Grief Following the Loss of a Beloved Pet

The Pain of Loss

“This is the most terrible pain I have ever had and I feel like I will never be the same person I was before my pet passed.  It felt like someone ripped my heart out of my chest when he died and a scream came out of me that was from some place unknown. I feel like I cannot go on and have lost my best friend who loved me without conditions or expectations.”  — Bereaved pet owner

Becoming attached to beloved animal companions causes us to experience both joy and pain.  The bonds we develop with pets can be as deep, and often deeper than, those formed with other people. “With a pet,” said one bereaved pet owner, “you have a daily companion…. Animals bring such warmth of the soul. It’s a presence that’s always by your side.”            

When a beloved pet dies, people may grieve more intensely than they would for the loss of a beloved human. Pet loss grief is unique because pets give people something humans are not always able to provide – unconditional love and nurturance. 

“I think just living alone he was my best friend and companion. His loyalty was unwavering. I cry every day when I drive home as he will not be there to greet me. I preferred taking him on outings over people. He loved to go wherever I went.”

“I had her in my life for a reason. She taught me unconditional love.”

Normal and Natural Feelings Following the Loss of a Pet 

Intense Grief

People are often surprised at how intense and overwhelming their feelings are.  The words they use to describe their loss reflect the anguish they experience. 

“This has been a heart-wrenching experience. My cat just passed two days ago.  I cry a hundred times a day and will never be the same. My heart feels empty right now and aches so badly. I miss her so, so much that it hurts my soul. I am so devastated.  This is by far, the most difficult thing I have ever faced.” 

Many pet guardians describe their beloved animal companions as family members, soul mates, and best friends – they share daily interactions and rituals. For many people, “their pet was always there for them.” Losing a best friend is painful, devastating,  and heart wrenching. One person described missing her dog so much that it was “like a knife in her heart.” These feelings are common and expected responses to grief.  Bereaved pet guardians have a right to these intense feelings as the depth of their loss is great – it is very important to allow oneself to express these feelings.

Numbness/Shock

When death comes to a beloved pet, it can seem like a shock.  People describe feeling like they are in a daze or “in a fog.” Shock and disbelief are common when people try to understand what has happened to their pet and what kind of future they can have without their beloved pet. Feelings of disbelief, shock, and numbness protect us from feeling the pain of grief all at once.

Being  “dazed” or “numb” gives people time to gradually comprehend the death.

Anger

Anger is a common feeling and it can be directed at many things and people – the disease that caused the death, family, friends, co-workers, veterinarians and the veterinary staff.  Anger may be felt towards people (e.g., friends, co-workers) who don’t understand the profound loss.  Insensitive statements such as, “ it was just a dog” or “what’s the big deal, there are lots of cats who need homes” —- comments often directed to those in grief —- can result in anger and feeling misunderstood and unsupported.

Bereaved pet owners may also be angry at the veterinarian because of perceived veterinary incompetence.  In addition, anger can be directed towards God for letting this happen. As expressed by one bereaved pet guardian: “I have lost total faith in GOD…how could GOD make something that NEVER NEVER did anything wrong suffer and die at such a young age?”

 Guilt  

Guilt may occur if pet owners feel responsible for the pet’s death.  People may blame themselves because they perceive it is something they did or did not do that may have lead to their pet’s death.  A common source of guilt is euthanasia. Sage advice with regard to guilt has been shared by Father Paul Keenan (2008) who states:

“It is important to acknowledge our feelings of guilt and then let go of them…. We all do things that later we regret.  It makes no sense to clutter up the loving relationship we have had with our animals by giving in to relentless remorse. In life, they love us unconditionally, and one of the things that animals…can teach us is to love ourselves unconditionally as well.”

Coping with pet loss: Support and Resources

Understand that the loss of a beloved pet is a significant loss, and intense grief is normal. The more one loves someone, the more it is going to hurt when they are gone.

People who do not understand and appreciate the pet-human connection may not understand your pain and grief.  Seek out supportive situations:

  • Pet loss support group
  • Books on pet loss
  • Websites
  • Pet loss hot lines
  • Counseling
  • Spiritual resources

It takes times to fully absorb the impact of such a major loss. You never stop missing your beloved pet, but the pain eases after time and allows you to go on.

