When a member of the family dies, it seems the world rallies. Time off from work is granted, neighbors bring meals, sympathy cards and flowers arrive. Visitors offer condolences and reminisce about the memorable qualities of the departed. But when a person loses a pet, it’s a different story. Employers do not normally grant bereavement time, friends suggest getting another pet soon, and some even dismiss the loss as trivial and replaceable, since it was “only an animal” that passed.
In fact, studies show that losing a pet often affects and causes survivors as much grief as the death of a human family member does. The reality is that many pet owners feel at least as close to their dog or cat as they do to others in the clan. An article in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling in 1988 described research in which participants worked with symbols representing their family members. They were asked to arrange the symbols in order of closeness to themselves.1 Yonan, Jon. “The death of a pet can hurt as much as the loss of a relative.” 26 March 2012. The Washington Post. 29 March 2013. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-03-26/national/35448737_1_pet-owners-center-for-human-animal-interaction-dog
Cordaro, Millie. “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Thirty-eight percent of the participants placed their dog right next to themselves as the absolute closest family member–closer than their partner, parent, or child–while most others placed the dog in a spot at least equal to the average family member.
A 2008 study of college students came to similar conclusions. A significant percentage of the students in the study who owned dogs or cats indicated that they felt as close to their pets as they felt to their mother, siblings, friends, and significant other.2 Cordaro, Millie. “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice.” 1 October 2012. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 29 March 2013. p 283-294
This sensed closeness manifests in well-documented ways. As we’ve reported before, an astonishing percentage of animal owners sleep with their canines and felines: 62% of small dog and cat owners, 41% of medium-sized dog owners and 32% of large dog owners. And a survey by the American Animal Hospital Foundation found that an astonishing 65 percent of dog owners sing to their canine companions.3 Acosta, MM. “Dog ditties: The idea of singing to pets sets up a howl in both the human and canine worlds.” 21 August 2004. SF Gate. 29 March 2013. http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Dog-ditties-The-idea-of-singing-to-pets-sets-up-2700035.php It’s doubtful that such a high percentage of us sing to our intimate partners. It’s also worth noting that pets provide a number of medical benefits to their owners and their families–although it helps if you’re exposed to your first pet while still a baby.
Given these facts, it’s not surprising that when a beloved pet passes, the owner frequently is left bereft. Pets typically become part of their owner’s daily landscape, not only providing companionship, but also, supplying a touchstone that defines the owner’s world. When the pet passes, the friend is gone and the world is changed, and so the grieving can be significant. In 2009, a study out of the University of Hawaii found that 30 percent of pet owners keep grieving for their pets for six months or longer after they pass, and up to 12 percent experience such severe, traumatic grief that it becomes a major life disruptor.4 Parker-Pope, Tania. “Mourning the Death of a Pet.” 21 April 2010. New York Times. 29 March 2013. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/21/mourning-the-death-of-a-pet/ Others may grieve for shorter periods of time, but evidence indicates that they go through the same stages of grief as do those grieving human loved ones. Even more startling is the fact that a major study on stress determined that the one trauma that couples most frequently reported experiencing together was losing a pet and experiencing pet grief.
Up until a few years ago, it was commonly held that people were not normal if they made a big deal over losing a pet. A 2003 article in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice said, “Simply stated, many people (including pet owners) feel that grief over the death of a pet is not worthy of as much acknowledgment as the death of a person. Unfortunately, this tends to inhibit people from grieving fully when a pet dies.” Studies at that time found that unresolved grief over the loss of a pet could be a major factor in later depression.
Although such dismissive attitudes toward pet loss still are pervasive and the grieving owner will most likely encounter plenty of misunderstanding and callous behavior from even those closest to him or her, there are now pet loss support groups, bereavement hotlines, and web resources popping up.5 “Pet Grief Counseling by phone.” Petloss. (Accessed 31 Mar 2013.) http://www.petloss.com/phones.htm Still, though, most people don’t understand how pervasive, intense, and long-lasting the grieving period typically is when a family pet dies, and the grief period may be prolonged because of that. Given that about half of all households in the US own pets, this is problematic.
If you or someone you know has recently lost a pet, the best thing to do is to recognize that a grief reaction is natural, normal, and necessary. It’s essential to mourn the pet, memorialize him or her, and talk about the emotions that arise in the process
|↑1|| Yonan, Jon. “The death of a pet can hurt as much as the loss of a relative.” 26 March 2012. The Washington Post. 29 March 2013. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-03-26/national/35448737_1_pet-owners-center-for-human-animal-interaction-dog
Cordaro, Millie. “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised
|↑2||Cordaro, Millie. “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice.” 1 October 2012. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 29 March 2013. p 283-294|
|↑3||Acosta, MM. “Dog ditties: The idea of singing to pets sets up a howl in both the human and canine worlds.” 21 August 2004. SF Gate. 29 March 2013. http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Dog-ditties-The-idea-of-singing-to-pets-sets-up-2700035.php|
|↑4||Parker-Pope, Tania. “Mourning the Death of a Pet.” 21 April 2010. New York Times. 29 March 2013. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/21/mourning-the-death-of-a-pet/|
|↑5||“Pet Grief Counseling by phone.” Petloss. (Accessed 31 Mar 2013.) http://www.petloss.com/phones.htm|