Ten Tips on Coping with Loss of a Pet

By Moira K. Anderson
Copyright 1988 by Moira K. Anderson

This article is reproduced for client distribution with full permission from the author, by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories. For more Information visit iaopcc.com.

The death of a pet brings some of the most painful and difficult emotions and decisions a pet owner must face. This pamphlet will help you through some of them…

How will I know when to euthanize my pet?

Your veterinarian is the best judge of your pet’s physical condition: Whether an illness or injury is terminal; whether surgery or medication would significantly prolong your pet’s life and for how long.

However, you are the best judge of the day-to-day quality of your pet’s life. You will be able to tell if it is suffering unreasonably, or if it is still finding pleasure in life despite its condition. If a pet still has a decent appetite, responds to attention, seeks your company, and participates in playing or family life, many pet owners feel that it is still enjoying life and living with dignity. If, on the other hand, the pet is clearly in constant pain, undergoing difficult and stressful treatments, unresponsive to affection or seemingly unaware of its surroundings, a caring pet owner will make the decision to end this companion’s suffering.

Evaluate your pet’s health honestly and unselfishly with your veterinarian. Nothing can make this decision an easy one, but it is the final act of love you can make for your pet.

Should I stay during euthanasia?

Many pet owners feel this is the ultimate gesture of love and comfort you can perform for your pet. Some have felt relief and comfort by staying: They were able to see for themselves that the pet did not suffer, that it passed gently and peacefully, and that it was truly gone. For many, not witnessing the death—and perhaps not viewing the body afterwards—made it difficult for them to accept in their hearts that the pet was really dead, and more difficult to deal with the grief later.

On the other hand, this is a traumatic ordeal, and you must ask yourself honestly whether you are emotionally prepared to handle it. If you feel that your emotions will not be in control, you are more likely to upset your pet than comfort it. These emotions are natural, and no cause for shame.
Your veterinarian will also be involved in this decision. Some clinics are willing to allow the owner to be present; others are less enthusiastic. If you feel strongly about staying and your vet is unwilling to permit it, you may wish to have the euthanasia done elsewhere. Some veterinarians are willing to euthanize pets at home. Others have come out to the owner’s car to administer the injection. Again, discuss these options with your veterinarian.

What do I do now?

When a pet dies, you face the question of how to handle its remains. When you are upset and grieving, it may seem easiest to leave the pet at the clinic and allow the vet to dispose of it. Some find this the best choice; others feel a pet deserves a more formal ceremony.
Home burial is a common choice. It is economical, and you may want your pet near you in the surroundings it loved. However, city regulations usually prohibit pet burials, and this is not a good choice if you rent, or move frequently.

To many, a pet cemetery provides a sense of permanence and security and offers formality and dignity to pet burial. Owners appreciate the serene surroundings and care of the gravesite. Cemetery costs vary depending on the services you select.

Cremation is an inexpensive option that allows you to handle your pet’s remains as you wish: Bury them (even in the city), scatter them, leave them in a columbarium, or keep them in a decorative urn.

Check with your veterinarian, pet shop or directory about the options available in your area. You should consider your living situation, personal and religious values, finances, and plans for the future. It’s also best to make arrangements in advance, rather than in the midst of your grief.

I hurt so much! Am I overreacting?

Intense grief over the loss of a pet is completely normal and natural. Every pet owner who considers a pet a beloved friend and companion, a true family member, goes through exactly what you are going through now. You are not being overly sentimental, weak or foolish to grieve.
You may have spent 10 or 15 years with this pet.

During that time, the pet was a constant part of your life, always ready to give you love and comfort and companionship. Pets provide unconditional, nonjudgmental love. So don’t be surprised if you feel devastated by the ending of such a powerful relationship, whether long or brief. Other people who don’t understand the pet/owner relationship may not understand your pain. But all that matters is what you feel. Those feelings are valid, and can be extremely painful. You are not alone, though: Thousands of people have felt what you feel, and go through these feelings over and over again as they build loving relationships with new pets.

What can I expect to feel?

Different people experience grief in different ways. Besides your sorrow and loss, which can be devastating in itself, you may experience guilt, anger, denial and/or depression. Guilt may come if you feel that you were somehow responsible for the pet’s death—the “if only I had been more careful!” syndrome. It is pointless and often erroneous to burden yourself with the responsibility for the illness or accident that claimed your pet’s life. Weighing yourself down with guilt only makes it that much more difficult to work through your loss. Denial is difficulty accepting that the pet is really gone. It’s hard to imagine that it won’t come running to greet you, or that it doesn’t need its evening meal. Some pet owners carry this to extremes, however, and fear that the pet is really alive somewhere and suffering. Others find it difficult to bring a new pet into the household because they feel it violates the memory of the old one. Anger may be directed at the illness that killed the pet, the driver of the speeding car, or even the veterinarian who “failed” to save the pet’s life. Sometimes anger is justified, but carried to extremes, it only distracts you from the important task of working through your grief. Depression is a natural consequence of grief, but if unchecked, can leave you powerless to cope with your feelings. Extreme depression robs you of motivation, even of the desire to get up in the morning. Dwelling on your sorrow without working on a resolution for it can spiral into a painful trap in which your grief only gets more bitter.

