Why the loss of a pet is often so hard and how to cope in order to move forward. Professionals, and a new survey, reveal the truth about pet loss.
From New York to California and North Dakota down to Texas, pets are found all across the United States. In fact, American pet ownership has risen steadily over the past 40 years, and today, 84.9 million American homes include a pet—that’s 67% of households.
There are many proven or perceived benefits of pet ownership, from protection to companionship, but as any pet parent knows, pet ownership also comes with one very big negative: every single pet in those 84.9 million homes will one day pass away.
It’s a sad fact that no one likes to think about, because the loss is not insignificant. Losing a pet is often said to be just as hard (and sometimes harder) than losing a human family member. While some people may find this difficult to believe, it is far more than just words.
In fact, in a May 2021 survey conducted by Honest Paws of 400 U.S. adults, 68% of respondents reported that the loss of their companion animal was, in some cases, harder to deal with than the loss of a family member or friend, while an additional 17% claimed the loss was equal to that of a family member or friend.
Additionally, 90% of survey respondents reported that the loss of their pet was one of the hardest and/or most profound losses they’ve ever dealt with in life.
Recent research has proven that, due to the nature of pets and our proximity to them, losing a pet really does cause genuine and significant grief, and a person’s support system can play a big role in recovering from the loss.
The Effects of Pet Loss
From the empty food dish to the solo neighborhood walks and the house that’s now far too quiet, those who have experienced losing a special pet know all too well the significance of the loss.
Non-pet owners or those who have never lost a pet they were especially close to often have a hard time understanding how it can really be that difficult, but in recent years, multiple studies have proven that pet loss can have deep emotional and psychological effects.
A 2014 study in Japan, for example, set out to discover how the death of a pet could affect a pet owner, and made some interesting observations.
The study was performed with questionnaires, which were distributed at four private and commercial animal cremation service centers in Japan. In addition to collecting demographic information and the circumstances of the pet’s death, the 400 questionnaires that were distributed also included a 28-item version of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ28) and the social readjustment rating scale (SRRS).
Of the 82 returned questionnaires that were available for analysis, 46 responses showed the presence of neurotic symptoms. In other words, neurotic symptoms were apparent in almost half of pet owners shortly after their pet’s death.
A few other interesting observations were made as well. For example, female pet owners exhibited more somatic dysfunction than male owners, and younger owners reacted more severely than older owners. Finally, the death of indoor pets caused deeper depression than did the death of outdoor or visiting pets.
Grief is Real
Of course, the presence of neurotic symptoms is not necessarily the same as grief. Luckily, a 2018 study at Antioch University in Santa Barbara tackled the question of grief head on.
Participants in the study could be either male or female, and had experienced the loss of a companion animal within the last year. For the purposes of the study, companion animals were limited to either a dog or a cat, and could not be animals whose role was primarily a functional one, such as a service dog.
During the study, six participants were interviewed and asked 12 pre-determined questions designed to elicit their experience of pet loss. Their answers demonstrated that grief really is a phenomenon shared after the loss of a beloved pet.
The study also found that:
Losing a pet often feels like losing a family member. Each participant in the study made mention of this.
Pet owners don’t only feel loss over their pet, but also a sense of loss regarding the activities they used to share with that pet. Each participant mentioned this as well.
The level of attachment between a human and pet can affect the intensity of the grief. For example, a person may have a different reaction to losing a pet they knew only casually than they would to losing a pet they had considered their best friend for 15 years.
Why the Loss of a Pet is So Hard
It can be proven that pet owners really do feel grief after the loss of a pet, but why? What is it that makes losing a beloved pet so difficult?
Respected death educator, grief counselor, and author Dr. Alan Wolfelt may have the answer, and it comes down to a combination of factors.
Wolfelt found his calling at a young age, writing his first book at the age of 19. His passion for pet loss training and counseling was part of what led him to found the Center for Loss & Life Transition, of which he now serves as director.
A firm believer that every loss is different, Wolfelt says that some losses are more difficult than others, but no type of death is definitively the worst.
“You simply cannot rank losses,” Wolfelt says. “It has a lot to do with the things that influence the nature of the loss.”
However, he understands firsthand the depth of the human/pet bond.
“The capacity to love requires the necessity to mourn,” Wolfelt says. “And there is nothing easier for us humans to love than our companion animals.”
Pets Are Companions
One of the things that makes losing our companion animals so difficult is the fact that they are, quite literally, our companions. Wolfelt states that “pets delight in our company,” and that companionship is one of the main reasons people have pets to begin with. It stands to reason that the loss of that companionship would be difficult to face.
