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Coping with the Death of a Pet

Losing a pet can be an emotionally painful time for many owners. Companion pets are often our beloved friends, valued confidants and loyal protectors. When they pass away, it’s completely natural to feel deep sorrow and devastating loss – just as we would with any other close friend or family member.

In My Dog Skip, Willie Morris describes the loss of his childhood pet with these poignant words, "Old Skip was my brother. They had buried him under our elm tree, they said — yet this wasn't totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart."

Coping with the painful loss of a pet can be very difficult. Here’s some help to get you through this sad period in your life:

Allow Recovery Time: An important first step towards coping with pet loss is to recognize that your sorrow is completely legitimate. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and depressed right now. So, be nice to yourself. Give yourself enough time to deal with your grief.

The grief process can last anywhere from days and weeks for some owners, to years for others. During this time, you may experience a wide range of feelings:

  • Denial is a common starting point in the grief process, according to the Humane Society, because it offers owners the emotional protection they may need to deal with their losses. When carried to extremes, however, an owner may refuse to accept the pet is gone and fear the animal is still alive and hurt somewhere.
  • Anger is sometimes directed towards anyone involved with the pet. This could include a veterinarian who didn’t "save" your pet, or a driver of a speeding car that hit your animal. Your anger may be justified, but don’t let it distract you from recovering from your loss.
  • Guilt is often felt by owners who believe they were responsible for their pets’ deaths. It’s tempting to indulge in "if only I had done that differently." But try to remember that your guilt is pointless and won’t accomplish anything. In fact, it only makes it harder to resolve your grief.
  • Depression is natural now. To move forward, express your feelings. Don’t be afraid to yell, cry or punch a pillow. Do what makes you feel better. Speak with a friend who understands your loss. Reminisce about the good times with your pet. Consider making a photo collage or writing your memories in a journal.
Remember Other Pets: Incidentally, you aren’t the only one who may be grieving. Other companion pets in your household have lost a friend too. Pets often form strong relationships with each other. And your cat may certainly be mourning the loss of your dog. Or visa versa. Be sure to give surviving pets lots of love and support right now.

Find Support: A great way to deal with your own grief is to work through your feelings with someone else. Your friends and family members may not always understand the close bond you had with your pet. So, not everyone may be able to appreciate how much you are suffering.

That’s the bad news. The good news is you aren’t alone.

Professional support for coping with the loss of a pet is widely available. Below are universities throughout the United States, which have started pet loss hotlines with confidential consulting services. Many (if not all) of the volunteers are veterinary students trained to help you deal with your personal grief.

UC Davis Pet Loss Support Hotline

Cornell University Pet Loss Support Hotline

University of Illinois C.A.R.E. Helpline

Michigan State University Support Hotline

Tufts University Pet Loss Support Hotline

Move Forward Carefully: Grief experts say it’s not typically a good idea to rush out and get another pet. Instead, allow yourself enough time to work through your pain before you try to build another relationship with an animal.

When you do get a new pet, avoid getting one that looks exactly like your last one. It’s too easy to make unfair comparisons and become disappointed. Sometimes a fresh start is really for the best.

In time, you’ll know when you’re ready to welcome another furry companion into your life again.

For more information on pet loss and grieving, contact the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.