Pet Lady


Grieving:  Losing a Pet 


Q:  We just recently lost our dog to leukemia.  I had no idea how much it would hurt.  She was only with us for a few years.  Even the cat seems sad.  Our friends think we are crazy for being upset for so many months and say we should just get another dog.  Is this normal to be so upset over a dog?  Would a replacement help? 


I’m so sorry for your loss.  I too just lost one of my animal companions, and I can say from personal experience as well as years of counseling others, that your feelings are completely normal.  Animal companions play so many roles in our lives.  They may be our child, the ideal companion, playmate, or sibling.  They are ever faithful, patient, and loving. They greet us with such joy when we come home.  We are their world, and what a wonderful feeling that is.  Whether animals share our lives for a short or long period, their loss can deeply affect us both physically and emotionally.  Sometimes more than we realize.  Often friends and families do not understand—after all it’s just an animal.  However, the grieving process is the same whether we lose a person or an animal in our lives, especially when the relationship is a close one.   We may go through stages of shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually acceptance.  Grief is such an individual process, and family members may progress through the grieving cycle at a different rate.  One person may still be in denial while another is angry at the situation, causing each person to feel very alone in their quest to make sense of the loss of a good friend.  It’s important to seek help during this time.  Veterinarians may be able to refer families to a grief counselor or your clergy may be of help.  We also offer pet loss counseling at Center Hill School. The crucial thing to remember is that grief is a normal process whenever you loose any important aspect of your life.  You are not foolish to feel this way over a dog or cat.   If the pet was euthanized, there may also be feelings of guilt.  This is natural too.  It is a difficult choice to make.  We all hope that our animals can die peacefully on their beds, but when an illness or a behavior issue that cannot be helped occurs, we are faced with making a decision that will ease our animal’s pain—whether it be physical or mental.   This decision is never easy even when we know it is in the animal’s best interest.


You mention that your cat even seems sad.  Animals do grieve, especially if the animals have never spent much time away from each other.   They may have lost their playmate, snuggle buddy, or mealtime friend.  Even animals who may never have seemed close, often wander around the house looking for the animal who was once there.  The best thing the humans can do for animals who are grieving is to not change anything in the animal’s schedule.  Often we pay more attention to the grieving animal.  We may add table scraps to their food to get them to eat, or we talk differently to the animal feeling their pain.  These are all things that will actually create more problems. The extra attention may bring on separation anxiety. The change of food can cause an animal to become a finicky eater. The sympathy voice rewards their sadness.  They will get over their loss much quicker if we continue with their normal schedule and treat them the same way.  This also helps us get back into the swing of things too!

Explaining the loss of a pet to children is another difficult scenario.  We want to protect them from the pain.  Death is a natural part of life, and children need to be given permission to grieve and made part of the process.  Usually children will work through their grief faster than adults, but patience is of the utmost importance as they do so.  They will often ask questions, sometimes the same ones over and over, as they work through what it all means in their minds.  Be prepared to discuss death and grieving honestly with your child.  Never say that “God took the pet” or the pet was “put to sleep.”  The child may begin to have fears that God will take other family members and be afraid to go to sleep. 

Recovering from the loss of a beloved animal companion takes time.  Allow yourself to grieve.  You have lost a good friend.  At some future date you may be ready to find another furry friend to share your life, but wait until you have time to grieve this loss.  When it’s time, you will know.  Remember a new friend is not a replacement, but a new adventure--with new lessons to be learned and new blessings to be received.