Dealing With The Loss Of A Pet

Losing a beloved pet can hurt just as much as losing a family member. Find out how to cope with the grief.

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It's never easy to say goodbye to a beloved pet. jrothe/iStock/Thinkstock
Arden Moore

Empty. Angry. Disoriented. These words sum up the swirl of emotions I felt when I said my final goodbye to my dying cat, Zeki, last August.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how I ended up out of the veterinary clinic and in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, or recall the trip home. I do remember feeling cheated that a mysterious disease that confounded a team of veterinary specialists had robbed Zeki, my certified therapy cat and pet first aid demo cat, of reaching her sixth birthday.

This petite Turkish Van mix, who survived being scalped with a hunting knife as a stray, endured surgeries and months of water therapy to regain her coat, mobility and strength and shine as a symbol of survival. I was blessed to have her for four years. We traveled the country, giving cat behavior talks, visiting wounded military servicemen and women in hospitals, and providing hands-on pet first aid trainings. With each visit and class, Zeki quietly purred and welcomed hugs from everyone.

The only downside I see in cats is that their life spans are far too short for my liking — and I’m sure you would agree.

But one promising positive note is that more pet owners are “coming out of the grief closet” and not hiding their heartbroken emotions from family, friends and even co-workers.

“The death of a pet can be especially hard to take because for many people, it is the only complete and unconditional love that they have ever experienced,” says Judy H. Wright, a registered pet bereavement coach based in Missoula, Montana, and author of “I Lost My Best Friend Today: Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet.”

Pet Death Triggers An Array Of Emotions

Just like when a relative or friend dies, common symptoms of grieving over the death of a beloved pet can include feelings of:

  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Worry
  • Depression
  • Relief

“Any and all of these feelings are perfectly normal and you can find peace again,” says Wright, who offers pet bereavement counseling services. “For one of my clients, the death of her Boxer was the final straw. She had taken care of her mother, lost her father to dementia, and then her sister died. She had to be strong for all of them, but when her Boxer died, she had a nervous breakdown.”

Identifying The 5 Stages Of Grief

It is also common to go through these stages of grief just prior to and after a pet dies:

  1. Denial. At first, I did not want to accept that there would be no miracle cure for Zeki.
  2. Anger. I yelled at my primary veterinarian out of frustration and feeling of helplessness. I was also a bit short and impatient with my closest friends.
  3. Bargaining. I prayed to God, asking that he keep Zeki alive and healthy, with the promise I would do even more to help pets in need.
  4. Depression. I was not my usual chipper, upbeat self for days, and begged off invitations from friends to see a comedy movie or dine at my favorite sushi restaurant.
  5. Acceptance. It took me a good month before I started to heal and focus on the good memories created by having Zeki in my life. Only at this stage did I celebrate the special bond I had with this special cat.

Tips On How To Cope

In a word, talk. Talk to friends, family members and co-workers who share your love of pets. And reach out to professional pet loss counselors.

Allow yourself to cry. And don’t judge yourself. At first, I found it odd that I sobbed more after Zeki died than when my mother died from lung cancer when I was 29.

“Think about how much pets are now part of the family,” Wright says. “Baby boomers not only are proud to have grandchildren, but now they brag about their grand dogs. I look forward to the day when all companies will allow family leave time for people coping with the death of a pet.”

She adds, “More companies are becoming holistic and recognize the need to deal with the entire person, not regard a worker as an employee. If grief is not allowed to be expressed, it turns inward and can lead to depression and physical illness.”

Helping Children Understand

Be honest and open in talking with children about the death of a family pet, urges Wright.

“For many children, this is the first time they have experienced a death,” she says. “Do not tell a child that the pet went to heaven or went to sleep, because some children may become too afraid to go to sleep. And answer their questions to the best of your knowledge.”

If a child asks “will my pet go to heaven?,” consider responding “I don’t know, but I think so.”

Don’t use the term euthanasia.

“Kids have no concept of what euthanasia means,” Wright says. “Gently tell them that as much as they love this pet, he is dead and is not coming back.”

Finally, celebrate the pet’s life.

“It’s important for everyone in the family to have a ceremony to share the good times that they have had with this pet,” she adds.

Recognizing That Pets Also Grieve

In a multi-pet household, there can be strong friendship bonds. Chipper, my Husky mix, adored Zeki. The pair teamed up to help me teach pet first aid classes. When Zeki died, Chipper was the first to sniff her body in the exam room, ahead of my cat, Murphy and my poodle-terrier mix, Cleo.

Pets grieve, too. My dog Chipper was close to Zeki and seemed to mourn her death. Photo Courtesy of Arden Moore

Pets grieve, too. My dog Chipper was close to Zeki and seemed to mourn her death. Photo Courtesy of Arden Moore

That night, Chipper opted to forego her orthopedic dog bed in my bedroom. In the middle of the night, I found her asleep on the living room rug next to one of Zeki’s favorite napping spots: a carpeted cat tree.

“Pets do grieve and I believe that they have a sense of the loss of a kindred spirit who they will miss,” Wright says.

Yes, I miss Zeki every day. Like many of you, she was what we term a “heart pet” — one who forever makes a positive difference in my life. It’s never easy to lose a pet, but the pain will, in due time, subside. Those precious memories of the good times you shared together, however, will last a lifetime.

