Grieving for a pet can take many forms and duration can vary, veterinarian says
Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017
MANHATTAN — A Kansas State University veterinarian says when it comes to the death of a pet, the process of grieving will likely vary by pet owner and the type of relationship they had with their pet.
"The relationship one has with a pet can be vastly different than that another pet owner has with his or her pet — and that relationship can also differ from those with current and past pets," said Susan Nelson, clinical professor at Kansas State University's Veterinary Health Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Nelson said there is not just one right or normal way to mourn the loss of a companion animal. For some people, the loss of a pet may be only a brief period of sadness, but for others, a pet's death can produce a profound depression that can last for several weeks or months.
"Some people will feel the need to acquire another pet soon after a loss as they don’t like the feel of emptiness in the home without a pet," Nelson said. "For others, getting another pet soon after a loss can feel like a betrayal to their former pet. It may be weeks, months or even years before they even think about getting another pet. And for a few others, having another pet in their life is something they don't want to consider again — ever."
Many pet owners only experience a few weeks of mild to moderate grief and eventually get back to the routine of life, able to focus on the happier times they had with their pet. But Nelson said that for some pet owners, the intensity of the grief they experience can take them by surprise and that the grief can be so profound and long-lasting that professional grief counseling may become a necessity.
More studies are being conducted on grief associated with pet loss.
"It is now known that the sadness experienced after the loss of a pet is true grief and not something one has to get over because it was 'just a dog' or 'just a cat,'" Nelson said. "Because of these insights, many work places are now starting to offer bereavement leave for the loss of a pet as work performance can suffer if the pet owner isn’t allowed time to grieve."
These same studies also show why grief can affect some pet owners more than others, Nelson said. For some people, the death of a pet is very similar to that of the loss of a child. For many pet owners who experienced profound grief, the pet was a substitute child because of an inability to conceive or a conscious decision to not have children.
"Recent surveys of pet-owning millennials show that many of them regard their pets as their children," Nelson said. "For others, their pet is their only social lifeline as they have been isolated from society for various reasons."
In some cases, the pet may have been the last tie to a loved one who is now deceased.
"The loss of that pet brings to surface again the pain and grief experienced by the owner over the loss of that loved one," Nelson said. "The bonds that are built with these pets are very strong and intense."
Grief is not limited to the loss of a dog or a cat. Nelson said profound grief also can be experienced over the loss of other companion animals, such as birds and horses or any animal with which the owner had developed strong bonds.
"Intense grief has also been experienced by farmers and ranchers who have been devastated by a loss resulting from euthanasia of entire herds or flocks because of contagious disease outbreaks, or by the loss of a single animal from an original bloodline," Nelson said. "Some of these animals may also have been connected in some way to a deceased family member."
Nelson said it's important for pet owners to allow themselves time to grieve and to ignore well-intentioned, but often not supportive comments, from those who haven’t experienced the type of grief that comes with the loss of a pet.
But if the grief seems too overwhelming, even with the support of loved ones and friends, Nelson recommends seeking the services of a grief counselor who is familiar with and will show respect for the loss of your pet. Some people also find it comforting and therapeutic to join a pet loss support group.
"No matter what means it takes for one to recover from the loss of a pet, self-care is of vital importance," Nelson said. "They say time heals all wounds, and with time we all hope to be able to replace the grief we experience with happier memories of our cherished friends."