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The Pain of Pet Loss: Why We Should Take It More Seriously

16 ways to cope through the loss of a furry friend.

Source: Morele4/Shutterstock

Is there anything better than coming home to a wagging tail and smile from ear to ear? Apparently not. 85 million families in the United States own pets. That’s a staggering 67% of households according to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). In the past 32 years, U.S. pet ownership has increased by 56 percent. The APPA estimates that this year Americans alone will spend 75 billion on their furry friends. To give that number a bit of perspective, in 2019, the U.S. toy industry generated 7.4 billion in sales.

It’s become abundantly clear that pets have become American’s best friends, even family members in some cases. In fact, in 2002 researchers surveyed pet owners, and 13 out of 16 individuals stated that they would give a “hard-to-get” lifesaving medicine to their pet over non-family members.

Those findings may seem surprising, however, how many other relationships in life provide the kind of unconditional love, support, loyalty, and health benefits to an individual? Naturally, when it’s time for our devoted companions to pass, we’re devastated, distraught, and utterly heartbroken. For those of us who have experienced such loss, we know and know well, that the pain is all-consuming, even intolerable at some points of the grieving process. Yet, society is still reluctant to recognize or accept this kind of grief in the way they would other losses. We call this disenfranchised grief. The term disenfranchised is used to illustrate that someone is being deprived of the right or privilege to mourn their loss. Ironically, it is this exact lack of recognition by peers and family members that can exacerbate grief symptoms and make it one of the more difficult losses to experience due to the lack of understanding and social support that they would otherwise receive.

Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief

The simplest way to define disenfranchised grief is “undervalued grief.” Dr. Kenneth Doka, a leading grief researcher coined the term over 30 years ago. He defines it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.” Why are we unwilling to view pet loss in the same way?

Researchers explain that “the grief associated with the loss of a pet is still relatively unrecognized and underappreciated. This may be due in part to lack of awareness of and appreciation for the depth of the attachment that humans can form with companion animals.”

However, the Human-Animal bond is beginning to be studied more and we are discovering that animal owners do indeed develop attachment bonds with their pets. The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the Human-Animal Bond as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment. Moreover, a 2009 study found that participants were more likely to turn to their dogs than they were to turn to their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, best friends, and children in times of emotional distress.

Why We Should Take It Seriously

If people are statistically more likely to turn to their dogs during times of emotional distress and that animal passes away, they’ve essentially lost a crucial source of emotional support and more importantly, one of their main coping resources, permanently. Just as you would be unable to replace the same bond formed with a friend or loved one, one can never recover an identical bond with a different animal. It’s been well established that animals are beneficial for our physical and mental health, even for those of us who don’t particularly like them. Research has demonstrated that pets reduce stress/cortisol levels, ease loneliness, help us to remain present, and alleviate anxiety. Just six months ago, a study was published which supported the use of DSM-5 grief disorder for mourners of humans to owners of pets that passed away. The researchers found distinct commonalities between the bereaved such as depression, loneliness, substance use, and sleep difficulties.

Broken Heart Syndrome

In 2018, the Washington Post reported that a woman whose dog recently passed away was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy also known as “broken-heart syndrome.” According to the American Heart Association, the condition is characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain, and irregular heartbeats and can be caused by intense emotional or physical stress. Is this a common condition to develop when grieving the loss of a pet? No, not by any means. However, it elucidates the intensity of emotional pain one is capable of experiencing in response to losing a beloved pet.

The Trauma of Euthanasia

When we become pet owners, we essentially become parents. We feed, bathe, love and for some animal lovers out there, we even clothe them. We spend countless hours interacting, laughing, exchanging affection, and scheduling around their needs. We realize we are accountable for another life. Unfortunately, this also means that we ultimately can become responsible for their end of life decisions as well. The guilt and burden surrounding these decisions are often physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausting. After experiencing animal euthanasia people have reported traumatic stress, suicidal ideations, and complicated grief. Just making the decision can be traumatic let alone being with the animal when they pass. It’s important for us as a society to remember that the depth of emotional pain cannot be rank-ordered.

16 strategies to cope for children, teens, and adults

  1. Take your time to grieve
  2. Have a memorial service
  3. Utilize support resources
  4. Call pet loss hotlines:
    ASPCA (877) GRIEF-10 operated from 12:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. daily
    Lap of Love (855) 955-5683 operated from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
    Online Resources for Pet Loss and Grief Support
  5. Join a support group
  6. Make a contribution to an organization that helps animals
  7. Plant a tree in their memory
  8. Make a collage
  9. Custom portrait, blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal
  10. Memory book
  11. Use a pet loss journal
  12. Create a memorial online
  13. Establish a fund in your pet’s name to help other pet parents who can’t afford veterinary treatment.
  14. Donate your time to shelters
  15. Read books about pet loss
  16. Finally, when you’re ready to open your heart again… adopt if you can.

Be Well,

Dr. K

More from Kailey Spina Horan, Ph.D., LMHC
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