the surviving animals to work out the new dominance hierarchy
- there may be scuffles and fights as the animals work out the
new pecking order (dogs mostly)
4. Don't get a new pet to help the grieving pet(s) unless the owner is
- will backfire unless the owner is emotionally ready for a new pet.
- people still grieving won't have the energy for it.
Should the owner let the surviving animals see and smell their dead
There is no evidence that doing so will help the surviving
pet(s), but some people claim that it does.
Usually, all it accomplishes is
to make the owner feel better. Therefore, if the owner wants to have the
surviving pets "say good-bye," then it should be allowed.
Given time, healing will occur for the bereaved owner.
are several things that the grief-stricken owner can do to help speed up the
1. Give yourself permission to grieve.
- only YOU know what your pet
meant to you.
2. Memorialize your pet.
- makes the loss real and helps with closure.
- allows the bereaved to express their feelings, pay tribute and reflect.
- draws in social support.
3. Get lots of rest, good nutrition and exercise.
4. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss.
others care for you.
- take advantage of support groups for bereaved pet
5. Learn all you can about the grief process. - helps owners realize that
what they are experiencing is normal.
6. Accept the feelings that come with grief.
- talk, write, sing, or
7. Indulge yourself in small pleasures.
8. Be patient with yourself.
-DON'T let society dictate how long
mourning should last.
9. Give yourself permission to backslide.
- it WILL end and your life
WILL be normal again.
- grief is like waves in the ocean: at first the waves
come in fast and hard, but as time goes on, the waves become less intense and
- don't be surprised if holidays, smells, sounds, or words
trigger a relapse.
10. Don't be afraid to get help.
- pet loss support groups
11. Be sure to consult your own "Higher Power."
- either religious or
Grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that
a person can experience. It is even more so for pet owners. Society in general
does not give bereaved pet owners "permission" to grieve openly. Consequently,
pet owners often feel isolated and alone. Luckily, more and more resources are
becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are NOT
alone and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.
Margaret Muns DVM is the staff veterinarian on the Best Friends Animal
Sanctuary forum. (http://bestfriends.org/)
1.Lagoni, L., Butler, C. and Hetts, S: The Human-Animal Bond and Grief WB
Saunders, Philadelphia 1994. Chapters 2 and 10.
2. Oblas-Walshaw, S: Consoling Bereaved Clients. Proceedings, 12th Annual
Seminar for Veterinary Technicians, Western States Veterinary Conference, 1983
3. Malay, M: Grieving the Loss of Your Beloved Pet . Pamphlet distributed
by Community Service Systems, Fairview, Pennsylvania
4. Guntzelman, J. and Riegger, M. : Supporting Clients Who are Grieving
the Death of a Pet. Veterinary Medicine Jan 1993
5. Hetts,S et all: Do Animals Grieve? Loss and the Companion Animal.
Perspectives Nov/Dec. 1994