Pet bereavement – coping with the loss of a pet
The bond we share with an animal friend can be deeply strong, so it’s likely the loss will be too. A pet for someone can mean more than ‘just an animal’, they become friends, family, companions, and we share our lives with them, confide in them our sorrows and joys and in return they offer us, unconditional love.
Our Design and Content editor, Emma Rowsell, produced this wonderful piece on pet loss and is very happy to share with our supporters. It details the process of Euthanasia, how to deal with grief, and how to remember your special friend afterwards. We hope it will find you some comfort if you have recently lost a beloved pet, or to help prepare you for when that day comes.
All the information below, has been taken from books or websites, which will all be listed at the bottom of this article.
WHEN IS IT TIME
Animals are generally very good at concealing signs of illness or injury. As your pet grows older, or if they fall ill, you may worry that you won’t be able to tell if they are still enjoying a good quality of life.
According to the article ‘Grief Support’ by Cats Protection, any behavioural or routine changes could be signs that their health and or quality of life is deteriorating. You may feel that something is not quite right and notice changes such as, unexplained weight loss, being withdrawn, difficulty moving, incontinence, inability to settle or a loss of interest in food/toys etc. It is important to see the vet if you notice any of these changes whereby any further tests or treatments will be recommended. If the outlook for your pet isn’t looking good, the vet will go through the options.
Being prepared for what to expect may help you feel more at peace about the process suggested by Dr. Joanna De Klerk in ‘Old Dog Love’. A common phrase used by veterinarians is “quality of life”, De Klerk says, “this is a marker of whether or not your senior is still enjoying life without suffering”. Being so closely bonded to an animal, we may find it hard to see clearly whether they are in any pain or discomfort.
TALKING ABOUT IT
During this last phase of your animal’s life, your vet will be an important ally. As discussed by Lise Hansen in ‘The Complete Book of Cat & Dog Health’, the vet can diagnose and treat symptoms of illness, advise on any nursing care needed for your senior, or dying, animals. As their needs change, they can ‘help assess whether your animal is in pain and provide pain relief’ if necessary. The vet can prepare you for what to expect, but it’s important to accept that ultimately this final heavy decision is yours to make.
It helps to talk to others such as family, friends, and perhaps people who have gone through this process themselves. Whiter suggests an Animal Healer can be valuable throughout this stage, as the healing and relaxation can provide comfort and calm replacing any turmoil. Whiter also highlights this may help you understand what your animal feels and needs in this time of their life.
PREPARING YOURSELF TO LET GO
J.Borzendowski describes the five stages of grief and how many people experience these stages before the loved one dies. Pet guardians are susceptible to the stage of denial. She explains that a common mistake guardians make is not seeing signs from their pet that something is wrong. ‘Sometimes not seeing is a function of not paying attention; but it might also be a function of not wanting to see’. It is vital to put your pet's needs before your own. As discussed by Whiter, if an animal’s health fails and the guardian becomes afraid of losing them, the animal may ‘choose to struggle on, at all costs.’ Signifying that regardless of their pain or illness they will continue to ‘fight to stay with us when they know we cannot yet let go.’ Of course, this is a sad time, but as Hansen affirms it can also be an important and meaningful time, if we relinquish the ‘pressure, panic, guilt, denial, regret, and expectation of control, and are able to say goodbye and let go.’
Fairgrieve clarifies that healing is not just about helping an animal to recover from sickness or help it to live well. It also includes helping the animal to die well. By taking your animal to a healer it can improve the quality of life of a dying animal and ‘can help that animal to go more peacefully when it is ready’ according to Fairgrieve. A healer would never influence a guardian’s decision on whether to have their pet euthanized. It can be a traumatic experience to witness an animal's health deteriorating. If the guardian decides to have their pet euthanized, healing can help bring peace to both. It’s important to communicate with your beloved friend at this time and express your feelings of love but also that you’re ready to let go and let the animal do whatever is right for them.
Euthanasia is Greek for “good death” and is the word used to describe the humane process of a veterinarian ending the life of an animal. As Borzendowski explains, the same advances in veterinary medicine that allows our animals to live longer, also ‘forces us to make the decision when to stop taking heroic measures- we must acknowledge when we are prolonging dying.’ Sadly, pets passing peacefully in their sleep is not the norm today.
PLANNING AHEAD AND AFTERCARE
There is no way to ease the heartache caused by the approaching death of a beloved pet. However, by making certain decisions in advance, may help ease the way and save you from making them during a time of emotional duress.
You can decide whether to euthanize at home which can be less stressful for the animal, especially if they are very ill. They will have the comforts of home as well as providing privacy for you and anyone else present allowing you to express your emotions freely. Alternatively, you can choose the vet’s where you can bring your pets favourite blanket or toy to bring extra comfort. Vet’s will usually allow their clients as much privacy and time before and after the procedure as needed.
