The loss of a beloved pet can be a traumatic experience for a child, a lonely senior citizen or anyone who has cherished an animal companion. In many homes, a pet provides affection, friendship and loyalty. Thus, in time, the companion animal truly becomes an important member of the family.
Grief, which results from the death or loss of a pet, involves a difficult set of emotions and problems which may take time to work through. It wasn't too long ago that people did not believe that it was okay to grieve for an animal. Now psychologists and grief counselors recognize that sorrow for a pet is a very real emotion akin to grieving for a lost friend or relative.
A family veterinarian, who has helped to care for a pet, understands the emotional bond with a pet. Mourning the loss of a pet is normal and should not be a cause for embarrassment. Pet owners experience the same stages of loss that everyone undergoes after the loss of a beloved family member or friend, including denial, bargaining, anger, grief, and resolution. In some cases, the anxiety and sorrow over the loss of a beloved pet may be greater than that experienced at the death of a friend or relative and the pet owner need not feel guilty about it.
Guilt can arise when one has to determine if it is time to end the life of an animal that is in pain or distress, and has no hope of recovery even with the best of veterinary care. The veterinarian and the pet's family, including children, should understand and decide together to do what is most merciful for the pet and the family.
When a pet dies, burial or cremation are choices for disposal of the pet's body. The place of burial can vary from a backyard to a pet cemetery, depending on the size of the pet and the laws or ordinances of the family's community. When a pet's body is cremated, the family may ask the veterinarian to dispose of the ashes, or they may take them to scatter in a favorite place, or keep in an urn at the pet owner's home or pet cemetery.
Your local veterinarian may be able to help arrange a funeral service complete with casket, flowers and memorialization. Such a service can be an enormous comfort to the persons who loved the pet by helping them demonstrate their affection for the pet and accept the finality of their loss -- a necessary step in the recovery from grief.
There are many ways to memorialize a beloved pet -- placing flowers on its grave, installing a permanent marker or planting a tree. A good thing to do is to make a contribution of time or money to a local animal shelter, or to one of the many organizations that are trying to save the world's animals.
A local veterinarian or funeral director can provide advice in helping say good-bye when a beloved pet dies. Other resources for grief counseling or pet memorialization are: Pet Friends which offers trained counselors who provide compassionate telephone support for grieving pet owners (800-404-PETS), Cornell - Pet Loss Support Hotline (607-253-3932), American Veterinary Medical Association (www.avma.org), and Rainbow Bridge which features a chat room and pet memorials (www.rainbowbridge.com/).
(This article was prepared with research material from the New York State Veterinary Medical Society and Guideline Publications "Death of a Pet.")
© July 2002 / Updated June 2010