Pet Loss:  “One of the Family!”

By Dr Bill Webster


For those who have never had a companion animal, pet loss is often hard to understand. “After all,” many say, “it was just a cat … or a dog, bunny rabbit, hamster, budgie or any one of many possibilities.” Pet loss is often overlooked by society, so when an animal dies, owners grieve alone because they are afraid that they will be ridiculed, or thought to be crazy or stupid, because, after all it is “only a pet”. 

In case you haven’t noticed, the Pet Industry is big business these days.

Report Buyer, a UK based online destination for business intelligence, has now added a new market report titled “The Pet Industry” which predicts that last year, North Americans will spend over $43 BILLION (£25 BILLION) on pet supplies and services, and that pet owners in the UK are fast catching up with their North American friends when it comes to spending money on their pets.   Stores in the UK are increasingly responding to the growing trend of the “humanization” of pets by providing accessories and products beyond leads and water bowls.  Animal hospitals, and pet cemeteries are also growing exponentially, and cremation urns and other funeral paraphernalia is becoming big business.

And so, not surprisingly, grief counselors for pet loss are emerging. The loss of any relationship can cause intense pain, and even if others may not understand, a pet is often a significant and constant part of your life.

While there are many common factors in grief over any relationship, there are issues that are unique to the situation that often trouble the grieving pet lover.

A major issue is guilt, especially in those frequent situations where the pet owner had to decide to euthanize the animal or where the cat was killed by a speeding car or a veterinarian treatment was unsuccessful.

Vets may be the best judge of physical condition, but a pet owner is the best judge of her your pet’s quality of daily life. Seeing the constant pain, as well as having to undergo difficult and stressful treatments that doesn't seem to be helping, one may choose to end a beloved companion’s suffering.  Many veterinary offices have developed a very sensitive and caring process for the procedure which is sometimes done in an office, in the person’s home, or even on occasion in a person’s car.

 As with a human death, there are many options as to what to do the the remains of a pet. Some alternatives are to leave the pet at the vet’s for disposal; to bury the animal at home (although city regulations often prohibit this, and it can be difficult if the person moves after a while); pet cemeteries provide dignity, security and permanence at a cost; cremation is less expensive and provides many options to handle the ashes, again at a cost, including urns, jewellery, etc. If you didn’t know it, folks, the pet funeral industry is alive and well.

You may feel sadness that this constant companion who had provided a close connection  was gone. One may express anger that the treatments the vet had promised would give  a year or two of life (and that had cost  a small fortune) had not worked and had caused more suffering. You may torment yourself  with guilt over the fact that even though you know it was “the right thing to do”, that the decision you made, that you had killed your pet.  Had you been too hasty?  Could you have done more?  And above all, the loneliness of missing the comfort and companionship that you had clung so desperately to.

So many people get so much love and delight from their beloved pets in life, and like any significant relationship, they grieve deeply for them when they are gone. But it is more than that. People often make pets living symbols of their inner feelings: for some, symbols of their own innocence and purest feelings and the need to care; for others symbols of aggression and dominance as I personally found out at age 10. Whether positive or negative, when that pet dies a treasured secret part of the person also dies.

I did a bit of research in the “pet loss web sites” and found that much of the advice to help people through their grief is exactly the same as what is offered when a human companion dies. Regardless, grief is probably the most confusing, frustrating and emotional thing that a person can experience. It is even more so for bereaved pet owners, when society in general does not give them “permission” to grieve openly. Consequently, they often feel isolated and alone. It is known as disenfranchised grief. Luckily, more and more resources are becoming available to help the bereaved pet owner realize that they are NOT alone and that what they are feeling is entirely normal.

As Helen Keller once succinctly put it: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”