According to a study conducted by the insurance company Lemonade, 7 out of 10 American households have at least one pet. Pets are considered beneficial for mental health, providing companionship, emotional support, and entertainment. Furthermore, as is stated by the National Institutes of Health, pets are also found to improve human health by decreasing cortisol levels, lowering blood pressure, and improving mood.
If you are reading this article, chances are you are grieving the death or absence of a beloved pet, or you have learned your pet is terminal. Maybe there is something else going on. If not, you may be doing research to help someone who is going through such experiences. Whatever your reason for being here right now, I think we can all agree the key importance of pets in our lives cannot be dismissed.
We have all heard (or made) the statement, “that animal got me through a dark, bad time in my life.” I vividly recall my dachshund, Sierra, who I adopted only a few months after the death of my mother. While I knew she could not replace my mother, her unconditional love did help to fill the heavy void within my heart. As a dog with special needs (she was born with microphthalmia, which affected her vision) and me as a human broken by despair, we helped each other. Indeed, Sierra was my best friend.
Sadly, Sierra is no longer here, but I will never forget the bond we shared.
The therapist/writer, Valerie, with Sierra.
When we consider the comfort, joy, and support given to us by pets, it makes sense why losing them can be devastating to our psyches. For some of us, our pets are closer to us than our own family members and friends – and indeed, they are our family members, repairing the wounds we suffered from others. Pets can offer the connection we need to remind ourselves we are loved. Simply think of the last time your dog ran to greet you as you came through the front door or your cat snuggled and purred on your lap.
For some people, one of the most painful, difficult decisions they will ever need to make is to allow their beloved pet to be euthanized or “put down.” Euthanasia is frequently the merciful decision if the animal’s prognosis is poor. However, the realization of knowing you made a critical decision regarding your pet’s health and life can result in guilt, thus intensifying the grief process. You may swarm yourself with the “what-if” thoughts, such as, “should I have got a second opinion from another veterinarian?” or “is it at all possible the veterinarian was wrong and more could’ve been done?” or “did my cat even really want to die despite her being so sick?”
Unlike humans, who can help prepare for their demise through completing advanced directives, pets are incapable of making their own decisions. Thus, it is not surprising that devoted pet owners may feel complex emotions about if they did the right thing.
A few years ago, I scheduled for my cats to be spayed. Since this was a routine procedure and my cats were seemingly healthy, I had expected nothing catastrophic to happen. Instead, I figured my cats would be fine, and that I was doing the right thing by helping control the excessive cat overpopulation. Luna recovered well. Tragically, though, my lovely dilute calico Maine Coon mix, Starla, died from the anesthesia. Post-mortem, the veterinarian discovered she had a hereditary form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is relatively common in the breed. I was devastated, shocked, and angry. I never thought trying to be a responsible pet owner would result in my cat’s untimely death.
In time, I realized Starla likely would’ve died young regardless due to her underlying condition. But in that tsunami of grief, it was difficult for me to think clearly. Rather, I thought there was an injustice.
Like my experience, some pet owners have complicated grief due to an accident that killed their pet. Whether this be a health-related issue like my Starla, or perhaps a beloved dog getting out and run over by a car, or a cat running away, such an unexpected event can complicate the grief process. They may also experience guilt or think they have failed their companion.
Starla as a young kitten, a few months before the veterinary procedure.
A final form of grief over a pet is not due to death at all, but rather in instances that an owner needs to make the difficult decision to rehome their pet. This can be for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps their animal is aggressive and thus unsafe around the children. Maybe someone in the home is ill, requiring much care, and stretching resources thin for the caregiver. Or perhaps the pet owner is experiencing unforeseen circumstances, such as job loss, eviction, or other life-changing events. The person could have become disabled and realized they do not have the ability to care for something dependent on them. Whatever the reason, the person has made the decision to give up their pet.
This type of grief presents its own challenges. Like the other two types, there is guilt, but it can be even more severe because it can be coupled with a sense of betrayal. Furthermore, such owners are also stigmatized by others, such as animal shelters’ social media pages that can portray them to have no justified excuse whatsoever to surrender their animal. This type of loss often is faced in secrecy because the owner is afraid to admit the reason behind what happened, aware they may be shunned for the violation of a social norm.
Whatever the reason for the pet loss, it is loss. It hurts. And it can hurt just like any other loss. Grief is not only for the death or absence of people.
As a grief therapist, I can assure you it is normal to be distraught after the loss of a pet. There have been moments when my clients have confessed that they feel more heartbroken over losing their pet versus significant people in their lives. Some express feeling embarrassed or ashamed, saying things like, “the truth is, I’m sadder about my dog dying than my grandfather, but I know I’m supposed to be sadder about my grandfather.” In response, I challenge them to consider that unlike their grandfather, they lived with their dog. Their dog was never callous toward them, never judgmental, only a loving friend. And thus, of course it makes sense they would feel more grief for their dog.
For some people, pet loss can be the most difficult loss they have ever experienced. It is important for us to normalize this type of grief.
Grief will manifest itself differently depending on the individual. In a family who lost their pet, one person may be angry. Another could be crying nonstop. Still another may seem indifferent. One person may say “she was just a cat” and think about getting another cat right away, while someone else may exclaim, “she was more than ‘just’ a cat; she was my friend, and no, I don’t want another cat!”
All people will progress through their grief journeys at their own pace, facing difficult obstacles and emotions. It is also not a linear process; instead, grief can “go backward” or be experienced more like a web or set of highs and lows. These experiences are normal.
To be of support to someone grieving their pet, simply validate their emotions. Let them know it is okay to feel the way they do.
Remember, too, that other pets in the household can grieve. When Starla died, Luna wandered aimlessly around the home for days to look for her. She seemed to finally realize Starla was not coming home. Since then, I added other cats to the family. Luna tolerates them, but she has never shown the bond with them she had with Starla.
Some individuals do not want or need a support group. For those who would like to feel less alone or are having a hard time coping because they feel their loss is misunderstood, they can benefit from peer support. They can find solace in communicating with others who are going through the same thing. There are many support groups on social media platforms such as Facebook specifically for pet loss.
Yes, it is okay (and encouraged!) to reach out to a therapist to help grieve the loss of a pet and to learn coping skills for effectively managing that loss. As a grief therapist myself who has had my many heavy cries for losing a beloved pet, I will never judge you for talking about this issue to me. And it’s not just me – there're many therapists out there who would love to work with you through this issue, offering compassion, empathy, and loving support. You are not “weird” for grieving.
For some people, a healthy way to express their grief is to honor their pet through memorials and rituals. Some veterinarians will send a grieving owner a sympathy card along with mold of the animal’s paw print. Meanwhile, some owners may choose to keep their dog’s collar or their cat’s favorite toy. Other owners may find comfort in reading the poem called The Rainbow Bridge, which suggests pets go to a special place in heaven accessible by crossing a rainbow-colored bridge.
Some people may find comfort in burying their animal in their backyard, while others may choose to do so at a pet cemetery. Others may do neither, choosing to keep the cremains, and others may not want any objects to serve as reminders. Again, there is no right or wrong decision here – all that matters is what will help you.