Dealing With the Loss of a Pet

“Therefore to this dog will I, tenderly not scornfully, render praise and favor: with my hand upon his head, is my benediction said, therefore and forever.” -Elizabeth Barrett Browning, To Flush, My Dog

What a wonderful responsibility we take on when we bring a pet into our lives. With the help and guidance from veterinarians, we provide a loving, safe, and healthy environment for our pets who share everything with us. Our pets see us through marriages, divorces, and the birth of children. Pets endure separation and welcome us back as if we’d been away forever. They are the best pals we have for accepting us as we are.

Pets also help bring us through the losses in our lives. For many of us, our companions are the anchors. We lose a job, we change residences, and we lose friends and relatives through death and separation. The constant is the unwavering love and devotion of a companion animal. One day, that constant will become one of our losses. Now we will grieve because we have lost that companion. Where do we turn? When the kind face and acceptance we used to turn to is gone, where do we go for comfort?

One of the most difficult and important parts of grief and loss is seeking to understand what has happened and that what you are feeling is all right. Your sense of loss may encompass your life and that is all right. You have that right to grieve and you can take as much time as you need. In a busy and demanding world like ours, the trick is to take the time.

You will probably be faced with well-meaning people who feel you should spend a certain amount of time feeling bad and then get over it. No one is able to tell you your time frame for grieving. Only someone who has worked through grief can tell you about the time it takes to heal. Many stages of grief have been described, and none of them are absolute. Generally, the stages are:

  1. Shock/disbelief/denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining (often with God)
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance/resolution/recovery

Ideally, these stages are supposed to progress from stages one through five in predictable fashion. This just does not happen. Be gentle with yourself. Many of us do not go through all stages and almost all of us will be thrown back into and out of these stages before the healing truly begins. With resolution comes perhaps not so much the “getting on with it” as it does the chance to place the memories in a comfortable spot in your life. You may find yourself very close to resolution when a memory or anniversary of your pet’s passing knocks you back into the anger or denial stage. Not only is this understandable but it is also a fact of life. Give yourself time.

If, however, you feel that time is passing too painfully for you or you want some very special and caring support, there are many sources of support available to you.

Your veterinarian. Your relationship with your veterinarian has just been very emotional and personal. Few people understand your loss like the staff who have cared for your pet and who have helped you make your decision.

Church. If you have a relationship with a pastor or congregation, don’t forget that they may be there for you. For many people, religion is a framework of life. Don’t think that your church would not want to hear you lost a “dog.”

Humane Societies. This is a wonderful source for reaching out to people whose hearts are like yours and whose grief is as profound as yours. There will be few places more accepting of your love for your pet than here. Call your local shelter or humane society and ask if they have a pet loss support group.

Counseling. Seeking professional help is absolutely all right and very common. Grief and depression are just as real over loss of a dog or cat as they are over loss of a person.

Hospice. For those whose companion animals have a terminal illness, the grief process has a special consideration. You may find yourself needing help preparing for the loss. Learning to live and enjoy your best friend is extremely difficult. This is exactly what hospice work is all about. Check with your local hospitals and hospice groups for help.

Family and friends. Don’t overlook this resource. Many of them have been with you in your grief from the time of decision or the receipt of terrible news. Some of them may have been in the room with you when it happened. It is difficult to ask for help-if someone offers, think about accepting it. Even if it helps move through just one of the stages of grief, you will know you are not alone.

Helpful Reading

For Children
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst
A Special Place for Charlee, by Debby Morehead
I’ll Always Love You, by Hans Wilhelm

For Adults
When Your Pet Dies: How to Cope With Your Feelings, by Jamie Quackenbush, MSW; and Denise Graveline
A Final Act of Caring: Ending the Life of an Animal Friend, by Mary & Herb Montgomery
Good-bye My Friend, by Mary & Herb Montgomery

Pet Loss Support Hotlines

University of California-Davis
Weekdays, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. PST

University of Florida-Gainesville
Weekdays, 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST

Michigan State University
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. EST

The Ohio State University
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. CST

Chicago Veterinary Medical Association
Leave a voice mail anytime. Calls returned collect between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. CST weekdays.

Be sure to ask your veterinarian for more information on these or any other grief support information.

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