Deciding whether to be present during the process is a very personal decision. Cats Protection mentions being there for your pet so they can hear your voice and feel your touch, making it less stressful for them. However, it is easy to understand why some people find it too difficult or fear their own distress may upset their pet. No judgement should be attached to this decision and do what feels right for you.
Deciding in advance what you want done with your pet's remains would be useful as it’s something you may not want to think about immediately after the death. Some people decide to have their pet buried in their garden or perhaps a pet cemetery. Cremation can be done in a group or individual. You may wish the remains to be returned and placed in a meaningful urn, scatter the ashes, or bury them in one of your pets’ favourite spots. If the death is unexpected, most vets will keep the body for you for a couple of days while you decide what you want to do according to Cats Protection. Whiter suggests that Animal Healers can be of great help with ‘assisting arrangements, planning the passing, setting the environment and bringing a state of beautiful calm to all’, and vets often ‘welcome the presence of a Bereavement Healer to help facilitate a calm environment’.
To some knowing as much as possible about the procedure will help calm their fears, for others, the less they know the better. De Klerk explains that when your pet passes, you may see some things that could startle you, so being prepared for these is important. Your pet’s eyes are unlikely to fully close, and there may be a release of the bladder and bowels as the muscles relax. There may also be twitching and in some cases a deep inhaled breath can occur. The process is over very quickly and can be reassuring to know your pet is in no pain during this procedure.
TALKING TO CHILDREN
Often the passing of a family pet is the first time a child experiences death, and as De Klerk highlights, ’how the event is handled will impact their understanding about dying in the future.’ Honesty is the best policy in this situation and care must be taken when using the term ‘put to sleep’ as children may think this means the pet will wake up again.
DEALING WITH GRIEF
Losing a beloved pet can feel like one of the hardest things to go through. It’s important to look after your physical and emotional needs through this difficult time. Spend time with your loved ones and acknowledge your emotions.
Understanding and recognising the stages of grief can help you process things. The Kubler-Ross model signifies five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief doesn’t follow an order or sequence and any emotions that arise are completely valid, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Guilt is often an emotion felt after the passing of a pet, particularly about decisions made during the last phase of life. Coping with the pain of loss can often feel overwhelming, so you might want to reach out to a professional pet bereavement counsellor, grief counsellor, your vet, or GP if you are struggling.
It is possible to experience traumatic grief and/or PTSD, more so from a sudden bereavement. This means the thoughts and reactions of the grief can be more traumatic and challenging than those of general bereavement. Examples of this may include, excessive irritability, increase of insomnia/nightmares, difficulty functioning in day-to-day life, or a sense that the world as they understood it has been shattered. It is essential to seek professional help in this situation.
Borzendowski explains that it often helps children to understand the finality of death by memorializing the pet in some way. This can be ways such as flowers on a grave or planting a tree. Children should be encouraged to express their feelings creatively through drawing, writing, or talking. Another effective tool is using books related to pet loss. De Klerk highlights this is also a ‘good opportunity for you to express your feelings, so that your children know that they are not alone with their grief’.
If you have a multi pet household, the other animals may feel the loss of the missing member, especially if they were closely bonded. The sudden signs of behavioural problems following the death of the companion, such as crying, loss of appetite, lethargy or searching, can indicate grieving.
Spending time with the other pets and continuing their normal routine will hopefully comfort and settle them. There could be the possibility where your other pet may not react at all after the passing and appear to be unaffected by the loss. An article by the Blue Cross suggests, if you decide to show the body of the deceased pet to existing pets, be aware that the body may smell differently to the when the pet was alive, which may upset them and cause them to react in a different way than you expected.
REMEMBERING YOUR FRIEND
You may want to hold a funeral or memorial service for your deceased pet. This could include burying their collar, scattering their ashes, or simply taking some time to remember them. After allowing time to grieve you may feel like creating a scrapbook, photo album, or video to celebrate your pet’s life. This can be a way for you to remember all the fun and love you shared which could help with the process of moving on. Whiter suggests that an animal healer can ‘help all family members during this adjustment by honouring and releasing the sorrow and finding the way to move forward together.’
THANK YOU FOR READING
We hope this article brought some comfort, or some ideas on how to cope and prepare for the future with your pet. Thank you so much to Emma, for sharing this with us, and we hope it helps others when experiencing the loss of a pet.
Please remember, that every vet may have different procedures, so make sure to check with your vet on any of the above recommendations first.
Below you will find a bibliography of books and websites used:
‘You Can Heal Your Pet’ by Elizabeth Whiter and Dr Rohini Sathish
‘The Complete Book of Cat & Dog Health’ by Lise Hansen DVM MRCVS
‘The Natural Way for Dogs and Cats’ by Midi Fairgrieve
‘Caring for you Aging Cat’ by Janice Borzendowski
‘Old Dog Love’ by Dr. Joanna De Klerk
Grief Support. [Web Article]. Retrieved from
How to help a grieving dog. [Web Article]. Retrieved from
Dealing with Grief. [Web Article]. Retrieved from