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Coping with the loss of a pet

The essentials

  • Coping with the loss of a pet is never easy — Much like losing a human family member, the death of a pet is a painful experience that triggers grief, sorrow, and confusion.
  • The grieving process is different for everyone — Everyone experiences different emotions at different times throughout the grieving process, but all forms of grief are valid and should be met with respect and compassion.
  • Focus on your health to help you through the pain — Maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise routine, and strong support system of friends and family takes your mind off the loss and may  make you feel better.
  • You will feel better — It may not feel like it now, but the initial pain of losing your pet will pass over time.

If you ask people what brings them the most joy in life, many will point to their children or their pets. According to data from the 2021 to 2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, as many as 90.5 million families in the U.S. (or 70% of all U.S. households) own a dog, cat, or other form of animal companion. Pets are there to greet us when we wake up, give us unconditional love and emotional support when we’re feeling down, and snuggle up on the couch with when the day is done. Losing a beloved pet can leave a big impact on their owners. Luckily, we have some advice on coping with the loss of a pet.

Your pet was a member of the family

Pets are often a lot more than “just” a dog or cat to their owners. To many, they’re full-fledged members of the family. When a person loses a pet they have a strong emotional bond with, they can leave behind a void that feels impossible to fill. Feelings of grief, sadness, and even frustration are all normal parts of the grieving process. Some people may even feel the loss of a beloved pet more deeply than that of a human in their lives. These feelings are valid. No two people grieve the same, and what triggers you may be easier to handle for a family member (and vice versa). The important thing is to hear everyone out and hold space for their feelings as you process the loss.

The grief process

Whether your pet’s death was sudden and unexpected or the result of euthanasia, there’s no “right” way to grieve for them. The grieving process, and all the feelings it brings up, will be different for every member of your family. While some people start to feel better in a matter of weeks or months, it can take others years to fully get over the loss. Some people describe their grief as coming in “waves,” a series of recurring lows that are usually deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter as time goes by. The level of grief a person experiences also depends on factors like their age and personality, the age of their pet, and the circumstances of their death.

Coping with the loss of a pet

The pain and sorrow that come with losing a pet don’t go away over night. While your grieving process is unique to you, there are a few things everyone can do to help themselves heal as more time passes.

  • Acknowledge your pain. Feeling sad, shocked, and lonely after a pet passes away is totally normal. Some people suppress these feelings out of shame or embarrassment, but it’s important to remember that grieving does not make you weak. Allow your feelings to surface and meet them with patience and understanding. You’ll often find that you’re able to process them a lot quicker than you would just by bottling them up.
  • Write your feelings down. Journaling about your grief can be a great way to vent, since it allows you to place your emotions onto a physical space outside your head. Similarly, you can consider channeling your grief into creative endeavors like poetry, music, and short stories.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to just “get over it” — including yourself. Only you can feel your grief, and you should allow yourself to feel the full weight of it without embarrassment or judgment. If you need to cry, cry. Laugh if you feel like laughing. And don’t guilt yourself when you do feel ready to move on.
  • Reach out to others who have lost pets. Online message boards, social media forums, pet loss hotlines, and local pet loss support groups are all powerful tools for processing grief. Many people find that owners who have experienced the loss of a pet before tend to be more sympathetic to their feelings than those who haven’t.
  • Create a memorial for your pet. Honor your pet’s legacy by putting all your favorite pictures of them together in a scrapbook or planting a tree for them out in the yard. Physical memorials are the easiest way to preserve your pet’s memory, and they can help you feel like your pet is still with you in spirit. Some people even find that holding a small funeral or memorial service helps them openly express their grief.
  • Practice self-care and self-love. The intense emotions that come with mourning can make even small tasks feel like big to-dos. Make sure your physical and emotional needs are being met by eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep, and spending time with the people in your support circle. Nothing will ever be able to replace your pet, but taking care of these essentials will go a long way towards keeping you healthy and boosting your mood.
  • If you have other pets, try to maintain your daily routines. Humans aren’t the only ones who grieve. Surviving pets can also experience loss, anxiety, and depression when another pet in the house passes on, or become distressed if they see their owners going through intense grief. Consider giving your other pets a little extra exercise or play time in the wake of a pet death. Not only will this help them release endorphins and boost their mood, but it’ll also get you out of the house and your mind off the grief (at least temporarily).
  • Seek professional help if your grief continues to feel overwhelming. Some people find that consulting a mental health professional like a therapist provides them with the best setting to vent their feelings. Professionals can also evaluate you for chronic conditions like anxiety and depression.

Helping children cope with the loss of a pet

Since many children have little to no experience dealing with death, the loss of a pet may be especially difficult for them. Unsure of where to direct their emotions, children may blame themselves, their parents, or the vet for not being able to save the pet. Kids experiencing grief may also feel guilt, depression, and fear for the lives of their remaining loved ones. While losing a pet is often a traumatic experience for a child, parents can use the opportunity to teach their children about death and help them develop healthy coping skills for grief and emotional pain. Try things like:

  • Let your child see you express your own grief. If you’re feeling distraught about your pet’s passing, don’t hide it from your children. Be open with your emotions. Cry in front of them if you feel like crying. This will teach them that it’s okay to express their feelings openly and without shame. If you’re not feeling outwardly emotional about your pet’s passing, that’s okay, too. Just make sure to respect your kids’ grief and be available for them to talk to.
  • Give them lots of reassurance, and be honest with them about death. Death tends to raise lots of questions and fears in children. If you feel that your child is old enough to understand death and the dying process, you may want to use this opportunity to help explain it to them. Reassure them that their pet’s death isn’t their fault, and that no one else around them is going to die just because their pet did.
  • Let them keep mementos of their pet. Some vets offer to give families hair clippings and plaster casts of their pet’s paw prints after they’ve passed. Mementos like these can give your kids some comfort by reminding them that their beloved pet isn’t totally gone.
  • Don’t rush out to get your children a “replacement” pet. It’s important to give your kids all the time they need to process this loss before introducing them to a new member of the family. Getting a new pet too quickly may cause some children to feel like they’re being unfaithful to their old pet. It can also contribute to an unhealthy belief that death and grief can be fixed simply by replacing the ones we love.