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Article Categories:
Birds · Cats · Critters · Dogs · Lifestyle · Lifestyle · Lifestyle · Lifestyle


  • My cat Little Dexter is dying right now from squamous carcinoma. The vet gave him 3 to 4 weeks to live. He is at 4 weeks today. I feel like I am breaking. I am his hospice provider now and his soft place to rest. I can not imagine my life without him in it. All my family is gone, I have buried everyone. I don’t have any children or a husband, I only have Little Dexter. I see it in his beautiful green eyes, that he knows something is terribly wrong. I am trying to live in the moment and be thankful for each day I have left with my baby, but when I’m alone the tears fall like rain. I have taken him to say good bye to friends, to the pet store, to the lake. I am trying to make everyday the best for him because that is what he has done for me. I am breaking.

    Kathy Anne November 11, 2015 5:17 pm Reply
  • This expresses just how I am feeling – we had to put our beloved tabby cat Tigga to sleep last November at nearly 16 due to cancer, I have never had to do this before as my other cats have died naturally which the vet said is quite rare. I feel so guilty that I ended the life of an animal we loved and cherished so much but there was no more that could be done and we love him too much to see him suffer. His pal Millie who he lived his life with, misses him very much and we are giving her lots of extra love. I know it sounds awful but I miss him more than I would miss a lot of humans I know! Glad it’s not only me that feels so sad, wish they could live with us all through our lives xxxx❤️❤️

    Lorraine Mottershead March 29, 2016 11:37 am Reply
  • I saw my best bud Taz wither away last year and then came home from work and he was gone. It’s still breaking my heart… Every day

    Lori Hayes March 29, 2016 12:41 pm Reply
  • Little Bear died last Thursday unexpectedly at the vet. I am so sad.

    athas17 March 29, 2016 12:53 pm Reply
  • I have lost many over my long life
    To this day I miss them all…try to think of the happy times
    But my “heart” has been gone many years…and I feel like it was yesterday
    The older I get…the more I realize how special animals really are
    I have 3 cats remains feral and the big guy..the Bruiser…I pray I go before them
    My family has promised them homes if that should happen..
    Aren’t we lucky to have such love in our lives ????????????

    Linda March 29, 2016 1:57 pm Reply
  • I lost my Boo Boo cat at 7 years old. He had heart disease that was misdiagnosed. It was sudden and so unexpected. I still miss him terribly almost one year later. Sometimes it is even hard to look at photos. He was my little baby boy.

    Todd March 29, 2016 3:49 pm Reply
  • We lost 2 brothers last year(in July and September)at 5 years old.Papillon went first with bladder disease then Arnie had a stroke leading to heart failure.Both had to be euthanised and it broke my heart.i miss them both even now 6 months later.we have another cat but i fear that i will never love him as much as those precious boys.i still get teary when i think about them.

    Susan Murray March 29, 2016 3:50 pm Reply
  • The last cat I had I loved very much died at 19 years old. Her name was Tiger. I have great memories of her with pictures and some videos. Before she died I had some neighbors leave with me a ma ma cat and one of her 5 kittens with me. Tuxedo knew Tiger before she passed. I feel it was fate that I did not have to feel very sad for long because to this day I still have Annie and her baby, Tuxedo with me.

    Andrea March 29, 2016 8:06 pm Reply
  • My eyes filled with tears, I was just thinking of my beloved Calli, from kitten hood to 19 years of age,. 1 year and a half later and I still ball my eyes out. She WAS my child! They had to escort me out the back door of the hospital/. I don’t know how I drove to my brother’s house to bury her in his flower garden. She was so beautiful, I just couldn’t bring myself to cremate her. Close people think I’m nuts to still feel so much pain, so I carry it around in silence. “after all she’s just a cat”!

    catherine lingg March 29, 2016 10:23 pm Reply
  • On November 8th I had to put my sweet Sam, a male Tuxedo to sleep. He was only 8 yrs. old. He had diabetes and then got pancreatitis which is very painful. I brought him home and he did get a little better for a short time then became very ill again. My heart was broke, I cried to the point of chocking. I had lost my Mom suddenly last April28th, which was so hard because we talked everyday and were very close and I knew Sam was going to leave me. I adopted him and his sister Sophie she also knew something was wrong. I still miss my sweet boy so much I ache inside. When he was a baby he used my earlobe and nursed on it, weird I know. I want another kitten but I must think of Sophie. Our furbabies mean so much to us, losing them IS like losing a family member.

    Kitty Weston March 30, 2016 3:09 pm Reply
  • I’m still crying. My baby 11 yr tabby Little Bit was fine just a few days ago. Then she quit eating & started hiding & wanted to be left alone. I mixed some canned food with water & she ate some of that. Took her to the vet this morning. At first he thought it was an abcessed tooth. Then he saw how extensive the infection was. Then the knot in her gums. He put her under & checked & found it to be cancer that had traveled up behind her eye & was pushing her eye forward. I made the decision not to keep her in pain & & did not let her wake up. How did it happen so fast. No signs. Lost my dog Little Joe to cancer a few years ago & have another who just had a mass removed. I’m a mess right now. Some people are so strong & I can’t stop the tears.

    Terry Strick October 15, 2016 10:56 am Reply
  • last year i lost my bird Leela after having her for only about 2 months, i really hate myself for letting the dog get her, she was only a young bird! This year i got her sister, Alex and i had her for about 5 months and i had her cage outside, yet to know that the same dog would come round hearing her cheerful squawking and knock the cage down and she hit her head and got an eternal wound. I’m so sad since she was pretty much just a younger bird too! I’m only 10 and i’ve already had too many beautiful pets die! I can’t let this keep happening it is soon sad! And i remember when Alex died i wouldn’t let Dad burry her because i thought she might wake up because i read that sometimes birds have a shock and pass out, since she was still breathing, but sadly, she didn’t wake up she died the next day. And I LOVED her like my baby. I AM SOOO SAD!

    alexis October 26, 2016 2:13 am Reply

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