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With around 62% of UK households now owning a pet, the effects of losing a pet are affecting (or will go on to affect) an increasing number of people. Studies by insurance companies such as Direct Line and Pet Plan have revealed that up to 1 in 4 pet owners were so sufficiently affected by the death of their pet that they needed to take time off work.
Pet bereavement can affect people in different ways. In the same way that being bereaved of a family member or friend is an individual experience, the same can be said of losing a much-loved pet. There is no normal or expected way to cope or grieve, but it is important to seek support if you need it and allow yourself and your loved ones to process your emotions.
What is pet bereavement?
Pet bereavement refers to the feelings of grief and loss experienced by an individual after the death of their pet. Many consider pets to be a member of their family. Indeed, according to new research, 90% of pet owners consider their pets as part of the family. It’s not surprising, therefore, that their loss can be just as devastating as the loss of a human family member.
Our pets are by our side as close companions for many years. Indeed, we form intense emotional bonds with them. Some family pets also serve as assistance dogs or working dogs and therefore their loss can have an even greater impact on an individual’s daily living too.
When grieving the loss of a pet, intense emotions are common.
Many people experience strong or changeable feelings, including:
- Feeling numb or detached.
- Feeling lost and not knowing what to do with themselves.
- Feelings of shock and disbelief.
- Being pulled towards reminders of their pet including items that were theirs or looking at photos and videos.
- Being preoccupied with the loss and not able to think of anything else.
- Feeling guilt and/or regret if the pet had to be put to sleep or if they died in an accident.
Aside from these emotions, it’s also not uncommon for people to feel ashamed of their intense feelings of grief after the death of a pet. Many people report feeling embarrassed about how they feel after having lost their pet.
They may feel that others (particularly those without pets) will not understand their feelings and may perceive them as being dramatic or too sentimental. As such, many grieving owners hide their pet loss from those around them and attempt to appear rather stoic on the surface despite their underlying emotions.
Why do we suffer from bereavement for pets?
For many people, losing a much-loved family pet is akin to losing a human loved one. Pets often hold a special place in our lives and our hearts. They’re often considered to be our “fur babies” and provide us with unwavering companionship, love and loyalty. Often, they are an integral part of our daily routines and the dynamics within the family.
A dog is man’s best friend. They’re loyal to a fault. Dogs (and other family pets) are often by our sides each day. We take them for walks as a part of our daily routines, we play with them in the garden, snuggle up to them on the sofa, and snuffle their fur when we’re upset.
We might even dance in the kitchen with them when we’re happy! We take them on holiday with us, run around on the beach and splash in the sea, and we talk to them like they’re human. They don’t answer back and no matter what we do, they love us unconditionally.
So, when that has been taken away when a pet has died, we can suffer from intense feelings of loss and grief. We may stop our daily walks as there’s no dog to walk. We don’t need to chuck a ball in the garden and get fresh air. And there might be no one else to talk to (or dance in the kitchen with). For many people, especially those who live alone, losing a pet is like losing their best friend.
Comfort and emotional support
Pets are often sources of emotional support. If we have a bad day at work or have an argument with a loved one, snuggling up to the dog on the sofa can really help us emotionally. Indeed, those with mental health problems or disabilities can also rely on a pet for emotional support, comfort and even therapy.
When a pet dies, its family can feel a deep sense of loss and grief as a result. In many cases, their usual source of comfort and emotional support has gone, and so the loss can be felt even more intensely.
Loss of independence or assistance
Many pets are not just pets – they’re assistance animals. Whilst their owners still have a strong emotional bond with their pets, they may also rely on them.
Assistance animals – usually dogs – can help their owners in many ways:
- Guide dogs
– Guide dogs are one of the most common assistance dogs. They’re specially trained to support blind and visually impaired people.
- Hearing dogs
– Hearing dogs assist those who are deaf and can alert their owners to sounds in the home such as doorbells, smoke alarms, oven timers and even when their baby is crying.
- Seizure alert dogs
– Some dogs are trained to be able to recognise when their owner is going to have an epileptic seizure before it begins. They can alert their handler so that they can get to a safer location or in a safer position.
- Diabetic alert dogs
– Given that dogs have an incredible sense of smell, it is not surprising that they can be trained to sense when someone’s glucose levels are off. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to let their owners know when their blood sugar levels are too high or too low so that they can address it. These dogs can also alert other family members too.
- Allergy detection dogs
– Dogs’ noses can help to sniff out minuscule amounts of allergens in contaminated food that could cause a serious allergic reaction in their owners. If the dog smells anything that contains the allergen, it will alert its owner so that they do not touch or eat the item.
