Within the past week, two of my dear friends lost their best friends. After giving some 13 years of companionship, two beautiful dogs had to be put down.  The experience reminded me of when my dogs passed: total heartbreak.  To many of us who love our pets more than some relatives, losing them after so many years of unconditional love can be heart wrenching and excruciating.  Today there are support groups, blogs and other resources to help grief stricken pet lovers cope with their loss, but it is still a subject that makes many uncomfortable. 

In Western culture, we spoil our pets however, to those who haven't had the pleasure of including a furry friend in their family, the concept of indulging a dog, cat or other creature can be puzzling and silly.  Some believe it is inappropriate to be sad over the loss of "just a pet" but to those of us who experienced it, the devastation is real. When friends announced the deaths of their furry buddies on Facebook, many commented kindly, yet some were uncertain how to respond to the death of a non-human. Moreover, the sad pet owners were unsure how to "act" and kept apologizing for the showers of shed tears, missed days of work and depressed mood.  But why should they be sorry?  The death of loved one, whether animal or human, is emotionally painful. 

For children, the loss of a pet may be the child's first experience with death.  Young kids may be confused, sad and depressed, believing that others he or she cares for may be taken away too.  Trying to protect a child from grief by saying the dog or cat ran away could lead to feelings of betrayal or hopelessness.  Pet-grief specialists and vets recommend that expressing your own grief may be the best way to reassure the child that sadness over the loss of a pet is ok. 

Older adults may be particularly hard hit by the death of a treasured pet. I remember when my grandmother lost her dog Trixie not long after her husband of 50 + years passed. It was hard on all of us, but especially grandma. Seniors, confronting their own health and mortality issues coupled with the financial responsibilities of keeping a pet may be overcome by profound loneliness but hesitant to get another pet.  Alternatives to full-time pet ownership may be good choices for older adults.  Volunteering at the pet shelter, serving as a foster parent to a sick animal or pet sitting may be a great way for a senior to have pet interaction.

Other pets in the home aren't immune to grief.  When my friend's dear kitty Tiffy passed, her kitty companion BooBoo suffered for days.  He'd roam the apartment looking for her and stopped eating and drinking for a bit.  The cat was clearly depressed.  After my friend spent more cuddle time with BooBoo, he recovered and was back to his old self. Many a vet will say that pets do feel loss even if they didn't always get along with their animal roommate.

Coping with the loss of a pet can be a lonely and confusing journey.  Here are some suggestions: 

  • Acknowledge the grief and give yourself the "ok" to express it
  • Surround yourself with supportive people who understand the pet-owner bond
  • Talk about your feelings in a journal
  • Build a memorial to your pet
  • Create a pet scrapbook
  • Tell a funny story about your pet
  • Contribute to a blog or Internet site to help yourself and other anguished pet owners
  • Call the local humane society or vet and ask about pet loss support groups. Or form your own support group
  • Call a pet loss hotline..numbers are available from the Delta Society. www.deltasociety.org
  • Think and wait before adopting a new pet.  During emotional upheaval the drive to adopt a new pet may be powerful but according to experts this feeling should be resisted until the initial sadness as ebbed.

Today books, therapists and Internet sites designed to help inconsolable pet owners cope with death abound, but nothing takes the place of a friend with a sympathetic ear.  Losing a pet is a highly emotional event that affects everyone in the family.  I remember sending flowers to my friend Frank when his bulldog Sherman passed away.  Later he said that acknowledging his pain and taking his heartache seriously was the best gift he could have received. Cards, remembrances and donations on behalf of the pet can console and soothe the distressed pet parent.  If you've been touched by the death of a beloved pet, know that you are not alone and that it is ok to cry when a pet dies.

For Snoops, the most adorable and sassy dog I've ever met!

About the Author

Martina M. Cartwright

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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