We grieve over the death of a pet. This reaction is only natural. 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. Society does not offer a grieving pet owner a great deal of sympathy. Even a close friend may comment: “It’s only a dog…” or “she was a pretty cat. What are you going to get now?” Such a reaction would be heartless given the loss of a human friend or family member, and it is generally recognized that a person who has experienced such a loss needs the support of friends and relatives.
Psychologists now acknowledge that we need as much support – but get far less – with the loss of a companion animal. Veterinarians realize that their final obligation to their pet patients also involves dealing with the pet owners’ grief.
This does not mean that veterinarians are trained as psychologists and psychiatrists. It does mean that the veterinary doctor, who knows you and your pet, also understands your natural feeling of loss and is able to offer support. (If your veterinarian seems distant, bear in mind that the death of a pet is stressful even to professionals. Detachment is one way of coping).
Euthanasia: The Difficult Choice
For a pet-lover, no decision is more difficult than authorizing euthanasia. Yet, frequently, this is the right choice for your pet. Certainly, the humane procedures offered at modern veterinary clinics have a clear advantage over an illness that prolongs the suffering of both pet and pet owner. Discuss euthanasia frankly with your veterinarian. Many pet owners choose to spend the final moments with their pets. If so, the veterinarian might prefer to prepare the pet briefly in another room. If you should choose this, you should know the intravenous drug does not cause any pain. You might wish to stroke the animal’s head and speak gently as the drug is administered. The pet simply goes quietly to sleep as bodily functions cease.
Some pet owners choose not to witness the procedure and prefer a last ’good-bye’ after their companion passes on. In these circumstances, many pet cemeteries provide for after care of the pet for your viewing prior to cremation or burial.
“Like all vets I hated doing this, painless though it was, but to me there has always been a comfort in the knowledge that the last thing these helpless animals knew was the sound of a friendly voice and the touch of a gentle hand.”
James Herriot, All Things Wise and Wonderful Copyright 1977, St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Preparation and learning to cope
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 mind’s buffer against a sharp emotional blow.
The Second Stage: Bargaining
This stage is well documented in the human grieving process. Many times, faced with impending death, an individual may “bargain” – offering some condition if the loved one is spared. The hope that a pet might recover can foster reactions like, “If Sam recovers, I’ll never skip his regular walk … never put him in a kennel when I go on vacation, … never…”
The Third Stage: Anger
Recognizing anger in the grief process is seldom a problem; dealing with anger however, often is. Anger can be obvious, as in hostility or aggression. On the other hand, anger often turns inward, emerging as guilt. Many veterinarians have heard the classic anger response, “What happened? I thought you had everything under control and now you’ve killed my dog!” Another standard: “You never really cared about Rover. He was just another fee to you, and I’m the one who has lost my pet!”
Such outbursts help relieve immediate, frustrations, though often at the expense of someone else. More commonly, pet owners dwell on the past. The number of “If only …” regrets are endless: “If only I hadn’t left the dog at my sister’s house …” “If only I had taken Kitty to the veterinarian a week ago …” Whether true or false, such recriminations and fears do little to relieve anger and are not constructive. Here, your veterinarian’s support is particularly helpful.
The Fourth Stage: Grief
This is the stage of true sadness. The pet is gone, along with the guilt and anger, and only an emptiness remains. It is now that the support of family and friends is most important and sadly, the most difficult to find. A lack of support prolongs the grief stage. Therefore, the pet owner may want to seek some help from their veterinarian, pet cemeterian, or from a professional counselor.
It is normal, and should be acceptable, to display grief when a companion animal dies. It is helpful, too, to recognize that other pet owners have experienced similar strong feelings, and that you are not alone in this feeling of grief. Don’t ever feel embarrassed or ashamed. Your pain is very real and your loss a heavy one.
The Final Stage: Resolution
All things come to an end – even grieving. As time passes, the sadness evolves into memories of joyful times. And, more often than not, part of the remedy lies in a new pet, a new companion animal to fill the need for a pet in the household. Keep in mind, you’re not replacing your beloved friend. Nothing can ever do that. You’re filling a very deep void in your heart with new love for a new companion. It’s time to complete the healing.
How We Feel
How We Feel
When a pet dies, there is no set ritual to formalize the grief. When services are arranged through a pet cemetery, requests such as a short viewing period for the family and friends, photos and a brief eulogy are not uncommon. Still, the loss of a pet affects our emotions, and all the more so if the pet was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief we feel.
