Grieving the Loss of a Pet
By: APA Adoption Center | January 14, 2015
Grieving the Loss of a Pet
We grieve over the loss of a pet. This reaction is only natural. When we lose a pet we lose a friend. Our feelings toward pets are so special that experts have a term for the relationship: The human-companion animal bond. When this bond is severed, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Our society does not offer a grieving pet owner a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment: “It’s only a dog (cat). You can always get another.” Such a reaction would be considered heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member.
People who have experienced such loss need the support of friends and relatives. Psychologists now know that we need as much support–but receive far less–with the loss of a companion animal. When a pet dies, there is rarely a formal ritual, such as a funeral, that allows for a formal out-pouring of grief. In fact, to many folks, such an event would seem bizarre or eccentric. Still, the loss of a pet affects our emotions, and all the more so if the pet was an integral part of the family. The feelings we have progress through several stages, very similar to those experienced after the loss of a human loved one. Recognizing these stages can help us cope with the grief we feel.
The First Stage: DENIAL
Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when confronted with a pet’s terminal condition or sudden death. This rejection seems to be the minds buffer against a sharp emotional blow.
The Second Stage: BARGAINING
This stage is well documented in the human grieving process. Many times, faced with the impending death, an individual may “bargain”–offering some sacrifice if the loved one is spared. People losing a pet are less likely to bargain quite that way, however there are reactions such as “If Spot recovers I’ll never skip his walk again… I’ll never put him in a kennel again…etc.”
The Third Stage: ANGER
Recognizing anger in the grief process is seldom a problem; dealing with anger often is. Anger can be obvious, such as hostility or aggression. Some anger can be turned inward and that anger shows itself as guilt. Here is where we hear such statements as “If only I had taken the cat to the vet a week ago…Not put the dog in the yard at that time of day…” Whether true or false, such reactions do little to relieve the anger and are not constructive. Check with your vet for the facts about why your pet died. Then remember the facts, not the possibilities, when you consider the loss of your pet.
The Fourth Stage: GRIEF
This is the stage of true sadness. Your pet is gone and so is your guilt or anger, now only an emptiness remains. It is in this stage that the support of family and friends can mean so much. Unfortunately, by the time we reach this stage many of those close to us believe we should have “moved on” and find it difficult to offer that support. When this is not available to us the grief stage can be prolonged. If you need assistance with this sadness, it can be a good time to contact your veterinarian or professional counselor for assistance. It is helpful to recognize that other pet owners have experienced similar strong feelings and you are not alone in this feeling of grief. Share the many things you remember about your special animal companion with a human friend.
The Final Stage: RESOLUTION
All things come to end–even grieving. As time passes, the distress dissolves as memories of the good times outweigh the trauma of your pet’s death. At this stage, it might be appropriate to consider adding a new member to your family. It could be time to visit your local shelter and see if you are able to find a friendship waiting to happen.