8 Things To Consider When Dealing with a Pet’s Death

When I was asked to write this article on how to cope with the death of a pet, I approached it as I usually do with such assignments: I dove into the research. Unlike other topics, however, this time I immediately felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I recalled the nearly dozen furry companions that have blessed my life and whom I had to let go at some point.

But the tears were mostly ones of happiness with a sprinkling of sadness. I cannot imagine not sharing my life with cats and dogs. And although losing a furry, feathered, or finned companion is difficult and a highly individual and emotional experience, there are ways to manage, embrace, and live through the pain to be a pet parent yet again, another day.

Grieving a pet companion is natural. For many people, in fact, the death of a pet can be more difficult to handle than that of a person. According to a report in the journal Society & Animals, a review of numerous studies found that the death of a companion animal can be “just as devastating as the loss of a human significant other.”

This isn’t surprising; a 1988 study found that “95% of companion animal guardians regarded their pets as friends.” Indeed, the years spent with animal companions are often described as ones of joy, comfort, nonjudgment, and unconditional love. As someone I know well often says, “They miss you when you’re gone, are glad to see you when you get home, console you when you’re blue, and never ask for the car keys.”

How you feel when your pet has died can be influenced by several factors, including how long you shared your lives, the quantity and quality of time you spent together, and how the pet passed—suddenly/unexpectedly (e.g., an accident), after an illness, or having to be euthanized because of illness or quality of life issues. However, the grief is still personal and challenging, regardless of the circumstances.

Dealing with the death of a pet

Here are some thoughts to consider when dealing with the death of a pet.

1. Deciding when to euthanize. If you have an ill or elderly pet, the question of euthanization often arises. Although your vet can provide you with medical information about your companion, only you and your family can judge quality of life. The critical thing to remember here is to be unselfish and honest. Prolonging your pet’s suffering in order to avoid your own is harmful to both you and your companion. While deciding to euthanize a pet is never easy, it can be the ultimate act of love when quality of life has seriously deteriorated.

2. Facing a range of emotions. The five stages of grief originally proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book Of Death and Dying in 1969 are felt by people who suffer the loss of a person or a pet. Along with sadness, you can experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These are normal!

3. Finding someone to talk to. Your family and friends may sympathize and provide lots of support, but sometimes people need more. That’s when you might want to share your feelings with a bereavement group. A number of organizations offer grief counseling or support groups for individuals who have lost a pet. Also check with your veterinarian, the Humane Society, or ASPCA in your area for such groups.

4. Handling the remains. When your companion dies, you are faced with how to deal with the remains. Veterinarians typically can handle the details for you, including cremation and returning the ashes to you (which means you can keep them at home or scatter them as you please), or simply disposing of the body. In both cases, there is a charge. Some animal shelters will handle pet remains, also for a fee.

If you own a home and there are no local restrictions concerning pet burial on personal property, you can choose to bury your pet at home. Another alternative is going to a pet cemetery, which have varying fees. It is recommended that you plan ahead for the day when your beloved companion will need a final resting place, so that you will not need to make a hasty decision in the middle of your grief.

Read more about how to bury your pet naturally

5. Telling your children.
How you explain the death of a pet to children and the language you use depends on the age and ability of the child to comprehend what death is, which may be greater than you realize. Honesty is critical. Using phrases such as “put to sleep” or “went away” can confuse or frighten young children who may then equate sleep with death or going away (as when a parent leaves for work or a trip) with never coming back.

Children should be allowed to grieve with tears, sadness, and questions and not be ridiculed for their feelings. The entire family should discuss how they feel about the passing of the pet and how they want to deal with it (see “Honoring your pet’s memory” below).

6. Honoring your pet’s memory.
There are scores of ways to honor the memory of your companion, both privately and publicly. You could assembly a scrapbook (physical or online), construct an altar, donate to an animal shelter in his/her name, hold a memorial service, write stories or poems about your pet, or volunteer with an animal organization, for example. Many people experience much solace by expressing themselves in these ways. If you have children, it’s especially important for them to contribute to and perhaps even plan a memorial service or other way to honor your pet’s memory.

7. Dealing with remaining pets. If you have other pets in the house, you can expect them to respond to the disappearance of their dead companion as well. Pets grieve in various ways, depending on the strength of the bond they shared. A vet once recommended to me that my three remaining cats be allowed to “visit” (see and sniff) with a feline companion who needed to be euthanized (at home) because of a terminal disease, because this would help them realize their friend was gone. Naturally, this is not an option in many circumstances, but one that can be considered.

Remaining pets should be watched carefully and given more attention and love during their grieving time. They can be a great comfort to you as well. Although getting a new pet soon after the death may seem like a good idea, your surviving companions may need a lot of time to acclimate to the newcomer, so be prepared.

8. Getting a new pet. Acquiring a new pet while you and your family are fresh with grief generally is not recommended since there is a tendency to look at the new addition as a replacement or to compare the new arrival with the companion you lost. Deciding to welcome a new pet into your home should come when you are ready to establish a completely new relationship and move ahead.

When you do bring home a new pet, he or she should be given a name unlike that of the pet you lost. It’s also recommended you not get a pet who looks like the former companion because you will be more tempted to compare them. These suggestions are especially important if you have young children, who may resent the new pet for replacing the old one.

Read about 11 outstanding ways animals are good for our health

Loss is a fact of life. The love, lessons, and comfort shared with pet companions—plus the fact that you have provided a home for an animal who might otherwise have none-- far outweigh the sadness.

Pet loss. www.pet-loss.net
Planchon LA et al. Death of a companion cat or dog and human bereavement: psychosocial variables. Society & Animals 2002; 10:1
Stallones L et al. Attachment to companion animals among older pet owners. Anthrozoos 1988; 2:118-24

By Deborah Mitchell| July 20, 2016
Categories:  Nest

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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