Helping seniors with the loss of a pet

The death of a pet can also affect retired seniors more than some young adults, particularly those that don’t have large social circles or are unable to leave the house easily. Pets provide the sole source of companionship to many seniors who live alone, and caring for their pets provides many of these seniors with a sense of purpose and self-worth. In the wake of a pet’s death, seniors can feel empty, lost, and start to fear for their own impending death. To make matters worse, many seniors can’t just decide to get a new pet, as they risk the new pet outliving them and ending up without a home.

If you’re a senior pet owner, you can cope with the loss of your pet by doing things like:

  • Stay in touch with friends and family. To make up for the companionship they used to get from their pet, grieving seniors should try to spend time with at least one person every day. Making new memories with your friends and family will not only deepen your bonds with them, it’ll also get your mind off the pain.
  • Keep yourself healthy through diet and exercise. Pets help many seniors stay active by forcing them to get out of the house for daily walks and play sessions. When a senior loses their pet, they may feel depressed, lethargic, and stop going out as much. While these feelings are all normal parts of the grieving process, it’s important that grieving seniors do their best to maintain a regular exercise regimen to keep their immune systems up and release mood-boosting endorphins into their bodies.
  • Find a new spark. If caring for your pet took up a large chunk of a senior’s time each day, their loss can leave a huge hole in their routines. Many people in grief find that taking up a hobby helps them fill this time and get over the loss. Volunteer at an animal shelter, take a class at the local college, and try new experiences to create happy new memories for yourself.

Helping other pets with the loss of a pet

When a pet loses one of their furry brothers or sisters, they can exhibit grief-like symptoms similar to those seen in humans. Surviving pets may be lethargic, depressed, whimper, and refuse to eat or drink when another pet passes on, especially if they had a close relationship with them. Even if they weren’t that close to the pet who passed on, surviving pets can still feel anxious and distressed when they notice their owners in grief.

You can help your pets through this difficult time by giving them lots of affection and playtime throughout the day, and by sticking to your normal routines when it comes to things like feeding, walks, and potty breaks. It may feel difficult to focus on being a good pet parent when you’re feeling hurt yourself, but getting back into the swing of things is one of the best ways to take your mind off the pain and start the healing process.

👉 See a vet if your pet continues to exhibit abnormal behavior for a sustained period of time following the loss of another pet, as they may be suffering from an underlying medical condition. 

Getting another pet after pet loss

After some time has passed, your family may feel ready to bring home a new pet. While the new companionship may be nice for you, your kids, and your surviving pets, you shouldn’t rush into getting another pet unless you’re absolutely sure that you’re ready to take on the responsibilities that come with it. Give yourselves plenty of time to grieve, listen to your feelings, and discuss the possibility of getting a new pet together as a family. You’ll know when you’re ready — and you’ll be able to give your new pet a lot more focus, energy, and affection once you’ve taken the time to heal.

When you are finally ready to bring home a new pet, consider adopting from the local animal shelter or rescue. These facilities are filled with pets in need of new homes, and they make great additions to a loving family.

Frequently asked questions

Why is losing a pet so painful?

Because we love them. Pets are often our best friends, even more so than the humans in our lives. They offer constant affection, companionship, and allow us to be our truest, most comfortable selves when they’re around. If you’re retired or live alone, caring for your pet might fill your life with meaning. It’s only natural that we feel so hurt when we lose them.

How do you get over losing a pet?

While we only truly get over grief with time, there are a few things you can do to help yourself heal. Start by acknowledging your pain: write out any negative feelings you may be experiencing, and share them out loud with loved ones or a local support group. Eat healthy, high-quality foods, and get plenty of sleep and exercise. Take up a new hobby to fill your time and occupy your attention. Before long, you’ll find that these small acts of self-care make coping with your pet’s loss a lot more manageable.

How long is normal to grieve for a pet?

Everyone grieves differently, and there’s no “right” or “normal” amount of time to grieve the loss of a pet. A small study conducted in 2019 measured the periods of “intense grief” felt by 82 people who had recently lost their pets, with 25% taking between three months to a year, 50% between one year and 19 months, and 25% between two and six years.

Why do I cry so much when my pet dies?

Crying is a perfectly normal part of the grieving process. It’s normal for humans to cry intensely and uncontrollably shortly after losing a loved one, whether it’s a human or a pet. Crying is sometimes given a negative stigma of being “weak” or emotionally vulnerable, but suppressing your feelings will only make your grief worse. Allow yourself to cry as much as you need to after losing your pet, whenever you need to.

Do pets feel pain when they’re put to sleep?

No. Pets are euthanized with an injection that causes them to fall asleep. The heart and lungs stop functioning within a few minutes, but your pet doesn’t feel a thing since they’re unconscious.