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How to Cope with Pet Loss

Animals are part of our families and more than “just pets.” One of the hardest things we do is say goodbye to them when they die.

Whether you have cats, dogs, rabbits, or lizards, they provide significant emotional support, mental health benefits, and unwavering companionship. We feel a considerable loss when we lose our pets.

Grieving for a loved one is a natural, normal process. It’s not something that someone can just “get over.” This article discusses some tips on dealing with the pain of losing a pet and offers suggestions to ease the process.

How do you know when your pet’s health is declining?

Knowing signs of your pet’s declining health can help you prepare, care for them, and ensure their final days are comforting and full of love.

“Try to prepare as much as possible beforehand,” said Michelle Mezansky, MSW, LCSW, a veterinary social worker at the MSPCA-Angell in Boston. “Taking a look at the quality of life measures helps you because each pet – and owner – is different.”

Pain or discomfort

Any sign of pain and discomfort can be a symptom that indicates declining health. Unfortunately, pets cannot express their feelings of discomfort, but they do show them in other ways. Pay attention to the following:

  • Hiding – If they are missing, you may find them hiding under the bed or in the back of a closet. Wild animals instinctively hide when sick or injured because they could become prey. Domesticated pets do the same thing.
  • Reluctance to interact with family – Suddenly, they’re not by your side to watch TV after dinner and prefer to be by themselves.
  • Irritability/aggression – Instead of spending time with you, they are standoffish and ignore you (or don’t even realize you are near them). Your pet may not recognize you and get frightened, leading to not normal aggressive behavior.
  • Restlessness/trembling – They pace and seem unsure of themselves, almost as if they are confused or lost.
  • Panting – While a dog panting is a sign that they are hot, it can also mean that something is wrong and they are nervous or afraid.
  • Loss of mobility – They may show no interest in going for a stroll or jumping onto your lap for a cuddle, and they may have a hard time climbing stairs.
  • Sleeping a lot – Senior pets love their naps, but you should be on alert for something else if they start sleeping excessively.

Little to no appetite

When your pet is a grazer, they may not seem keen on eating when you want them to, but eventually, they’ll head for the bowl or feeder and start to eat.

However, if your pet has always eaten well and suddenly stops eating, it’s a cause for concern. Pets often lose their appetite during their final days; nausea or pain can be the cause, or they can have neurological issues that make them forget they need to eat. Vomiting and diarrhea often coincide with your pet not wanting to eat.

No interest in their favorite activities

Maybe your cat is no longer interested in watching the bird feeder, or your dog ignores you when you throw a ball. Lying motionless, not interested in toys or walks, or barely acknowledging family members – in other words, just not acting like themselves – should send up red flags that’s something wrong.

Sometimes, in addition to avoiding playtime, pets will stop interacting with you or the family (when they hide). Other pets may suddenly want to spend all their time with you and get clingy.

Your pet stops taking care of themselves

Pet parents are solely responsible for their pets, but animals do some things independently. Dogs tell their humans they need to go out instead of soiling themselves. Cats also have grooming rituals.

Unfortunately, as pets age, they often become incontinent and lose control of their bladders and bowels. Either they can’t hold them anymore or aren’t aware they need to relieve themselves.

Loss of mobility

As a pet parent, you know what motivates your four-footed friend to run around (the “zoomies”) or toss a catnip toy. But when a pet is at the end of its life, they often experience stiffness and pain in its joints. If your pet is struggling to keep up with its daily routines, this may be a sign of growing weaker.

More bad days than good days

Some pets go quickly, and their symptoms present all at once, but there are times when there are gradual signs of your pet’s declining health. It helps to journal about your pet or make notes on your phone, documenting what your pet is doing. Observe how they eat, if they go to the bathroom, and if they do anything unusual.

“Determining what a ‘good day’ versus a ‘bad day’ can help you,” says Julie Gass, LISCW, a veterinary social worker at the MSPCA-Angell in Boston. “It can help test your reality, showing you their true condition and ultimately what the best option is for them.” 

When you start seeing declining health symptoms increase or the “good” days start dwindling, it may be time to have that difficult talk with your veterinarian.

Talk to your veterinarian

You should always talk to your family vet if you feel your pet’s health declines. “Vets are very good at knowing the physical symptoms of pain and suffering. They’re honest about whether it’s time to euthanize,” explained Gass.

Healthy ways to cope with your pet’s death

Whether your pet dies by accident, illness, or old age, there is no clear timeline for grieving. So, how do you keep from feeling like everything is unraveling?

The Four Tasks of Mourning

We can better understand grief by looking at the Four Tasks of Mourning, a framework devised by psychologist J. William Worden. His theory focuses on humans grieving for other humans, but the same principle applies to pet loss. Grievers should work on these tasks individually as they heal, switching between them.

1. Accept the reality of losing your pet

“This first part – accepting the reality – is when you realize what just happened, and you get that numbing head fog feeling,” explains Gass. “It finally hits you that your pet won’t be home to greet you when you return from work or wake up in the morning.”

Suggestion: Try to let yourself feel

Grieving is a personal experience, and it’s crucial to embrace your feelings. Remember that whatever you feel is normal. If you don’t cry, that’s fine too.

Image courtesy of habitsforwellbeing.com

2. Process the pain of grieving your pet

“Processing what happened – this starts to hit you like a hammer,” Gass continues. “This is when the numbing head fog feeling starts to recede as you think about everything that happened. You might have flashbacks, remembering those last hours with your pet before they passed away.