When a pet dies, there is no such social ritual to formalize the grief. To many, a funeral for the family pet would seem eccentric and a formal period of mourning bizarre. Even the immediate family and intimate friends may not fully understand the loss. Still, the loss of a pet affects our emotions, and all the more so if the pet was an integral part of the family. These feelings usually progress through several stages. Recognizing them can help us cope with the grief we feel.
The Proper Good Bye
At some point, YOU are going to have to make final arrangements for YOUR pet. Most IAOPCC member pet cemeteries and crematories are listed in the yellow pages, or your veterinarian can handle disposition matters or explain the choices available through that facility. There are several options:
People have been burying their pets in a ritual fashion at least since Egyptian times. Today, there are pet cemeteries in virtually every populated area of the United States and Europe. Many are spacious, with safeguards against the land being used for other purposes and with funding to provide future grounds keeping. Standards established by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories might help guide your choice. A list of standards and other information is available from this organization at 1-518-594-3000 8am to 5pm EST.The costs for cemetery burial vary, depending on services requested. Many pet cemeteries will cooperate with veterinary clinics, sending a representative to handle the details.
This less costly option is offered by many pet cemeteries. Your pet’s dignity is in no way affected by burial with other animals. Communal burial is a common choice.
In areas where land is expensive, communal cremation is a sensible alternative. Many pets are cremated during the same cycle, your pet’s dignity is in no way affected by cremation with other animals. This is the least expensive method of disposition.
Individual or Private Cremation
Individual/Private cremation of your pet will allow you to take time to select a F I N A L disposition for your pet’s remains. Cremains may be buried, stored in a columbarium at a pet cemetery, scattered in a favorite spot, or kept at home in a decorative urn. These options are more costly than communal cremation.
It is not uncommon for pet owners to bury their pets somewhere on their own property, but you should check with your municipal government before making such arrangements. Typically, home burial is permitted in rural and suburban settings.
If the final disposition of your pet’s loss was out of your control there are ways to still memorialize it’s memory. A memorial plaque combined with a landscape feature such as: flowering trees, statuary or benches will help finalize the grieving process and provide a place for you and your family to visit from time to time.
If the Burden’s Too Heavy
Veterinary teaching institutions, in studying the human-companion animal bond, are increasing their efforts to help pet owners cope with lingering grief. Some of the teaching institutions have social workers who are specially trained to counsel pet owners.
Among the most well known programs are those at:
Frederick County Humane Society
5712-D Industry Lane
Sessions held on the third Wednesday
Every other month, 7:00 p.m.
Pet Loss Support Group
Sponsored by Partnership for Animal Welfare and Aspen Hill Memorial Park
13630 Georgia Avenue Silver Spring
2nd Tuesday of each month 8:00- 9:00 PM
Suggested donation: $10/session
Call to pre-register: (301) 871-6700
Pet Bereavement Seminar at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter
14645 Rothgeb Drive Rockville
Dr. Mary Knipmeyer
Meets the 3rd Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m.
Free but reservations are required by the preceding Friday.
Phone: (301) 279-1077
Alexandria Animal Shelter
4101 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, VA
Meets the first Wednesday of each month. 7:30 PM
c/o Kathy Reiter Alexandria
Phone: (703) 838-5050
Fairfax County Animal Shelter
4500 West Ox Road
Meets the third Wednesday of each month. 7:30 PM
Kathy Reiter Phone: (703) 830-1100
Pet Loss/Grief Support Group
The group meets monthly at Pet Partners in Bristol.
Leashed pets are welcome.
No charge but donations are welcome.
Contact: Lynn McDowell, RN
Phone: (540) 619-5590
The Animal Medical Center
New York City, NY
The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California School of Veterinary Medicine
University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine
St. Paul, Minnesota
Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Fort Collins, Colorado
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
Pet Loss Support Hotline
904-392-4700, extension 4080 (leave message)
1 Losing a Family Friend has been adapted by the ALPO Veterinary Advisory Panel from the monograph Companion Animal Loss ~ Pet Owner Grief by Marc A. Rosenberg, VMD, published in 1986 by the ALPO Pet Center (Library of Congress Catalog Card Number:85-73830).
2 Permission is granted to reproduce sections of this perspective, Death of the Family Pet Losing a Family Friend. Please credit ALPO Pet foods upon publication.