Wendy Packman 2011

Wendy Packman

More Articles Written by Wendy

Wendy Packman, JD, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Palo Alto University( PAU) and holds clinical appointments at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford University. She is the Director of the Joint JD-PhD Program in Psychology and Law at PAU and Golden Gate University Law School. She is admitted to the State Bar of California and is a licensed psychologist in California. Dr. Packman received her clinical training at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Judge Baker Children’s Center, and the Division of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics, UCSF. Her research interests and publications include studies of the psychological effects of bone marrow transplant on donor and non-donor siblings, psychological interventions for siblings of cancer patients, and psychological issues faced by children and young adults with inborn errors of metabolism. In the area of psychology and the law, research interests include ethical and legal issues in child and pediatric psychology, risk management with suicidal patients and malpractice. Dr. Packman has studied, presented and written extensively on sibling bereavement and continuing bonds, the impact of a child’s death on parents, and the psychological sequellae of pet loss. She is the primary investigator of an international cross-cultural study examining the continuing impact of a pet’s death and she is a co-investigator exploring the use of continuing bonds in pet loss.

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  • Vanessa Daniel says:

    Dear Wendy,

    Thank you for sharing this article about losing our beloved pets. I lost my dog two years ago, and my mom four years ago. I feel like I have done a lot of grief work in regards to my mother. But, I feel like I’ve hardly done anything to process and heal over losing my dog. I am glad I am more conscious of that. Now, I will also make the time to work through the sadness and pain by using some of the support systems you mentioned.

    Thank you, again!!

    Vanessa Daniel
    vanessa.peaceofmind@gmail.com
    http://www.inmemorynote.com/

  • Daphna Simpson says:

    I love my pets and miss them when they are gone. I think about them and their antics. But it is nothing like the pain of losing my son.

  • Brent Atwater says:

    Wendy,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Please consider Pet animal reincarnation as a new perspective for opening hope for pet loss grief support resources. I’ve researched pet reincarantion for over 16+ years and have published 4 books with the results.
    Thank you for all your do to help others.

  • Bonnie Goodman says:

    Hi Wendy, Thank you for writing this article.

    I’m a pet grief counselor with a private practice in Palo Alto. It would be nice to meet you sometime if you are interested. bonniemgoodman@gmail.com

  • Larissa says:

    Thanks for your post, my 3 year old red dobbie got hit by a car last week and it is the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. I love him so much and can’t stop thinking about the huge void I’ve got in my heart and soul. My husband is helping me throuh this but it’s such a drowining feeling. We’ve been trying to get pregnant since we got Kato as a puppy and he’s been our baby throughout the whole process. I just miss him so much and don’t know what to do. I sit and cry and am so depressed. He was my best friend, I used to kiss and hug him 100 times a day. I just hope it starts to get better soon. Thank you

  • Barbara says:

    Sabrina, my lilac point siamese died on 3oct2011. I am so lonely for her I can hardly stand it. She would have been 20 this Dec 30th. I have feelings of guilt for all the time she spent alone when I was on trips this past year. About 12months ago, she had her first urinary tract infection that I thought was going to be the end of her. The vet diagnosed the infection treating her with antibiotics, and we started subcutaneous fluids. She made an amazing recovery. I was to give her the extra fluids 2x a week, but became lax as she seemed to be doing so well, and she hated the procedure. About a month ago, she started showing signs of failing again. I keep second guessing myself, if I had started the fluids sooner would she still be here. She died in my arms on our deck, wrapped in a blanket with her face in sunlight. I seem to have developed insomnia and think of all the nights she spent alone wondering when I or my husband would get home. The grief just overwhelms me sometimes and can come on seemingly out of nowhere. I really do hope there is a rainbow bridge.

  • Angela says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I lost my beloved Jester kitty 5 days ago and the pain is horrible. He was 18 1/2 years old. People tell me “He had a wonderful long life with you” but I wanted much more time with him. Like the comment above, I was giving my Jester fluids for kidney failure, every other day for the past 6 months. He perked up amazingly well at first but got slow again the past couple of weeks until he suddenly declined instantly and died literally seconds from an emergency vet. I still beat myself up with guilt. I should have gotten him to the vet faster. I should have drove faster. I should have had a better vet. What if something they did or didn’t do allowed him to die? Logically, I know that his kidneys were failing and we were lucky to have this extra 6 months together. I spent over $2,000 within two months this summer on all of the initial vet visits and testing when they first diagnosed him. I know I did my very best in every way but still… it hurts so bad. He was my constant companion, literally following me everywhere and climbing into my lap when I sat down. I spent every possible moment I could with him these past six months and cried many, many times at the thought of not having him there with me but nothing could have ever prepared me for the extent of this pain.

    You are right about the unconditional love. Jester went through boyfriends, a husband, many moves and many job changes with me. I had him from 23 years old to a month shy of 42 years old and he was always there for me through it all, helping me get through the bad times and always there to share my joys. He meant (still means) more to me than any person ever has. I feel different, like I will never be the same again, and my life feels so much poorer without Jester beside me.

