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, and many people see their pet as a member of the family.

When A Pet Dies Or Is Lost

There are a number of ways in which a pet can die or be lost:

  • a pet may die through an accident, old age, sickness, or may have had to be euthanized (“put to sleep”). Sometimes a pet may have to have been given away or ‘put to sleep’ because an owner can no longer care for it – perhaps unable to afford it, or because of a move 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 Your 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.

For some people, their pets are their substitute children. Similarly, many people live alone and their pets become their family. In these situations, the death or loss of a ‘fur-child’ or ‘feather-child’ can be as emotional as the voice left after the death or loss of a human child. Thus, the physical and psychological problems that people experience when a human dies can also be experienced when a pet dies.

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

  • sleep and eat less
  • have nightmares
  • feel that you don’t want to go out as much as usual
  • spend a lot of time thinking about and longing for your pet

Some people imagine that they can see their pet, or hear it bark or meow. 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 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. For example the loss may be a reminder of other traumatic times in life when a close family member or friend died. Feelings of loss or abandonment may resurface.

Putting a pet ‘to sleep’ because it was suffering may have been the ‘right’ decision, but it may still involve grief and guilt – “Did I do the right thing?” “Did my pet suffer?”

If a pet is lost, goes missing or is stolen, the uncertainty can cause extreme distress. It’s possible the pet may have died, but maybe it’s still alive. Perhaps the pet has been found but it is impossible to know if the people are caring for it, or abusing it. This grief may be punctuated with hope that the animal will be found or returned. There may be feelings of guilt: “What could I have done to prevent this?”

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 their beloved animal. There are some people who might trivialize the grief or dismiss feelings as misplaced or silly. This can make the grieving process harder,

Remember that it does not matter if other’s think a pet’s death is not a cause for grief. What is important is what the pet meant to someone. There is no reason to feel that grief is not justified or that it is strange. There is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed about grieving over the loss of a loved pet and companion – it is quite ok to feel this way.

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. 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 memory of the dead pet. A statue or plaque may be appropriate. There are some services that specialize in pet funerals and memorials
  • write a letter, or a diary entry or a poem expressing not only thoughts of grief and sadness but also remembering all the happy times and good memories of the pet
  • 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 that they want another pet in their life – it’s an 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.

Other Resources

When a pet dies (talking to your children)
Beyond Blue


Page last updated: 9 December, 2019