Indeed, in the Honest Paws survey of 400 respondents, the loss of the animal's companionship was reported as the second most difficult part of the loss, with the inability to enjoy usual activities with the animal (such as walks and playtime) coming in third.
What has been the most difficult part of losing your companion animal? (Select up to 3)
Dealing with feelings of guilt, 60%
No longer having the animal's companionship, 58%
No longer being able to enjoy activities with the animal, 50%
Additionally, pets need to be cared for: fed, groomed, let outside, exercised.
“Pets are part of the ritual of our days,” Wolfelt says. “They become an important part of the ritual of what we do each and every day.”
When they aren’t there anymore, the ritual crumbles, literally altering the fabric of our days.
And for some people, especially the elderly, their pet may be their primary (and sometimes only) source of companionship. According to recent estimates, about 28% of older adults currently live alone in the United States. When adults in these situations experience the loss of a companion animal, it can be a devastating blow, especially in the absence of a support system to help them through the loss.
Pets Are Family
It’s also difficult to lose a companion animal because of the simple fact that many pet owners do consider their pet to be family—and sometimes, they are far easier to love than our human family!
“Another reason that we are impacted when pets die is they give us unconditional love—the rarest of affirmations,” Wolfelt says.
And the numbers speak for themselves. Nearly a quarter of survey respondents (24%) reported that no longer having a source of unconditional love was one of the hardest parts of dealing with their companion animal's loss.
Our relationships with our pets are less complicated than those we share with other humans. And there is a proximity factor as well, given that we share nearly our entire life with our animals, day in and day out, while we might see some human family members far less frequently.
“For some people, the death of a pet is more difficult than the death of family members just because of the proximity and relationship,” Wolfelt says. “Pet owners often feel the loss of companion animals very deeply. If asked to explain the significance, they often say that the relationship they had with their pet is one of the most profound they had in their lives.”
The Loss of a Pet: Grieving vs. Mourning
Pet loss is never easy, but there are a number of factors that can make it even more difficult to wade through. One thing that can make a big difference in how a person handles the loss is the support system surrounding them.
“Many people who don’t have pets will totally disenfranchise the significance [of the loss],” Wolfelt says.
Unfortunately, survey results showed this to be a common occurrence: 72% of respondents reported that a member of their social circle diminished the significance of their loss with unsympathetic rhetoric (e.g., “It’s just a dog”), while 34% of respondents felt they didn’t have a support network around them who understood the profundity of their loss.
If you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand or who try to minimize your loss, it makes the loss that much harder. More than that, it actually prevents you from mourning, which, as Wolfelt explains, is separate from grieving.
“Grief is an inside process,” he says. “Mourning is the shared response of grief gone public.”
In other words, you can grieve alone, but you can’t mourn alone. And when those around you are trying to minimize your loss and make it uncomfortable for you to express your loss publicly, they are sadly preventing you from mourning.
“Grief for a pet is not inferior to or less profound than any other grief,” Wolfelt says. “Only you can be the judge of your grief.”
Real Life Stories
Of course, scientific research and theories can only take us so far when trying to describe the deep, emotional human/pet bond.
Examples of this bond can be found everywhere, and with many different types of pets, as the following stories demonstrate:
Lily V., from Orlando, Florida, is one of the many pet parents who describes their companion animal as their soulmate. She adopted her Labrador/Pitbull mix, Noah, from a local animal shelter 14 years ago. During the long span of time they shared together, Lily experienced several big life changes from moving to a new city a thousand miles away for grad school to eventually losing her father to cancer years later. Noah was a constant through all the ups and downs, providing her with an unending well of emotional support, unconditional love, and healing companionship.
"Simply put, his presence brought me peace," says Lily. "Whatever the emotion I was dealing with, be it anxiety, stress, or grief, I found sanctuary in his companionship. There was something so calming about knowing he was right by my side at all times."
When Noah passed away in December 2020 at the ripe age of 14 years, Lily felt as if she'd lost one of the greatest loves of her life.
"There's no love quite like the unconditional love you receive from an animal who's been your companion for over a decade," she says. "In Noah's later years, our bond became deeper than ever as he depended on me more for the type of special care that's unique to senior dogs. I count it as one of the greatest honors of my life to have provided him with that love and care, and to have also shared in this life journey with him. He taught me so many life lessons that I'll carry in my heart for the rest of my life. The biggest one was probably to live each day to the fullest and to derive joy from even the simplest of pleasures. Noah approached every activity, from his daily walks to our afternoon games of fetch, with such unbridled enthusiasm. He truly loved life. So although his absence hurts and always will, I want to live each day loving life as well. It’s one of the greatest ways I can honor his impact on me.”