Suggestion: Allow yourself to grieve

Grieving is a natural process. No one should judge you, so try not to listen to anyone who tells you to “move on” or “get over it.” Research shows that bottled-up emotions cause physical and mental stress, so remember the good times, and let out your anger, sadness, and frustration.

3. Adjust to a world without your pet

“The third task is memorializing and figuring out how to live differently now that your pet is gone,” says Gass. “It’s where you seek out how to still connect with them and keep them in your life.”

Suggestion: Set up a memorial in their honor

One of the biggest things is to keep their memory somehow alive and keep them in your life however possible. If you bury your pet, you can visit its grave. If you had them cremated, you could always ensure that they have a place in your home. If they had a favorite place to nap outside, perhaps plant a tree in their name.

4. Find a way to remember your pet while moving forward in life

“I don’t like the saying “moving on” in grief because it’s not – grief stays with you forever,” said Gass. “Instead, it’s figuring out how to plan for your future. Now that things are different, what does your future look like?”

Suggestion: Try a mourning process

Grieving rituals have been practiced throughout history to cope with emotional pain. It is possible to find closure when you commemorate your pet. Making a photo collage, writing poems, or arranging a unique resting place for your pet are excellent ways to honor your love.

A thank-you note or card is also a good idea. Share with your pet how they helped you, your favorite memories, and how much you love them. Feel free to express yourself. Remember: mourning is a personal process, so write anything you want.

Spend time with your other pets (or those of friends and family)

Pet loss affects more than just you. The other pets in your household notice your absence and the stress you are experiencing. They may grieve in their ways, too. Despite how difficult it may seem for you at this time, you should keep their daily routines, including playtime, grooming, and affection.

If you don’t have other pets at home, try visiting your local animal shelter when you are ready or plan an activity with a friend and their pet. By loving others and spending time with them, you will feel better – and they will appreciate it!

Remove their items at your own pace

While some people may try to get rid of a pet’s things right after death, others may have to go more gradually. If it’s hard to let go of your pet’s items right away, don’t fret. Don’t stress over the way you do it. You can do it at a pace that’s right for you.

“Sometimes it’s better not throwing away everything all at once,’ suggests Gass. “True, it may hurt to see your pet’s bed or favorite toy, but just move it to another room. You want to make sure you’re not making any big decisions in those moments of grief because you might regret it later.”

Consider talking with someone who can relate

People who grieved the loss of a pet can empathize with you and may even have tips to cope with grief. “Hearing someone tell you, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ helps greatly,” says Gass.

Another route is seeking out a pet loss support group or hotline. At the MSPCA-Angell, Gass and Mezansky offer monthly support group meetings for anyone facing the end stages of their pet’s life. They also provide individual counseling for people who are MSPCA-Angell clients. For non-Angell clients, they offer a one-time consultation in-person to help people find community resources.

“One of the most important steps to dealing with pet loss is having access to a peer support group,” says Mezansky. “Whether it’s a meeting with other pet owners experiencing pet loss, or getting together with a close friend or relative, having someone you can talk to helps you normalize what happened and what you’re experiencing.”

 

Conclusion

It can be just as devastating to lose a beloved pet as to lose a human relative or friend. The MSCPA-Angell understands the difficulties of coping with the loss of your pet, as their companionship and loyalty are unique and unmatched. Over time, though, living without your pet will become easier. While honoring your pet’s special love, it’s also essential to take care of yourself and let the grieving process run its course.

 

Image courtesy of Christin Lola, Getty Images

 

Caregiver Support at the MSPCA-Angell is committed to providing you with personal attention and empathy. We offer complimentary grief support and guidance for our Angell clients. For more information on our services, visit mspca.org/grief-counseling. Contacts: Julie Gass, LICSW, at jgass@mspca.org or Michelle Mezansky, MSW, LCSW, at mmezansky@mspca.org.

 

 

REFERENCES

“How Will I Know When It’s Time To Say Goodbye?” Lap of Love, https://www.lapoflove.com/how-will-i-know-it-is-time

“Saying Goodbye to Your Dog: How to Know When It’s Time,” Michelson Found Animals, https://www.foundanimals.org/saying-goodbye-to-your-dog

“How to Tell If Your Dog Is In Pain,” American Animal Hospital Association, https://www.aaha.org/globalassets/02-guidelines/pain-management/painmanagement_dogs_web.pdf

“Helping Your Dog Cross the Bridge: How to Assess Your Dog’s Quality of Life by Dr. Alice Villalobos, The Grey Muzzle Organization, https://www.greymuzzle.org/grey-matters/health-and-well-being-end-life-care-and-planning-care-end-life/helping-your-dog-cross

“Is My Dog Dying? Here Are Some Warning Signs and Symptoms,” Dog Cancer Blog, https://www.dogcancerblog.com/articles/end-of-life-care/warning-signs-dog-dying

“5 Ways to Cope With the Loss of a Pet,” Michelson Found Animals, https://www.foundanimals.org/4-ways-to-cope-with-loss-of-a-pet

“How to Cope When You’re Grieving the Loss of a Pet,” Psych Central, https://psychcentral.com/lib/grieving-the-loss-of-a-pet

“Euthanasia: When is it Time and How Do You Prepare?” MSPCA-Angell,

https://www.mspca.org/angell_services/euthanasia

“Coping with the death of your pet,” Humane Society,

https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/coping-death-your-pet

“Moving Forward Through Pet Loss,” Marla Ruhana, LMSW, https://marlaruhana.com/blog/moving-forward-through-pet-loss

“Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning,” Our House Grief Support Center,

https://www.ourhouse-grief.org/grief-pages/grieving-adults/four-tasks-of-mourning