  • Amanda says:

    I lost my 4 almost 5 year old shihtzu yesterday named Lilo and I can tell you that the pain is overwhelming. Its so hard to sleep, eat, and even to smile. Eveywhere I look I see her in her toys, food bowls, her bed, my bed, her collar and leash etc. We have a lab/shephard that knows she is gone and its so hard to look at him right now because I just want my little Lilo back home with me. She has never been ill but the past couple of weeks she started to have symptoms of being sick. Her health declined so rapidly that Im still in shock. Just 4 days ago she seemed like she was coming back around to her old self. She died at the vets office because she was having some test done. My husband was the last person to hold her and I was the last person to kiss and hug her….I told her I loved her and I would pick her up in a few hours…gave her a hug and a kiss and I left her favorite blankie and toy with her then a few hours later I got the phone call I didnt want to get. I know that she is in heaven with my grandmother and grandfather and all my childhood pets having a blast and Im trying so hard to be strong and to try and be happy because she hated to see mommy cry but this is so hard. I lost my best friend, my child, and my companion for life. A piece of my heart went to heaven with her. She got the funeral of a princess…hot pink box with her bed, blankie, 2 of her favorite toys, and my favorite teddy bear that my husband gave me that I slept with everynight. I just want her to know that I love her and miss her and I always will..I want her to be happy and have fun in heaven and I dont want her to be burdened with my sorrow even though I know she would just jump in my lap, lick me and lay on my chest to make me feel better! I just wish I had a sign to know that she is ok and happy now! Mommy, daddy, grandma and granddaddy love you and we miss you so much little Lilo…you will always be in our hearts and in our lives forever. There will never be another furry baby like you, you were very special to everybody that knew you and you always will be. We love you and miss you baby! Have fun in heaven and dont be to spoiled up there 🙂

  • Susan Chandler says:

    I lost my sweet and beautiful Coonhound on Monday and I am just devastated. The house feels absolutely empty right now and I am sure that she was the heart and warmth of my household. I have always had dogs in my life but Ginger was my “soul mate” dog. We saw each other at the pound and there was an instant connection. I knew the moment our eyes connected that she would be going home with me. She was 7 months old at the time. It is not like she was without issues. Many shelter dogs have had some reason for being put up for adoption. But, she was smart, we established the head of the household/dominance issue and we began to enjoy a wonderful relationship. Our understanding of each other grew over the years and it was almost as if we could read each other’s minds. She learned all of the rules quickly and was easily diverted from mischevious behavior. She was a fantastic mouser—better than any cat I have known. She loved riding in the truck and she loved going on long walks. She used to be a great little camping buddy and she was always loving and attentive.

    I have been crying for 3 days now and feel like the tears will never dry up. I am sure I will have another dog someday but I can’t imagine having the deep connection that Gin and I shared. My heart feels like it is breaking. I loved her so much and miss her intensely.

    What a special gift she gave me. I hope there is a doggy heaven and that she is there romping through the woods and mousing intently. I will always love her and keep her in my heart.

    Love,
    Your doggy mom

  • Amy says:

    I just lost my pet turtle of 18 years. I’m heart broken!! I was so upset I had to have my husband bury him and now I can’t even look at the spot in the back yard without tearing up. His name was General and I grew up with him always there. I know he wasn’t cuddly like a cat or dog but I loved him just the same. I just feel so bad and had and emotional couple of days. I was away and my husband was watching over the house and General. The day I was flying back into town he called and told me the turtle was missing! I freaked out and called everybody I could to go help him look. The next day with me back in town I went on the hunt and put up posters. As luck would have it someone called after spotting him and after a lot of people talking and driving to a canal I found him again!!! I was soo over joyed!! I never thought after everything I would ever see him again. I was so grateful I burst into tears when I held him. Then I saw that while on his journey he was attacked and both her poor back legs were missing. I took him to a vet and he went through surgery to only die the next day. I just wish he had made it. It was so hard to let him go….
    I will never forget my handsome, smart and sweet little General as long as I live!!! Rip General and I love and miss you.
    Amy

  • Penni Myrick says:

    My baby was killed Monday 8/8/16 and I feel empty and my heart is broken, and no one cares in fact they feel I’m after attention by crying for my sweet boy who was my constant companion he ate from my plate and drank from my cup. The loss is so complete and I don’t know if I even want to go on.I t don’t understand why he was taken when he was needed and loved so dearly yet many unwanted dogs are going to die of old age. I want and need my baby.