But pets don’t have to stick around for decades to have deep and lasting effects on their people. Chelsea G., a coach and consultant based out of Santa Clarita, California, will never forget the short time she and her husband shared with their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Kush, who passed in 2019 due to a rare genetic disease. They learned about the disease when he was just over a year old, and had less than six months with him before he passed.
Gillman considers Kush to be one of her greatest life teachers.
“He came to us at a time in my life where I was looking for structure and desperately sought a solid schedule after making a huge life and career change,” Gillman says. “He became that foundational piece to start my day with gratitude; in fact, he enlightened and enlarged my capacity for gratitude. Every morning we woke and took a long walk while I listened to a meditation and watched him experience the world through chasing the ducks at the pond, hunting for lizards, and darting after the bunnies. He gave us countless laughs, as Corgis do.”
Gillman noticed that there was something different about Kush. He was connected, but also independent.
“As I look back, I think he kept a bit of distance for all of our sake,” she says. “I don't know when he knew he was sick, but it was clear, and his decline was rapid and devastating. When he left us in his physical form, I knew he'd be with us spiritually and live on in our hearts.”
Amazingly, she and her husband also received as a gift Kush’s brother, who was born within 24 hours of his passing.
Meaghan T., a business owner from Louisville, Kentucky had a similar relationship with her dog, Tulip—one she may even describe as spiritual.
Tulip, who also passed away in 2019, was Meghan’s teacher and, she believes, her soulmate.
“It was by far the hardest loss of my life,” Meaghan says. “She helped me through some of the darkest corners of my life, and helped move me into my happiest self. I owe her everything.”
Tulip, who Meaghan rescued as a puppy, helped her overcome her traumatic childhood and PTSD and taught her to live in the present. It was her time with Tulip that led her to make big changes in her life – to quit her toxic, high-stress job and open her own business; to leave the big city where they lived and move to a smaller, happier one.
Meaghan was devastated by the loss of her teacher.
“For many months, I was seasick from the seemingly endless and violent ocean of loss,” she says.
Eventually she was able to get through her days without crying, but she believes that this is one loss from which she will never fully heal.
“But I've learned how to hold it better, and to live more in celebration of her life than the loss of it,” she says.
Facing the End: When It's Time to Say Goodbye
Most pets today do not die naturally; their owners choose to have them compassionately euthanized.
A 2017 study of 308 pet owners between the ages of 18 and 69 found that almost 70% chose to euthanize their pet. However, despite how common the decision is, it is one of the hardest for a pet owner to make, and is often wracked with guilt.
Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, a renowned veterinary oncologist and the founder of Pawspice, a quality-of-life program for terminally ill pets, aimed to help pet owners tackle this difficult decision by developing a scoring system to assess a pet’s quality of life.
The HHHHHMM Quality of Life Scale, pictured below and downloadable in a PDF format from the Pawspice website, covers the five H’s: Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, and Happiness, while the two M’s stand for Mobility and “More good days than bad.”
The scale scores patients on each criterion using a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being ideal. According to the scale, a total over 35 points represents acceptable quality of life.
*Republished with permission from Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP
In the Honest Paws survey of 400 U.S. adults, 58% of respondents reported opting for humane euthanasia for their animal. The top factors behind the difficult decision included:
No longer wishing to put the animal through further medical intervention in light of the long and happy life they had already lived
The animal being in too much pain or discomfort in their final days
Knowing the animal’s condition would worsen and eventually put them in too much pain or discomfort
Out of those whose pets passed away naturally, the top factors behind the decision for an at-home passing included:
No longer wishing to put the animal through further medical intervention in light of the long and happy life they had already lived
Wanting the animal to pass away in a familiar setting where they felt comfortable
Not wishing for the animal to pass away in a place they didn’t like (e.g., veterinarian office/animal hospital)
How to Deal with the Loss of a Pet: The Difficult Journey Forward
Whether a pet passes away naturally or an owner has to make the choice for euthanasia, navigating through life after the loss can be overwhelming.
In the Honest Paws survey of 400 respondents, the top 5 coping mechanisms for dealing with pet loss were reported to be:
Looking through pictures of the animal or watching videos of them
Seeking out online support groups for pet loss (popular groups on Facebook include: AKC Pet Loss Support Group, The Rainbow Bridge Pet Loss and Grief Support, Coping with the Loss of a Pet Support Group, Grieving Pet Loss Support Group, and Pet Loss Support Group).
