Coping with the loss of a pet

Claire Dunling

Whether its Tom Hardy’s heartfelt eulogy to his dog or the Queen’s loss of one of her beloved Corgis; as pet lovers, we can all relate to the heartbreak of losing a friend.

The death of a pet is a certain part of ownership because of their relatively short lifespan. Whilst inevitable and a common part of life, the loss of a pet is perhaps one of the most significant losses due to the strength of the human-animal bond. A harrowing part of this process often involves a decision about euthanasia, literally meaning a ‘good death’.

That horrible decision

Vets are morally and ethically obligated to put an end to an animal’s suffering and pain when the quality of life has fallen below an acceptable level. Planning a pet’s death (as a member of the family) is a tough decision for both vet and owner and one that is often made in a short period of time or under stress.

Disruption of routine, the loss of enjoyable past times such as walking the dog, unanswered questions about the cause of the illness and sometimes loss of a link to special people now departed, adds to the grief. The grieving process following the death of a pet is the same as that felt after a human’s departure. Initially, feelings of shock and denial or sometimes anger is felt, followed by emotional pain and suffering which can last a long time before one comes to terms with the death of a companion.

If you have to make 'that decision' don't worry about showing your emotions in front of the vet - we find it every bit as tough as you do and totally understand
John Campbell, Head Vet of Pet Drugs Online

Why the loss of a pet is so hard

The human-animal bond is a term that is used throughout the world and is described as ‘a continuous two-way relationship between a human and an animal that brings significant benefit to a central aspect of the lives of each’.

This is in some sense voluntary in which each party treats the other as an object of admiration, trust, devotion or love. This is reflected in the substitution of ‘pet animal’ to ‘companion animal’ in recent years.

Icebreakers and therapy

There is no stronger example of this bond than in the number of therapeutic animals that exist from guide dogs for the blind, to hearing dogs for the deaf and riding for the disabled. Therapy dogs have now been introduced to airport terminals to calm nervous flyers!  The simple act of stroking an animal can improve a person’s well-being and recovery from illness evidenced from studies of ‘pat dogs’ in hospitals.

Pets also benefit us by stabilising our lives, acting as ‘icebreakers’ in social situations, providing leisure activities as well as emotional support.

Soft touch

Alan Beck wrote that it is the loving devotion, the Soft Touch, the constant companionship, the attentive eye, and the uncritical ear of the pet that is so attractive to many of us. Pets are uncritically accepting, give love completely and openly, and are loyal at-all-times under all circumstances.

While losing a pet can be extremely difficult and painful to overcome, always remember that your time together is something to cherish and look back on fondly. Your pet, your family and you will have shared in the love and memories. So dwell on the good times, when they were young and full of vigour, not those last moments when they weren’t at their best.

This post is an opinion and should only be used as a guide. You should discuss any change to your pet’s care or lifestyle thoroughly with your vet before starting any program or treatment.

If in doubt contact your veterinary practice

And always keep your vet's phone number handy - just in case!