Grieving the loss of a pet

Coping with the loss of a pet isn’t easy. You experience the same pain, sadness and grief that you feel when you lose anyone you love. This is normal, but that doesn’t make it easier to cope with.

It’s okay to mourn your pet. Grieving isn’t reserved for the loss of human loved ones. Grieving is natural, and it’s an important process to go through so your heart will heal. You don’t have to pretend everything is okay.

4 Tips for Dealing With the Death of a Pet

Grieving is a normal process after you’ve lost a pet, but your feelings can become overwhelming at times. Here are some ways to cope with those emotions you’re experiencing:

  1. Talk to someone — a friend, family member or grief counselor can help you with your feelings.
  2. Ask for help with final arrangements — Your veterinarian can tell you where to start. Pet cemeteries and crematoriums can then help you through the process.
  3. Give yourself time — Everyone grieves on their own timetable.
  4. Wait to get a new pet — Remember, you can’t replace the pet you lost. Get another pet when you feel healed and ready to move on.

How to Get Over a Pet’s Death

The first step in dealing with your loss and getting over it is to allow yourself to grieve. You didn’t lose “just an animal.” This animal was special because he was a member of your family, and research has found that the loss of a pet is just as painful as the loss of a human. The grief process, however, is the same — whether you are figuring out how to get over a dog’s death, a horse’s passing or the loss of a human being you love.

When you’re determining how to deal with the death of a pet, it’s important to understand that everyone grieves differently. The way you handle the loss may be very different from how a child grieves or how an elderly person grieves. People all go through a process to help them deal with and release the hurt, and everyone has their own timetable to complete that process.

A 2003 study found that over 87 percent of pet owners experienced at least one symptom of grief after losing a pet. After six months, about 35 percent of people still experienced grief over their pet’s loss. Even a year after the loss, over 22 percent were still experiencing grief. Don’t rush yourself through the process. Heal at your own pace.

The Five Stages of Grief

The five stages of grief are listed in a sequence that’s normal for many people. While everyone does go through these five stages in the healing process, they may not necessarily go through them in the exact order listed:

symptoms of grieving a pet

  • Step 1: Denial. Denial may be the first thing you and your family experience when dealing with the death of a pet, especially if the death was sudden or unexpected. This is a protection mechanism of the brain to help you come to terms with what has happened.

Along with denial may come isolation. You or other family members may just need to be alone with their thoughts. This is okay as long as it isn’t excessive — too much isolation can lead to depression. It’s important to remember you aren’t alone, even if you feel alone without your beloved pet.

  • Step 2: Anger. You may feel angry at your veterinarian for not being able to save your pet. You may be angry with your pet for leaving you. You may feel anger toward other family members if the death occurred while the pet was in their care. You may even feel angry with yourself for not being able to prevent your pet’s death.

Along with anger, you may feel guilt because you think you should have been able to do more. You may also simply feel guilty about being angry. Guilt may be even more of an issue if your pet was euthanized — you may feel like you are the cause of your pet’s death.

One way to diffuse anger is to have a clear understanding of why you lost your pet. Talk to your veterinarian and find out why this couldn’t be avoided, whether it be due to an illness or accident. You may feel too angry to accept the fact right away, but as you recall what you were told, you will find your anger starts to subside more and more. There is no one to blame. Death is a natural part of life, albeit a difficult one.

  • Step 3: Bargaining. This is where you play a mental game of “if only:”
    • If only I had been there.
    • If only I had called the vet sooner.
    • If only I had taken him in for a checkup and caught the illness.
    • If only…

When you do this, it’s your mind’s way of trying to get control of the situation and create a different, happier outcome. You know deep down you can’t change anything, but it is still normal to go through this process as you buffer yourself from the shock of loss.

  • Step 4: Depression. Depression can be difficult to shake. You have so many emotions and thoughts going on in your head, it can be difficult to process it all. You may feel overwhelmed.

Then, there is the stress of vet bills or other expenses that only make everything seem worse. There is also the overwhelming sadness you feel because you know you won’t get another moment with the pet you loved so dearly.

If you feel the depression is just too much to handle, there is help available. You are never alone. Ask us about pet bereavement support groups in the area to help you process your pain and get past it.

  • Step 5: Acceptance. Acceptance is something that takes time, and the time will vary from person to person. Some people may feel fine in a few days, and for others, it may take a few months. Don’t feel like you have to rush yourself. Give yourself permission to take as much time as you need. Only you can decide when you’re ready to move on.

Children and Grief

Children will experience grief when a pet passes on, but for them it can be different because this may be their first encounter with death. Children also form special attachments to pets that some adults don’t understand, so this type of loss can be especially tough.

Very young children will have a difficult time understanding the concept of death and may ask repeatedly when their pet is coming back. It’s important to be patient, even though it may be difficult for you.

pets and children

Honesty is essential. If you say the pet has run away or is just sleeping, the child may expect it to return. This can result in a very confused and upset child when they realize the pet isn’t ever coming back. Don’t be surprised if the child is angry, just as an adult would be. Your child may also experience fear, wondering if someone else is going to die.

