Pet Bereavement

Pete Wedderburn
5th February 2020 - 3 min read

Everyone who keeps pets needs to deal with the death of an animal at some stage in their life.  Pets have short lives compared to humans: a dog might live for fourteen years, and a cat a few years longer. Most people expect to be sad when their pet dies, but the intensity of the grief often takes people by surprise. When you return home from the final visit to the vet, there’s complete silence. The usual friendly greeting from  your pet has gone – forever.  When you look at your pet’s normal sleeping place, it’s empty, never again to be filled by the reassuring shape of your pet. Pets become close friends, and when they die, they are often deeply missed. Some people seem to manage to cope with the loss easily, but for some individuals, the grief can affect them as seriously as if a close human member of their family has died.

And it’s important to remember that this sense of loss isn’t always directly connected to a pet dying: there are many other times when people find themselves suddenly with an absence in their lives. A pet may just go missing, they may be stolen, a couple may separate with one person taking the pet: bereavement comes in many sad forms.

One unique feature of losing a pet is that your friends and colleagues may not seem to understand what you are going through. If a human friend or family member dies, people are quick to sympathise and to offer support. Somehow society finds it difficult to appreciate the depth of grief that is sometimes felt when a pet dies. Friends say kind words when they hear the news, but after the first day, owners are expected to be back to normal. In fact, it can take days or weeks to get over the emotional upset, and some people may even feel tearful talking about their former pets years later. For people who are deeply upset, it can be worth seeking out people who do understand, either amongst your own friends who are pet lovers, or by contacting a group set up to offer support for pet bereavement.

An additional aspect that is difficult is that pet owners often have to choose the time and place of their pet’s death.  Euthanasia is the only kind option for an elderly, failing pet, but it’s sometimes difficult to know the correct moment. Vets do their best to help owners reach the decision in a clear, objective way. When an older animal is no longer enjoying life, and there is no chance of recovery, then it’s an act of kindness to “let them go”. The procedure is carried out quietly and painlessly by giving an overdose of anaesthetic.  Animals don’t know what’s happening, so they have no fear. They are surrounded by their favourite people, and they gradually drift to sleep. It is the ideal answer, but it’s still difficult to go through. 

Once a pet has died, you have to face the awkward practical issue of what to do with the body. Many people don’t have the space or the desire to bury their pets in their garden, so cremation has become the standard choice in most cases. You can choose to have your pet’s ashes returned for you, in an urn or a small casket.

After losing a pet, some people are so upset that they decide that they can never have a pet again. Others find that another pet helps them get over their sadness. Everyone is different: there are no rules. 

The important message to remember is that everything stops: like us, animals always die. If you can give a pet a healthy, happy life, there’s much to be thankful for. Their death at the end is natural, and it’s part of the process. It’s easy to say these things, but the sad truth is this: the death of a pet is always going to be an upsetting time.