Grief following the loss of an animal: the loss of a pet

Humans And Their Pets

Pets and their human owners often share a special bond. The attachment can be similar to, and as strong as, the feelings held for family and friends. For this reason, when a treasured pet dies, the grief experienced by its owner can be intense.

When A Pet Dies Or Is Lost

There are a number of ways in which people can lose a pet. For example,

  • a pet may die through an accident, old age, sickness, or may have to be euthanized (“put to sleep”) as the result of illness or pain
  • a pet may have to be given away or ‘put to sleep’ because an owner can no longer care for it – perhaps because of costs, or because they are moving to a place where pets are not allowed
  • sometimes a pet will be lost, go missing, or be stolen

Feelings Experienced On The Loss Of A Pet

The loss of a pet can be as devastating as the loss of a human who is important to us.

The death or loss of a beloved animal is the end of a special relationship, and can be one of the most difficult times in a person’s life. Pets give us unconditional love and support, so when we mourn their death or loss the emotional pain can be extreme.

The physical and psychological problems that people experience when someone close to them dies can also be experienced after the loss of a pet.

When grieving for a pet some people may find that they:

  • sleep and eat less
  • have nightmares
  • feel that they don’t want to go out as much as usual
  • spend a lot of time thinking about and longing for their pet
  • imagine they can see their pet, or hear it (e.g. a bark, meow, or chirp).

Immediately after a pet dies, it may be necessary to take a day or two off work or school. Some people may cry uncontrollably, talk to the pet as if it were still there and experience panic as they come to terms with the reality that the pet is gone. Shock, numbness, searching, yearning, and disorientation are normal parts of the grieving process.

The loss of a pet can trigger underlying emotions in profound ways. The loss may be a reminder of other traumatic times in the owner’s life when a close family member or friend died, and feelings of loss or abandonment may resurface.

Putting a pet “to sleep” because it was suffering can also be a difficult process. Many owners feel the decision is the right one, but still experience grief and feelings of guilt. They may continue to question whether they should have done things differently.

If a pet is lost, goes missing or is stolen, uncertainty as to their whereabouts can cause extreme distress. It can be a deeply anxious time for owners who worry whether their pet is still alive, if it is suffering and whether it will ever be returned. There may be feelings of guilt that they should have done more to keep their pet safe.

Not Everyone Will Understand

Not everyone values pets, and some people are not fond of animals at all. This can make it very difficult for them to understand the pain experienced by someone who has lost a beloved animal. There are some people who might trivialize this grief, or dismiss feelings as misplaced or silly. This can make the grieving process harder,

Remember that it does not matter if others think a pet’s death is not a cause for grief. What is important is what the pet meant to you. There is no reason to feel that your grief is not justified, or that it is strange. There is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed about grieving the loss of a beloved companion.

What Might Help After The Loss Of A Pet

Talking to someone such as a trusted friend of family member who understands the human-animal bond can be very helpful. If talking to a general practitioner, veterinarian, priest, counsellor, or psychologist, make sure they understand how important the pet was to you. Some people have also found it helpful to:

  • have a burial or memorial service for the pet and invite family and friends who will understand and be supportive
  • plant a tree or a flower in a pet’s memory. A statue or plaque may be appropriate. There are some services that specialize in pet funerals and memorials
  • write a letter, diary entry or a poem expressing thoughts of grief and sadness about the loss but also remembering the happy times and good memories spent together
  • keep a photograph of the pet in a place where it can be seen.

What About Another Pet?

Some people may decide that they are not prepared to go through the trauma of losing another pet. Others may feel quite soon that they want another pet in their life.  It is a very individual decision. Many people find that, in time, they are ready to share their life with another pet. Acquiring another pet does not mean you are replacing the one that has died as each animal is unique, and so your relationship with them will be unique.

Other Resources

When a pet dies (talking to your children)

Inormation from Kids Health about talking to children about the death of a pet
Beyond Blue

Provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.


Page last updated: 9 December, 2019