Dealing with the loss of a pet

Updated June 6, 2021

Going through the grief of losing my beautiful old cat made me understand how we shouldn’t go through this alone. To avoid thinking about the death of our pets is natural but it leaves us terribly unprepared when the moment arrives. I know these discussions will be unwelcome to many and understand if they create feelings of anger or distress, for which you have my sincerest apologies.

Here are my suggestions to help you or others through this terrible time. Remember that everyone’s individual experience of grief is different and not all these will apply to each case. And it will get better.

1. Talk to the right people and ignore the rest

When people are experiencing the grief from the loss of a pet, the hardest thing always seems to be the reactions of others. Less than 50% of Australian households have pets, and sadly even some of these pet owners don’t experience strong emotional attachments. When these people see someone struggling to come to terms with their pet’s death, their attempt to help is either “you should go and get another one” or “it’s only a dog” (or “cat”, “ferret”, “chicken”, “rabbit”, “rat”, etc). They simply don’t ‘get’ that the loss is not physical, it’s emotional.

If you talk to pet lovers, vet workers or grief counsellors, you will be among friends who can understand your pain and offer real support. Talking about it is a great help to most; if you are the person being asked to listen, you should feel very special. Don’t always try to offer solutions; often there simply aren’t any. The main thing is that you are available, understanding and patient. If you know of someone male or female who loses a pet, ask them how they are doing; acknowledge their grief instead of avoiding it.

2. Create a grieving ritual

Humans have known for millennia that the best way to cope with a loved one’s passing is to mark it with a special event. Most people find the same is true for pet loss. Here are some suggestions; tell us some of yours too.

  • Create a photo collage of your pets life. Keep it private or send it to those who loved your pet (that includes us if you want- we all love receiving these reminders of a life well-lived)
  • Post a remembrance on our Facebook page which will then also share to your friends.
  • Find your favourite pictures and get them painted or professionally enlarged and framed.
  • Have a burial ceremony with your pet’s remains or ashes. Invite your understanding friends to a memorial get-together
  • Plant a memorial bush or tree (next week we’ll talk more about this)
  • Write it all down (like I am)

3. Remember the good times, not the bad

The rituals above will help you to relive the days before your pet’s final illness and all the happy times you shared. Too often I hear people talk about their pet by the way they died rather than how they lived. Even if their life was short, it always contained happiness and love. Trying to imagine what your pet would remember of their life can help you see it from their perspective. The grief you feel is a direct result of the love you shared.

4. Let the grief happen without shame

People often feel silly when they express their grief. Everyone feels it differently. Almost everyone cries; most of us keep crying at random times for weeks afterwards. Sleeping badly, or feeling hollowed-out or empty is normal, and it is usually some time before you can be cheerful again. You just seem to be OK and some little remembrance sets it off again. They have been a part of your life in so many ways, and breaking each of these bonds hurts deeply. You may have moments when you forget they are gone, and look for them in their usual chair, call them for dinner, or wonder why they didn’t greet you at the gate. And missing the strangest things, like their hair on your clothes, the smell, or the toy you always trip over at night. Sometimes you even seem to hear them or catch a glimpse of them before you realise it’s just your mind playing tricks.

The grief should improve and the bad times get fewer and fewer with the weeks to come until you can remember your pet without the pain. If this is not happening, please consult a professional grief counsellor. Some of the worst we see is when a pet is the last living link to a departed loved one such as a husband, father or child. Often, these people tell us that losing the pet caused them to grieve again for the person and sometimes worse than the first time. Another situation that makes it far more traumatic is when people lose their pets suddenly, or when they are unable to be there to say goodbye.

5. Don’t feel guilt or blame others

Almost all unexpected deaths could have been prevented or delayed if things had gone differently. It’s too easy to get into ‘what if’ scenarios where you imagine either yourself or others being responsible for what happened. Everyone forgets to latch a gate or put away the poison or check for snakes at some stage, and mostly we get away with it. Sometimes, however, luck is against us. The same goes for illnesses; you may think ‘if only I’d gone to the vet sooner’ but hindsight is easy and we usually don’t think of the worst thing all the time. And who knows if early treatment would have made any difference. No pet is treated perfectly all the time, and no-one is perfect themself.

6. Let children grieve their own way

Although this is a huge generalisation that will be wrong at times, most children up to their teenage years cope remarkably well with pet loss. Before the event, the parents are often most concerned about the effect on the children. Afterwards, adults are the usually the ones suffering the most, and the kids, while certainly experiencing grief, recover well. Often they are terribly upset, and yet in five minutes can be playing as if nothing has happened.

The message is: accept whatever happens. Don’t judge your children harshly if they seem unfazed, or ask for a new pet straight away. Similarly, be prepared for unpredictable manifestations of grief as kids don’t know how they are expected to behave. We have some children’s books which deal with this difficult time that you are welcome to borrow.

Some final advice from experience: kids do better if we tell it to them straight up. They are very literal so avoid euphemisms like ‘gone to a farm’, ‘put to sleep’, ‘lost’ (like we’re using here) or white lies about disappearing or dying at the vet. They need to hear the unvarnished truth, and this will cause some very frank questions which you may find hard to answer. In the long run, they’ll be better off this way, and they’ve also had a valuable lesson about dealing with loss.