- Mobility assistance dogs
– For those who are not as mobile, mobility assistance dogs assist them in their homes and when out and about. They are trained to open doors, collect the post, turn on lights and even press buttons. Of course, fetching items is all part of the fun!
- Autism service dogs
– Autism service dogs can help autistic people, especially children, navigate social settings that make them anxious. They help and support their handler and help give them confidence and connect with people. What’s more, they can be trained to help protect autistic children who are prone to fleeing or wandering off.
- Psychiatric service dogs
– These dogs are trained to provide support emotionally for those who are suffering from psychiatric conditions and mental health disorders. Often, they are a source of support for those suffering from PTSD, depression or anxiety. They can help their handler feel safer and can also detect an oncoming flashback, anxiety attack or panic attack. They can even be trained to enter a room or building before their owner to turn the lights on and make sure it is safe.
- Therapy dogs
– Therapy dogs do not tend to live with a specific owner but rather are permitted to enter certain public areas and spaces. Many nursing homes, care homes, hospices and mental health hospitals have a therapy dog to assist the patients.
For those who have lost an assistance dog, the bereavement is often felt more profoundly as the source of their assistance and ability to be more independent has also gone.
Resurfacing past losses
Whilst pet owners no doubt suffer from the loss of their pet, a pet’s death and the subsequent bereavement and feelings of grief can cause other feelings (perhaps even repressed feelings) to resurface.
When a pet dies, it may remind us, both consciously and subconsciously, of our past losses such as when a partner, parent or other family member died. Indeed, when someone loses a human family member, they put their focus on caring for their pet. So, when their pet dies and they no longer have a focus for their care, grief and emotions, the emotions associated with their previous loss resurface. This is sometimes called ‘echo grief’.
What is the grieving process after the loss of a pet?
Grief is natural after a loss. It is often felt as an intense sorrow with many different emotions felt during the process. Grief is very personal and everyone experiences it differently, even if they are experiencing the same loss.
The grieving process after the loss of a pet varies from person to person in the same way that grieving a human does. It depends on many factors including the nature of the relationship they had with the pet, the circumstances surrounding the pet’s death, the individual’s coping style and their support network. However, there are some common stages of grief that many people experience after losing a pet.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, developed a model around the different stages of grief that people felt when they were faced with their own impending death. This model was then adopted as a way of understanding the grieving process, regardless of the type of loss experienced. Therefore, this model can also be applied to the grieving process after the loss of a pet
The Five Stages of Grief are described as:
1. Denial and disbelief.
At first, it may be hard to accept that a pet has died. Many people experience feelings of numbness, shock or disbelief and may keep expecting the pet to bound back into the room or expect to find the pet asleep on a bed somewhere in the home.
When the reality of the loss of the pet sinks in, some people may experience feelings of anger. They may be angry at themselves or other people, or even angry with the situation as a whole. It’s common to feel angry during the bereavement of a pet especially if the death of the pet was due to an accident which could have been avoided or if one family member wanted the pet to be euthanised and another family member didn’t.
This stage often involves thoughts of “if only” or “what if”. You may wonder what you could have done differently to avoid the pet’s death or save it in some way.
As the reality of the loss sinks in and becomes more real, many people experience feelings of depression. They may feel hopeless or empty and may no longer seem to enjoy things that they used to.
Gradually, over time, many people start to come to terms with the loss and find a way to move forward. This does not mean that they have forgotten their pet or that they are completely back to their normal selves, however. But it does mean that they can live their life without feeling completely consumed by their grief.
Not everyone will experience the stages of grief in the same way and perhaps not even in the same order. Other emotions and reactions may also be experienced. No matter the pet, the grieving process can be complex and challenging. However, with support and self-care, it is possible to navigate this tumultuous time and reach acceptance.
Effects of pet bereavement
We’ve touched on the effects of pet bereavement already and explained how grieving a pet is an individual experience. In the same way as human bereavement, pet bereavement will have different effects on different people. These effects can vary widely depending on the individual and the circumstances surrounding the death of the pet.
Some of the common effects of pet bereavement include:
- Emotional distress
Losing a pet will cause significant emotional distress in most of us. We may experience intense sadness, crying, depression and anxiety and even guilt.
- Physical symptoms
As a result of our emotional symptoms surrounding the loss, many people experience physical effects too including changes in appetite (either not feeling hungry and not eating enough or ‘comfort eating’ and eating too much), fatigue and insomnia. The stress of the loss can also exacerbate existing conditions such as IBS, psoriasis and eczema.