Reading online articles about pet loss
Seeking out professional grief counseling (with the growing popularity of telehealth medicine, websites like BetterHelp can connect you with professional counselors right from the comfort of your home)
A third of survey respondents (33%) found solace in making a donation in their animal’s name, while nearly 32% of respondents coped by planting a tree or erecting a monument in their animal’s honor.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt suggests the following tips to help individuals and families further cope with the loss of a pet:
1) Surround yourself with people who can be supportive of the loss, not those who diminish it. Grief and mourning are not the same thing, and you should seek out those who will allow you to mourn.
2) Understand that your emotions will vary, and become familiar with what you might feel. You may encounter confusion, disorganization, sadness, or guilt. Remember that nothing is wrong with you; in fact, these emotions are normal and healthy.
3) Hold onto the memories. While this may seem obvious, some people try to shut their memories away after a loss. Talk about and embrace the memories you have of your pet, whatever emotions they may bring.
4) Remember that rituals can be helpful. A funeral or memorial for your pet may assist with the grieving and mourning process. While some friends or family members may find it silly, don’t let them take this special time away if it helps you heal.
Rituals have been used throughout human history to mark milestones and changes in our lives, especially when it comes to death. While we may think funerals, memorials, and other means of remembering the departed are exclusive to humans, this isn’t in any way the case according to the Honest Paws survey, which showed that:
26% of respondents held a funeral/memorial for their animal
31% opted for a home burial for their animal
37% opted for private cremation in order to keep their animal’s ashes
9% elected to have their animal buried in a private pet cemetery
5) Don’t rush out and get a replacement. It may be tempting to get another pet right away, and well-meaning friends and family might encourage you to do so. But you need time to grieve and heal before you put your energy into a new pet. There is no specific timetable as to when it’s appropriate to get a new pet, but if you’re in doubt, wait.
And if bringing another animal into your life doesn’t feel like the right next step for you, that’s perfectly fine too. While the majority of survey respondents (28%) reported that they felt ready to take in a new dog or cat after 1-3 months and another 26% waited 3-6 months, 15% of respondents reported that they never adopted another animal after their loss.
When it comes to helping a loved one through pet loss, Dr. Wolfelt’s tips are almost identical to the tips he gives to help a loved one through human loss.
1) Listen with your heart. Any type of help begins with your ability to be an active listener. Listen without judgment and without worrying about what you will say in return. If your friend wants to tell the same story over and over, listen attentively each time and try to understand.
2) Be compassionate. Don’t say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Enter into your friend’s feelings without trying to take them away and recognize that they are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with death.
3) Avoid clichés. Trite comments like, “Time heals all wounds,” “Think of all you still have to be thankful for,” or “Just be happy that he’s out of his pain,” are not helpful. In fact, they diminish the loss and make your friend’s grief journey more difficult.
4) Understand the uniqueness of grief. Everyone handles loss differently, so allow your friend to proceed through the journey at his or her own pace. Don’t force your own timetable for healing.
5) Offer practical help. Preparing food, washing clothes, or cleaning the house really can be a great way to show that you care, both at the time of death and in the weeks and months ahead.
6) Make contact. Your presence is important—at any funeral or memorials that may be planned, and in the months following the loss. Don’t forget to reach out.
7) Write a personal note. Sympathy cards are nice, but your personal words are even better. Use the pet’s name and share a story about him or her. This can be comforting because it confirms that the pet that was so special to your friend is not forgotten.
8) Be aware of special days. In the coming months, your friend may struggle with special dates on the calendar: the day they adopted their pet, their pet’s birthday, and of course, a year later, the day their pet passed. Try to recognize these dates, and respect your friend’s grief on these special occasions.
Despite the belief of naysayers, research and firsthand anecdotes prove that losing a pet really does cause genuine and significant grief. For those who love them, companion animals are more than just pets – they’re also valued family members, and losing them can be life altering in a number of ways.
Without a support system to turn to, the journey through grief can be a difficult one. However, it is possible to move forward, despite how difficult life post-loss can be. Connecting with support groups, reading books and articles about loss, and seeking out professional counseling can all be helpful for the grieving and mourning process.
So can savoring the memories one holds in their heart for their dearly loved animal. Doing so can make the unbreakable bond between person and animal stronger than ever, as even after loss, love perseveres and lives on. It’s that very love that can help individuals live not in the loss of life—but in celebration of it.
Concept, Story Development, & Editing : Lily Velez
Writing, Research, & Interviewing : Allie Layos
Survey: Pollfish, May 5, 2021