Doug’s amateur soccer team had just lost their playoff game and he needed a pick-me-up. So he decided to stop by the local animal shelter on his way home. He was by no means looking to adopt an animal but puppies always put a smile on his face. “Rookie mistake,” he told me in our psychotherapy session. “You set foot in one of these places and no way you’re not leaving with a puppy.” Delia, the puppy in question, was a five-month-old mutt. “I had her for seventeen years,” Doug said, wiping tears from his eyes, “Almost my entire adult life. I knew it would be rough when she died but I had no idea…I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone, even my old soccer teammates who loved Delia. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering 'allergies' whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.”
Losing a beloved pet is often an emotionally devastating experience. Yet, as a society, we do not recognize how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair our emotional and physical health. Symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average). The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that a woman whose dog died experienced Broken Heart Syndrome—a condition in which a person’s response to grief and heartbreak is so severe, they exhibits symptoms that mimic a heart attack, including elevated hormone levels that can be thirty times greater than normal.
While grief over the loss of a cherished pet may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our process of mourning is quite different. Because pet loss is disenfranchised, many of the societal mechanisms of social and community support are absent when a cherished pet dies. Few of us ask our employers for time off to grieve a beloved cat or dog as we fear doing so would paint us as overly sentimental, lacking in maturity or emotionally weak. And few employers would grant such requests were we to make them. Studies have found that social support is a crucial ingredient in recovering from grief of all kinds. Thus, we are not only robbed of crucial support systems when our pet dies, but our own perceptions of our emotional responses are likely to add an additional layer of emotional distress. We may feel embarrassed and even ashamed about the severity of the heartbreak we feel and consequently, hesitate to disclose our distress to our loved ones. We might even wonder what is wrong with us and question why we are responding in such "disproportional" ways to the loss.
Feeling intense grief that is then layered with shame about these feelings not only makes pet loss a bigger threat to our emotional health than it would be otherwise, it complicates the process of recovery by making it more lengthy and complex than it should be.
Further, given our societal attitude that invokes responses such as “It’s just an animal” and “You can just get another one” we are likely to overlook the variety of ways our lives are impacted by pet loss (both real, practical and psychological), which can blind us to steps we need to take in order to recover. Losing a pet can leave significant voids in our life that we need to fill: It can change our daily routines, causing ripple effects that go far beyond the loss of the actual animal.
For example, whether they are trained to or not, all pets function as therapy animals to some extent. Cats, dogs, horses and other cherished pets provide companionship, they reduce loneliness and depression and they can ease anxiety. Thus when we lose them we actually lose a significant and even vital source of support and comfort.
Caring for our pet also lets us develop routines and responsibilities around which we often craft our days. We get exercise by walking our dog and we socialize with other dog owners at the dog runs/parks/beaches. When our dog dies we might experience a significant drop in casual social interaction and feel left out of the unofficial community of dog owners to which we belonged. We awake early every day to feed our cat (or we are woken by them if we forget) but we get a lot more done because of it. Without our cat we might experience a real drop in productivity. Or we spend hours over the weekend out of the city so we can ride our horse, and find ourselves going stir crazy when our horse is no longer around. Losing a pet thus disrupts established routines that provide us with structure, support our emotional well-being and give our actions meaning. This is why, in addition to emotional pain, we feel aimless and lost in the days and weeks after our pet dies.
Lastly, we often consider ourselves parents to our pets and are even known as such in our communities. Everyone who owns a dog knows that neighbors on the street are far more likely to know our dog's name than they are to know ours. When our dog dies we can become invisible and lose a meaningful aspect of our identity. We post images and videos of our animals on social media and are followed for that reason. Losing a pet can impact many aspects of our own identities.
Recovering from pet loss, as in all forms of grief, requires us to recognize these changes and find ways to address them. We need to seek social support from people we know will understand and sympathize with our emotional pain and not judge us for it. Our best bet is to reach out to people we know who have also lost pets, as they are likely to understand our anguish and offer the best support. Many animal clinics offer bereavement groups for pet owners.
We also need to fill the voids the loss has created in our lives, and there are more of them than we might realize. We might need to reorganize our routines and daily activities so we don’t lose the secondary benefits we derived from having our pet. For example, if our exercise came from walking our dog we need to find alternative ways to reach our daily "step goals." If our social media reach was built on our cat’s starring Instagram popularity we need to find other ways to remain relevant social-media wise. If we spent most Saturday mornings with our Vizsla meetup group, we need to find other outlets through which we can socialize and enjoy the outdoors. If we were known in our neighborhood as “Delia’s dad” as Doug was, we need to find other ways of feeling connected and involved in our community.
Doug suffered far more than he should have because of the shame and isolation he experienced. It’s time we gave grieving pet owners the recognition, support and consideration they need. Yes, it is up to us to identify and address our emotional wounds when our pet dies, but the more validation we received from those around us, the quicker and the more complete our psychological recovery would be.