- Disruption in day-to-day life
For many people, feeding their pets and walking their dogs is a significant part of their daily routine. The loss of this routine can have a significant effect on a person’s day-to-day life. It may make it difficult for them to focus on their work or other responsibilities.
- Social isolation
For many people, their pet (particularly a dog) gets them out and about and meeting people. They may walk the same routes and bump into other regular dog walkers and stop for a chat. For some people, walking their dog is the main reason they leave their home, so it can be especially isolating for them if their pet has died. Social isolation is also a concern for those bereaved of assistance dogs as their lack of assistance may mean that they are no longer able to leave their home and socialise as easily.
- Changes in identity
Suffering a loss often causes us to question who we are, even if we’re not aware that we are doing it. We may question the way we do things or decide to do something drastic in the immediate aftermath of pet loss. This is a completely natural and common effect of pet bereavement. A horse owner may not feel in the right place when he/she no longer has her horse, for example, and this can lead to further distress and changes in how they see themselves.
- Impact on relationships
Losing a pet can sometimes put a strain on a relationship in the same way that losing a loved one can. This is more often the case if other family members or friends did not share the same level of attachment to the pet. Often, this strain is temporary and persists only during the initial grieving period, but for many, it can endure.
As discussed, the effects of pet bereavement are very much an individual experience. That said, certain people are more likely to share common effects, especially children, the elderly and other pets in the home.
Effects of pet bereavement on children
The loss of a family pet may be a child’s first experience with loss, grief and bereavement. Many children seemingly continue about their day in a nonchalant and unaffected manner. However, this is not always the case and many children’s grief and distress manifest themselves in other ways.
You may notice:
- Behavioural changes
Children may not know how to feel or how to process their distress or that of those they live with who are also grieving. They may feel all the emotions that adults feel but, equally, they may well bottle them up inside and not understand that what they’re feeling is normal. This can often result in behavioural changes. They may act up and express anger or they may become more fearful and even develop separation anxiety. Sleeping issues are common as are losing interest in previous things they used to enjoy.
- Difficulty with attachment
Children who have lost a pet may have difficulty forming attachments and bonds with new pets in the future. They may be inadvertently fearful of developing an attachment to a new pet that they fear may also die at some stage. They may also not accept a new pet easily as it is not the same as their deceased pet.
- A sense of responsibility
Many children experience a sense of responsibility for their pet’s death and may believe that it was their fault even if they had nothing to do with it. They may erroneously believe that they contributed to an illness by the pet having previously eaten something it shouldn’t that they had given, for example. If this is the case, it’s important to reassure the child that the death was not their fault.
Effects of pet bereavement on the elderly
Whilst the effects of pet bereavement are often commonly shared across all age groups, when an elderly person loses a much-loved pet, they may have a different experience.
An elderly person may have coped with losing a spouse or partner by taking comfort from their pet. Now that the pet has also died, it may bring their feelings of grief and loneliness to the fore as well as make them think more deeply about their own mortality.
Elderly pet owners may withdraw socially and may reduce their exercise, especially if looking after their pet was one of the reasons they headed out for walks. The loss may also have other effects on their physical health such as increasing their blood pressure and even cholesterol level.
Effects on other pets
It may surprise you to learn that pets also experience grief. If a pet has been used to having another animal around the home and that pet is no longer there, the remaining pet may be confused and will not understand that his playmate is not returning.
The remaining pet or pets may become withdrawn and show signs of depression as well as other changes in behaviour. They may also display increased separation anxiety such as pacing the floor or whining when they are left alone.
What‘s more, they may also show appetite changes and lose interest in their usual treats and food following the loss of their companion. Loss and bereavement for animals as well as humans can also cause physical illness and can potentially compromise the pets’ immune systems and increase their susceptibility to physical illness.
Pets may continue to look for their companion for a long time after they have died. They may try and find their previous toys and sniff to follow scent trails to see if they can locate their pet. They may also vocalise their distress.
If your household has lost a much-loved pet, it is important to think of the effects on the other animals in the home as well as the humans as they also will need a lot of support and nurturing in the days and weeks following their companion’s death.
How to prepare for the loss of a pet
One of the first bits of advice people come across when they are deciding whether or not to take on a pet is “prepare to have your heart broken”. Now, this may seem like strange advice, but it couldn’t be more true. The vast majority of people who take on a pet (whether a cat, dog, horse, rabbit or another animal) will outlive it. Sadly, this means that most of us who are pet owners will have to cope with losing our pets at one stage or another.
