Grieving for lost pet takes time

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2004

As with any member of the family, the loss of a pet can be overwhelming, but unfortunately there are not as many avenues for recovery or ways for bringing closure as there are when a person dies.

Few jobs offer bereavement leave for pets and funeral homes typically don't offer services where sorrow can be expressed, tears can be shed and friends and relatives can comfort the mourning owner of the deceased pet.

This can leave the pet owner with a whirlwind of emotions, but recognizing that these feelings usually progress through several stages can help a pet owner with the grief they are feeling.

Denial is the initial response of many pet owners when they are confronted with news of a pet's terminal condition or sudden death. Psychologists believe this rejection is the mind's buffer against sharp emotional blows.

This is particularly hard when pet owners are faced with the decision of authorizing euthanasia. However, no one knows better than the animal's owner when the right time to euthanize their pet is.

Pets typically don't suffer during euthanasia. They are given a dose of anesthesia that allows them not to feel any pain, and death follows shortly thereafter. For their own piece of mind, though, pet owners should learn about the euthanasia process from their veterinarian and communicate their concerns and wishes.

bargaining is another stage in the human grieving process. This often is more associated with owners facing the impending death of a pet, rather than those who already have lost a companion animal.

The pet owner may try to bargain with God or some higher power. Or they may strike deals with themselves to make the loss go away, such as "If Nippy lives, I promise to walk him everyday."

Part of the bargaining process may also include shopping around for a second opinion from other veterinarians and looking for a cure that may not exist. This can lead to other problems since the pet owner may put themselves in financial jeopardy in their attempt to "buy" their way out of the problem.

Anger is one of the most obvious stages in the grief process. However, as easy as it is to recognize, dealing with anger can be complex.

Pet owners may pick scapegoats to blame for their loss. Sometimes it may be themselves for not doing enough when the pet was healthy or for not buying the best quality food and other products to care for the animal better.

This anger can, and often is, misdirected at others as well, such as other family members, coworkers or a veterinarian. Accusations such as, "Why didn't you see this coming" or "You never really cared about Nippy, you just wanted to pad the bill with expensive treatment" are common.

This may relieve a pet owner's frustrations in the short term but it often is at someone else's expense and doesn't solve the long-term problem of how to cope with the loss of the pet.

Grief is the stage of true sadness and despair. Pet owners may feel guilty over the loss of the pet, feeling remorse for things real or perceived that could have been done differently.

"If only I had played with Nippy more" or "Why did I have to spank him for sleeping on the couch when I was at work?" These "if only" and "why didn't I" regrets are common feelings.

Sometimes, however, there is no guilt and only emptiness remains. Pet owners may feel so overwhelmed that they believe that their life and home will never feel the same without their pet or that no new pet could ever fill the void.

This stage is when a support network of family, friends or others who are understanding and sympathetic of the pet owner's loss are most important. Lack of support can greatly prolong the grief stage, so it is helpful to recognize that others have experienced similar strong feelings when they lost cherished pets.

Veterinarians often are invaluable at these times since most have not only lost pets themselves, but are in a profession where pet loss occurs more regularly than for the average person. They can really understand what a client is going through and may be able to help.

The Internet is full of Web sites created by grieving pet owners that can be inspirational to those healing from the pain caused by losing a pet. Typing the key words "pet loss" into a search engine can access those sites.

There also are several professional counseling services to deal with pet loss, including the Companion Animal Related Emotions (CARE) hot line at (217) 244-CARE or (877) 394-CARE.

Resolution is the final stage. As time passes, the grieving and other painful feelings come to an end. Pet owners being to remember the good times with the pet, more than the pet's passing.

This is the time when owners can express emotional responses freely and are better able to verbalize the pain, hurt and suffering they experienced.

They often share funny or personal stories of experiences shared with the pet. For those who like to write, starting a journal about these funny stories can be healthy to the recovery process, as well.

This is a time when the pet owner begins to adjust their lives to incorporate the changes necessary. This is when a new pet may begin to be considered or sought out, not to replace the lost pet, but rather to fulfill the need for a companion animal in the home.

These stages of grief can vary from person to person. They may come in any order and each stage can last from minutes to months.

While losing a pet is an inescapable part of pet ownership, how an owner chooses to deal with that loss is as individual as their cherished pet was.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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