Pet Bereavement

For many pet owners, the loss of their companion animal is a painful experience. It marks the end of a partnership that may have yielded many benefits and shared experiences, such as friendship, unconditional love, physical activity, social contact and in the case of animal assisted partnerships, support with everyday tasks and even freedom of movement. Also some owners wont have realised their reliance on that companion through depression, hard times or illness. Research shows that the presence of a pet is often beneficial.  These qualities enhance the life of the pet owner and often result in a strong attachment to the pet. When this attachment is severed, either through the death of the pet or through another form of enforced separation, the loss can impact on many aspects of the pet owner’s life, and be followed by a period of grieving.

The grieving process

The grieving process varies from individual to individual and even for the same individual, may be different for different pets. Whatever the nature of the grieving process, it is a normal and appropriate response to the loss of a loved companion. For some people, the loss of their pet is marked by sadness and tears, which may be transient or last for several days. Other symptoms such as loss of appetite, fatigue, headaches and sleeplessness may also be present. For others, it may feel as if they have lost a member of their family and their grief may have a similar pattern to that following a human bereavement, which may include all or some of the following stages of grief.

The initial reaction may be one of shock and disbelief, where perception is altered and it may be difficult for the person to comprehend what is happening, even if the death or loss was expected. This may be followed by a period of sadness and grief, when events leading up to the loss are relived and the full pain of the loss is experienced, sometimes resulting in physical pains in the body of the pet owner. The need to apportion blame is also common and anger may be directed at others for either their part in the loss or for their reaction to it. This anger may be interspersed with a deep yearning and longing to see the pet again and feel their presence. It is also possible for bereaved pet owners to experience depression, feeling a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, that life is not worth living. There may also be an overwhelming sense of responsibility and guilt, particularly when an animal has been involved in an accident or a decision has been taken to have  a pet put down. In the case of euthanasia, a person may be left with a lot of self-questioning and recrimination as to whether it was the right decision at the right time. To avoid or minimise these recriminations it is important that the decision to euthanase is an informed one, made by the owner, taking into account the opinion of the vet. After a time, the reality of the loss may be more acceptable to the person who is able to reflect on happy memories shared with their pet without being overwhelmed with sadness and despair. An understanding of this whole process and the normality of grieving for a pet as well as allowing time to grieve, may all ease the pain.

A person grieving for a much loved pet may experience all these phases or only some and they tend to overlap. The feelings will pass over time, but the length of time may vary from a few days or weeks to several or many months. The intensity is also affected by several factors. These include the nature of the attachment, the length of pet ownership, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the pet, and the emotional and practical support that is available to the grieving pet owner. The loss of a long standing partnership or of a companion animal that was rescued or raised as an orphan, or had some kind of link with a person that has died, may result in an intense grief lasting several months.

Aftercare of the body

The practical support available to the bereaved pet owner may influence the course of their grief. There are several options regarding the disposal of the pet’s body, and making an appropriate decision that offers a dignified, respectful ending to a pet’s life can bring a lot of comfort to the pet owner. The two main options are cremation and burial. Cremation is probably the most common option and the two main types are communal cremation and individual cremation. In communal cremation, the pet’s body is cremated with several other pets, and is usually organised through the vet’s normal pet crematorium at a minimal charge. For owners wanting a more personalised approach, individual cremation is available where the pet is cremated on its own and the ashes scattered by the crematorium or returned to the owner. Returned ashes can be scattered, buried or kept in the house. This is a more expensive option but it can bring great comfort to the grieving pet owner.
Burial can be the preferred option for some pet owners. No planning, notification or formal marking is necessary for a home burial, but it is advisable to work with a depth of more than 1m and a distance of 3m away from a water source, and It can be helpful to be able to visit the grave at any time. Pet cemeteries are particularly useful for those owners who would like to bury their pet but do not have the facilities to do so at home. This is a more expensive burial option, but the service offered is usually very personal and sympathetic. For those people requesting burial for their pet, there is also the personalised option of collection of the pet’s body in a pet coffin. The burial may also be a natural time to hold a funeral, and the ceremony offers an opportunity to acknowledge the wonderful times shared with the pet as well as the pain of the loss. This can be particularly helpful to children.

Many pet owners find comfort in honouring their pet’s memory in a tangible way that is long-lasting. Options here include memorial tributes such as gravestone and plaques, the planting of a favourite tree or shrub, making a donation to a charity or a field of medical research, keeping collars or leads and making a photograph album or journal with favourite pictures and stories about the pet.

A new partnership

At various points during the grieving process the question of whether or not to take on another animal may want addressing. There are good reasons to take on another animal and there are good reasons for people not wanting to take on another animal. All are valid and need to be respected, your decision is unique to you.  A useful guideline as to whether to acquire a another animal, is when a person feels able to reflect on previous happy times without being overwhelmed by the pain of the loss and ultimately feels comfortable with the possibility of taking on another pet. It is important not to expect the new animal to be like the old one or to bond with the new animal right away. Getting a new pet is not a question of replacing a previous pet, but rather one of reinvesting ones love as a tribute to the love and companionship that was shared with the previous pet.

Support for the pet owner

Grieving for a much loved pet is a normal process. Despite this, there is a general tendency on the part of the public and even well-meaning friends to minimise the extent of the pain and dismiss the grief with statements such as “it was only a pet”. This, together with an expectation for pet owners to quickly readjust to their lives without their pet, may result in many pet owners feeling isolated and lacking emotional support. Recognising pet loss as a legitimate form of grief and the gap in available services, several avenues of support for bereaved pet owners have opened up over the past few years. The fact that it is also a child’s first experience of death is also generally over looked. How a pet’s death is handled in the family and around that child may well affect a persons attitude, experience and ability to cope when they are faced with a family member, friends or partner’s death.

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