When a pet is nearing the end of its life, many owners begin to question whether they will know when the time is right to say goodbye. Preparing for the loss of a pet can be difficult, but it can also help to ease the grieving process and make the pet’s end-of-life experience as peaceful as possible.
To help prepare for the loss of a pet, there are some steps you can take:
1. Plan for the future.
If your pet has a terminal illness, is very old, or is experiencing significant health problems, it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for their end-of-life care. This might include talking to your vet about options for palliative care and when you should consider putting the pet to sleep (euthanasia)
2. Consider the pet’s quality of life.
As responsible pet owners, we have the luxury of being able to ease our pet’s pain, consider their quality of life and be able to do something about it to end their suffering – something that is not afforded to humans in the UK. As difficult as this is, it’s important to be honest about your pet’s quality of life. If your pet is suffering and has no chance of recovery, it might be time to consider euthanasia. Many people call this “putting them to sleep”, which is a more peaceful euphemism to describe the process. This is no doubt the hardest thing you will ever decide as an owner of a pet.
3. Spend quality time with your pet.
If you know that your pet’s time is near the end, make an effort to spend quality time with them and do all of their favourite things. This might include taking them for one last run of their favourite beach or snuggling on the sofa with a few treats.
4. Create a special memory or tribute.
Many people take lots of photos and videos during their pet’s life. Putting together an album, collage or video montage in tribute to your pet may help you in the run-up to their end. Taking paw prints or locks of fur may also be useful to help ease you into the first stages of pet bereavement when it is time.
5. Seek support.
Don’t be afraid to seek support during this difficult time. Reach out to friends and family who understand the depth of your imminent loss and subsequent grief. You might also seek support from your vet, a pet loss support group, a religious group or a counsellor.
6. Plan for afterwards.
Decide what you would like to do after your pet has died. This may include arranging for the pet to be cremated or buried as well as deciding how you want to honour your pet’s remains.
Preparing for the loss of a pet can be an emotional and difficult process. However, it can also help you to feel more in control and at peace with the situation. Ultimately, the most important thing is to focus on providing your pet with as much love, comfort and dignity as you can during their final days before they “cross the rainbow bridge”.
How to cope with the loss of a pet
Coping with the loss of a pet can be difficult and emotional. There are things that you can do to help you through this time. Firstly, it’s important to allow yourself to grieve. Suppressing or ignoring your feelings is not healthy and it may prolong the grieving process. Secondly, seek support from those who care about you, especially those who have gone through a similar experience. Knowing that you have people around you who understand how difficult it is will be a big help.
It’s also important to take care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and heading outdoors for some fresh air and exercise. This might be difficult, but it is important.
Honouring and remembering your pet and the impact that it had on your life is something that many people do to help them cope with their loss. They may make a tribute such as a photo collage, a framed picture or a special keepsake which helps them to remember their pet. Many people find that the creative process of doing this is therapeutic in itself.
If you are struggling with coping with the loss of a pet it is important to seek professional help and support if you need it. Many therapists and counsellors are trained in helping their clients through loss and bereavement – including pet bereavement. Additionally, many animal charities also have pet loss helplines that provide someone to talk to during this difficult time.
Finally, it’s important to remember to be patient and kind to yourself. When you first took on that puppy or kitten (or another animal), you didn’t yet know how heartbreaking it would be to have to let them go. Pet bereavement is very difficult and is something that all pet owners will have to go through at some stage. Its inevitability doesn’t make it any easier to cope with, nor does the fact that they are an animal and not a human. Go easy on yourself and take your time in coming to terms with the loss.
What support is available for pet bereavement?
If you’ve suffered the loss of a pet, here are some resources and organisations that you may find helpful:
1. Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS). The PBSS is a free and confidential telephone and email support service provided by the Blue Cross. They offer emotional support and practical advice to those who are grieving the loss of a pet.
You can contact them on:
– 0800 096 6606 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
2. The Ralph Site. The Ralph Site is a not-for-profit website that provides support and advice for pet owners who are coping with the loss of a pet. They offer pet loss support groups, memorial pages and resources on coping with pet loss.
3. Pet loss support groups. Many local animal welfare organisations and veterinary clinics provide pet loss support groups. These groups provide a safe and supportive environment where pet owners can share their feelings and experiences with others who are going through the same thing. Ask your vet or local animal charity for what is available in your local area.
4. Private counselling. Many people who have experienced the loss of a pet opt to have the support of a counsellor. Many counsellors have specific experience in dealing with pet loss and bereavement and can provide one-to-one support and guidance to help you navigate the loss.