7. Don’t think about a new pet until you are ready

I have seen situations where owners have gone out and got a new pet the next day, and others that never recover fully enough from losing a pet to get another. The vast majority of pet owners are between these two poles but everyone has their own path to follow. The best thing to do is not think about it; when the time comes, you will start thinking about it naturally.

Sometimes, the home environment may force the decision; again, let be whatever will be. You may have a child who cries him or herself to sleep each night, or a second animal who was strongly attached to the one lost. In each case, a quick acquisition may be necessary, if not ideal. No-one is trying to replace a pet and a change in sex, breed and colour for the newcomer can make it easier to feel that way.

If you are older or unwell, an animal is a great companion but you may be worried your new pet will outlast you. If you can, make a firm arrangement with a friend or family member who can guarantee continued care, and leave an amount in your will to cover the costs.

I wish I could make this part of having pets go away. It can seem unbearable to lose them at times but the odds are that we will outlive them. Aren’t they lucky to be able to live always in the moment and not dwell on the past or the future. If only we could learn to do the same. I for one feel that after the pain fades, the echoes of their beautiful lives live on.

In memory of The Puss and all the beloved pets we have had the honour to meet. March 1997 to 18 September 2014

Related: Talking about pet euthanasia | Home burial and cremation options

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

13 Replies to “Dealing with the loss of a pet”

  1. Thank you, kind soul, for your sensitive, open, and thoughtful approach to this difficult part of life.

  2. Thank you Andrew for this advice. I kept telling myself ‘what if’ but reading this article has helped me understand that luck is not always on our side. I lost my 7 month old cat Jasper. He would cuddle with me at night for bedtime and everything reminds me of him. Until we meet again Jasper. I love you papito.

  3. What you have written has been from the heart, and life experiences.
    It was written in memory of your kitty
    The Puss.
    We love them without measure,
    and when they leave, they take with them a little piece of our heart.
    But they also leave a little piece of their loving heart, with us , in a beautiful exchange.
    ❤️ ❤️

  4. To all pet lovers-you WILL meet your pet again as I believe in a divine creator and a soul that continues on after physical death -animals have souls too and are also spiritual beings that were created for a reason…..Think about it and pray and you will receive answers,,

  5. So good all comments are we lost our chihuahua x 2 months ago -17 never sick but then suddenly liver cancer spread we had to let him go/as we all know the pain was nearly unbearable and I’m still grieving and can’t except that he’s gone he was our Angel such a good soul/God bless all animal lovers espesh dogs/cheers George

  6. Thank you Andrew for this fabulous website which I found a couple of days ago. Today my 19 year old cat Tom had to be euthanased due to kidney disease. I have only had him for a year and a half, he belonged to Dad who passed away in Jan 2018.

    Your pages have helped immensely this week. I returned to them today to read this section on grieving and found your words about a pet being the last living link to a deceased father. The cat Tom, died quite suddenly too. My relationship with Dad was somewhat fraught and at first I did not like his cat!

    But I grew to love that cat so much – he had an amazing ginger Harris Tweed pelt, he was very vocal and because he had lived alone with Dad, he ‘conversed’ like him. Tom was a huge comfort after Dad’s death, and a very ‘companionable’ cat
    who wanted to know where you were and to hang out there too.

    Thanks again and hugs to all animal lovers grieving out there.

  7. I’m glad I came across your post. I recently lost my beloved Old English Sheepdog whom I had for 16 and half tears. I loved her more than life itself. It’s been 18 months but I still cry every day. She was my baby, she lived inside, she ate with me, she slept with me, I took her to see Santa and she came everywhere with me. She was the gentlest and most obedient girl ever – not a bad bone in her body. She would fall asleep when I groomed her. I miss her more than I’ve ever missed anyone who has passed. I suppose it’s my own fault for treating her like a child and not like a dog. I did everything dog trainers tell you not to. She was never sick but did have a bit of arthritis toward the end. I hope my tears will stop soon although I’ll always miss her. Thank you Dr Andrew.

  8. I’m very grateful I stumbled across your blog the day after we had put our beloved bunny to sleep. We were inconsolable not just from missing her but the guilt in having to make that decision (was it too soon? What could we have done differently? We should have spent more time with her) was weighing down. This blog and “When its time for euthanasia” helped me a lot to understand and process the facts and the empathetic words helped because everything we were feeling was right there and rang true.

  9. Thank you Andrew. Your article has really helped me. I lost my beloved dog Jess two months ago and I read and reread what you are saying and it makes so much sense. More than that, you have written with so much empathy and I thank you for sharing your own loss. It is not easy but please know that your article has made a difference to me and other people who will go through or are going through this very difficult time.

  10. Thank you, Andrew, for your very helpful advice. It is equally applicable to the loss of a close human.

  11. There another group of dogs who need consideration. Adopted dogs.
    We adopted a lost dog and have no real idea how old she is, just a guesstimate. She wasn’t microchipped when found in poor condition. She chipped now!
    We can’t tell ourselves she’s ‘only about 10’ when she may be more than that. Our vet says she’s about 10 or 11 or thereabouts.
    I will never be ready to part with this little treasure. I feel sad thinking about it. When our last dog died a number of years ago, I was a mess. I still see her shadow on the wall. We said ‘no more dogs. It breaks your heart when they die.’ But we needed to have a dog in our lives, we always had one or two. We have made contingency plans should she outlive us. We adore her. She has us well trained.

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