What can I do about these feelings?

The most important step you can take is to be honest with yourself about what you are feeling. Don’t deny that you are feeling pain, or that you feel guilty or angry. Only by looking at these feelings and coming to terms with them can you begin to work through them. Do you have a right to feel pain? Yes! Someone you loved has died, and you are going to feel alone, bereaved. Do you have a right to feel guilt or anger? Certainly! Acknowledge those feelings first, then begin to ask whether the facts justify them. Locking away grief doesn’t make it go away. Instead, express it: Cry, scream, pound the floor, talk it outdo whatever helps you most. Some people seek to avoid grief by trying not to think about the departed pet, but this doesn’t help either. Instead, reminisce about the good times, the pleasure of its company. This will help you understand what the pet meant to you and what its loss means to you. Pet owners have found it helpful to express their memories and feelings in poems, stories or letters. Other coping techniques include rearranging your schedule to fill in the times you would have spent with the pet; removing the pet’s things from sight (though some find keeping the pet’s thing is important too); preparing some sort of physical memorial such as a photo collage; and talking to people about your loss.

Who can I talk to?

If your family or friends love pets, they’ll understand what you are going through. Don’t hide your feelings from them in a misguided attempt to appear strong and calm. If your friends don’t see your need for comfort, they won’t be able to provide it! Find someone that you can talk to about what the pet meant to you and how much you miss it, someone who won’t be embarrassed to see you cry or grieve. Working through your feelings with another person is one of the best ways to put them in perspective and learn how to handle them. Ask your veterinarian or humane society to recommend a pet counselor. Check with your church, or ask a local hospital about grief counseling. Remember that your grief is just as genuine and deserving of comfort and help as grief for the loss of a human loved one. Seek out other people in your community who are involved with pets, such as members of a local dog or cat club. Many pet trainers offer grief counseling.

What should I tell my children?

Some people fear that their children can’t handle the news of the death of a pet. You are the best judge of what your children can and can’t understand, based on their ages and personalities, but don’t underestimate them: You may also find, by being honest with your children about what happened to the pet, that you now have an opportunity to correct some misconceptions they may have about death and dying. Honesty is important. If you are going to say that the pet was “put to sleep”, be sure that your children understand the difference between this and ordinary sleep. Don’t say “It went away” or “It didn’t want to stay here anymore.” A child may then wait in anguish for the pet to come home again, or wonder what he or she did to make the pet so unhappy that it wanted to leave. Make it clear that the pet will not come back, but that it is happy and at peace wherever it is. Accept your children’s grief as you accept your own. Don’t try to hide your sorrow from them, or they may fear that you won’t understand theirs and hide it from you. Discuss the issue with the whole family if possible, giving everyone a chance to work through their emotions and pain together.

Why are my other pets acting strangely?

Just as you react to the loss of a family member, your other pets are bound to notice the absence of their companion and friend. Pets observe every change in the household. Certainly they’re going to realize that someone is missing! Pets often form strong attachments to one another, so you may find that the “survivor” of a bonded pair grieves very strongly for its companion. Cats grieve for missing dogs, and dogs grieve for missing cats. You may need to give surviving pets a great deal of extra attention and love to help them through this period. You may also find that this helps you through your own sorrow more quickly than you ever expected.

Should I get a new pet right away?

For most people, the answer is no. Generally, one needs time to work through grief and loss and come to terms with one’s emotions about a departed pet before bringing a new pet into the household. If these emotions are not resolved, you may find yourself resenting the new pet for trying to “take the place” of the old. You may find that you make unfair comparisons: The new pet hasn’t had time to create good memories and experiences, or develop a personality of its own. Children may feel that building a relationship with the new animal is somehow a betrayal of the old pet’s memory.

It’s also not a good idea to get a “lookalike” pet. Comparisons become all the more likely when an animal looks exactly like the one that is gone. Often, getting a lookalike pet is a sign that you haven’t accepted the loss of your companion and are trying to replace it. A new pet should be acquired for its own sake, to be loved and accepted for its own qualities. Select an animal that you can build another long, loving relationship with—because this is what getting a new pet is all about.

This article is reproduced for client distribution with full permission from the author, by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories. For more Information visit iaopcc.com.