Loving reassurance is important to help your child adjust to such a loss. Showing your own grief will also help your child learn to express grief, too. Don’t feel like you should hide your tears and sadness. Children are pretty perceptive and will probably know something is wrong. By expressing your own feelings, you teach your child to do the same in a healthy way.

Seniors and the Loss of a Pet

dogs and seniorsSeniors benefit from having a pet because pets not only provide companionship, but they can help create a routine and ensure seniors stay more active. In fact, seniors, age 65 and older, who own a dog often act up to 10 years younger than they actually are. Pets can also lower blood pressure, reduce stress and help prevent depression.

For these reasons, and more, dealing with the loss of a pet can be very difficult for seniors. Often, seniors feel their pet gives them a sense of purpose and provides companionship. Therefore, when a pet passes away, it can be a tough adjustment for any senior. It can be especially trying for those who live alone if there are few family members or friends around.

A beautiful urn or keepsake may help ease the pain of the loss and aid in keeping all the good memories in mind. If another pet is a consideration, some shelters also aid in matching pets with seniors.

Pets Grieve, Too

Other pets in the home may not go through the same range of emotions that people do, but they still grieve in their own way. They may seem lethargic, not wanting to eat or play. They may also search for the pet that’s gone. Be sure to provide your other pets with plenty of love and reassurance. Try to keep your home and daily routine as normal as possible to avoid more stress, and soon your other pets will be back to their old selves again.

A Word About Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a very difficult decision to make. You may feel extreme guilt from having made the decision to end your pet’s life. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If there was a better option, your vet would have told you.
  • You chose to end needless suffering, which is an act of love.
  • Your pet did not suffer pain because of the procedure.

Be sure to discuss the decision with your family. Young children may not understand what is going to happen, but you can explain that your pet is suffering and you want to stop the suffering out of love.

When Your Grief Is Dismissed

Unfortunately, some people still think of pets as “just animals.” They may dismiss your feelings, telling you to just get over it. This hurts, but it isn’t worth your time to argue or defend your feelings because these people likely won’t understand. Instead, find a grief counselor or support group. Express your feelings to people who understand and who care.

Losing a pet is never an easy thing. These tips may help you navigate a difficult situation, but ultimately it all comes down to time. Give it time, and you’ll soon be able to move on.

Saying Goodbye

Closure is important to allow everyone to move on with life, but it can be done in different ways. If you have chosen euthanasia, you can plan ways to say goodbye before your pet is gone. Have a special day and spoil your pet. He will feel your love and feel at peace.vets and pets

If your pet passed suddenly with no time to prepare, you may spend some time looking at pictures or videos of your pet with your family. Sit together and talk about the things you loved most, and cry together. Once you’ve had a little time to come to terms with what has happened, it’s time to make final plans for your beloved pet.

Your veterinarian can tell you your options and help you figure out the process of handling the remains of your pet. This is difficult, but it’s also a way to help yourself to heal. Several options are available, including:

  • Home burial — Many families feel better having their pet buried at home. This may be because they want to keep their pet close, and it may also be due to cost. If you live within the city limits, make sure you can do this legally.
  • Cemetery burial — Your veterinarian can put you in contact with pet cemeteries in your area, which can help you with the burial process, including discussing costs and options available. You can also find a cemetery by visiting the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories to find a member in your area. When choosing a cemetery for your pet, ask if the cemetery is on dedicated land that will always be a pet cemetery. That way, your pet will rest without being disturbed.

In a cemetery, you will have the option of a private plot or a communal burial. A private plot will allow for an individual grave and headstone. You may also be able to choose a mausoleum or crypt. If you choose a communal burial with other loved pets, you may not have the option of a personal headstone. However, you may be able to place a plaque on a memorial wall.

  • Cremation — Cremation offers some options similar to cemetery burial. You can choose a private cremation or communal cremation. If you have decided to keep your pet’s ashes, you’ll want to clarify the procedure. Some crematories will cremate several pets at once, so you don’t know whose ashes you are getting.

If you want to only have your pet’s remains, you must request an individual cremation. Once your pet is cremated, you can choose a decorative urn to store the remains. You can also distribute the ashes in a special place and simply keep the urn or keepsake displayed to remember your pet forever.

  • Other options — If for some reason you are unable to obtain your pet’s remains for burial or cremation, you can still create a remembrance for them. One of the best ways to heal your heart after losing a pet is to have a plaque or other keepsake made with a picture of your beloved pet. Display it prominently in your home and have your own memorial service of sorts. Doing this will still allow you to say goodbye to your friend while providing you with a way to remember them for years to come.

No matter what, losing a pet is hard. You can overcome the grief, but it takes time. When you’re ready, we can help. Agape Pet Services provides you with a variety of ways to help you move on while still remembering all the wonderful memories you shared with your pet. To purchase an urn, laser photo, glass memorial bead and other keepsakes, contact us today.


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

  1. 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.

  2. 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…”

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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:

Cemetery Burial

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.

Communal Burial

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.

Communal Cremation

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.

Home Burial

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.

In Memoriam

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
Frederick, Md.
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
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

University of California School of Veterinary Medicine
Davis, California

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
Pullman, Washington

University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine
Pet Loss Support Hotline
Gainesville, Florida
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.