People who keep pets will understand that a very deep bond is often formed between humans and animals. This is called the human - animal bond and is currently a subject of much scientific interest. This bond between people and animals may become more important as we move further and further away from nature in our industrialized towns and cities. For many pet owners their animal becomes an important member of the family. Pets such as dogs and cats are very much individuals each with their own unique characteristics. Just like humans these creatures are impossible to "replace". Dogs and cats can be members of the family for 10 to 20 years and it is natural that they will leave a huge gap when they die. The demise of a much loved companion animal leads to feelings of grief for its owners. It is a sad fact that most pet animals have a shorter life-span than humans. It is therefore inevitable that owners will experience the death of their pets eventually. This can lead to very strong emotions because the bond between the person and the pet were so strong. For many people the death of their pet is less stressful than losing a close human family member but more stressful than the loss of other more distant relatives. The grief response to the death of a much loved pet is similar to the death of a human although it is usually less prolonged and not so intense.
Around two thirds of pet owners experience strong emotions after the death of their pet. These feelings may be more intense if the death was sudden or unexpected, if there was no time to say goodbye or the circumstances surrounding the death left unanswered questions. Emotions may be stronger if the pet was connected to another family member who is now deceased or if the animal was the only companion of a person. Often when the death of a pet occurs due to euthanasia people can feel an incredible sense of guilt as well as grief. This may compound the emotional difficulties around this time. However euthanasia is usually carried out in the animal's best interest to prevent it suffering and owners should never feel guilty about this.
When a pet dies the owner will often go through the grieving process. This process is natural and necessary to allow people to come to terms with their loss.
Grief has several phases. These phases may not always be experienced in the same way and feelings may often be very mixed throughout the grieving process. No two people will grieve in exactly the same way but splitting this very complex process into different phases may aid understanding of it.
The first phase of grief experienced by most people is denial or disbelief. During this stage there may be a feeling of numbness or shock. It is difficult to take in what has happened. Many people need to keep touching the body, checking for signs of life or searching for their pet, going back time and again to its usual places to try and find it. As a vet I usually try to allow people to spend as much time as they need with their deceased pet, especially if it has been put to sleep. I believe that allowing yourself time to be with your pet after it has died may help to make the period of disbelief and shock easier. I know that some owners just cannot take in the fact that their pet is gone and need time to understand it. This disbelief is normal and natural and will pass.
The second part of the early grieving process may involve bargaining or trying to alter the situation; this can often make people feel quite desperate and is quite distressing for them. It is probably mixed up with the feelings of disbelief discussed above. This stage too will pass and with it the feeling of desperately trying to "do something".
Anger is the next stage of grief - we vets often experience this stage as our clients need to blame someone for their pet's death. This is also normal and natural; with time and patient explanation of the problems your pet had, this stage too will pass as the grieving owner comes to realize that nothing could have been done to save their pet. Probably this is one of the most difficult situations in veterinary practice because vets will usually have done their absolute best for their patient and now they must experience the anger of the owner. We do understand that this is part of the grieving process and will always try to be patient and understanding. Grieving pet owners should also understand that these feelings are natural and need to be expressed; but when you are feeling as if your vet is to blame always allow them the chance to speak to you calmly and explain what happened. Very occasionally the vet may have made a mistake in which case you should make a formal complaint, initially to the practice principal. See complaints.
The next stage involves feelings of guilt. In most situations the pet owner will have done nothing wrong but may still feel guilty. Feelings of guilt are especially likely if your pet was put to sleep. Of course this guilt is probably inevitable but usually these decisions are not taken lightly and will have been in the best interests of your pet. If you find that you are experiencing feelings of guilt following the euthanasia of your pet it will probably be possible to discuss the reasons for the euthanasia with your vet again to reassure yourself that you did do the correct thing.
Depression does occur towards the end of the grieving process. There is nothing wrong with feeling depressed about the loss of something precious. Depression is only abnormal if it is very severe or goes on a long time.
Allow yourself the time and space that you need to complete the grieving process. Trying to remain strong and deny your sadness is not healthy and could make matters worse in the end. It takes time to grieve properly and you may need more time to go through some of the stages than others. You may not move through the phases of grief one at a time; feelings of anger could surface in the depressive phase etc. This does not mean that you are not moving through the grieving process it just means that you still have some issues to understand and come to terms with. Not everyone will experience all the phases of grief and everyone will grieve differently. It is not uncommon for someone to get stuck in one of the phases of grief and in this situation you may need counseling to help you through it. Finally there will come a time when a person can accept the loss of their pet and move on with their life. It is not likely that a loved pet will ever be forgotten but the memories will become much less painful with time; the day comes when thinking about your lost friend will bring a smile as you remember all the good times you had together.
There are often problems if grief goes unresolved. The most serious problems involve thoughts of suicide. If you feel intense sadness or think you need help to deal with your grief then you should consider contacting the Pet Bereavement Support Service. This is a telephone help line on 0800 0966606 open between 8.30am and 8.30pm daily.