Pet Loss Support
Recognizing the strength of the human-animal bond and the pain experienced when the bond is broken, The Center for Human-Animal Interaction offers several resources to help grieving owners and professionals working with grieving owners.
Adjusting to the Loss of a Pet
Sandra B. Barker, Ph.D., LPC, NCC
Professor of Psychiatry
Director, Center for Human-Animal Interaction
It is no surprise to pet owners to learn of research documenting the close emotional bond that rapidly develops between people and their pets. For most of us, our pets represent so much: a loyal companion, confidant, and loving family member. Our pets share our lives for years and support us in good times and bad. So when a pet dies, or is lost or stolen, many of us feel a deep sense of loss and our lives suddenly seem turned upside down. We find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster crying one minute, angry the next, and numb at other times. We grieve and grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss. And losing a beloved pet is certainly a significant loss.
Unfortunately, many in our society don’t understand the unique bond we share with our dogs. They make insensitive comments such as, "It was just a dog, get over it" or "You can always get another one". Such comments might be well intentioned, but clearly reflect a lack of understanding of the close and unique bond that exists between most owners and their pets.
Grief is a normal, but individualized process. People grieve in their own way, based on their culture, beliefs, and past experiences with death and loss. For many, grief following the loss of a pet is very similar to grief following the loss of a family member or close friend. Owners often experience an initial period of shock to the news of the terminal illness or death of a pet, characterized by denial. In essence, our psychological defense systems kick in to protect us from the overwhelming news. Grief typically involves phases of feeling anger and guilt. This anger might be directed toward a veterinarian who was unable to save the pet, a careless driver who may have run over the pet, or the pet for dying and leaving the owner. Often the owners are angry at themselves for not being able to prevent the death and experience a great deal of guilt. Sadness is another phase typically experienced. The owner feels a deep void, an emptiness without the pet. Over time, if we allow ourselves to grieve, we reach a phase of recovery when we begin to reinvest our emotions and energy toward ourselves and other loved ones. A time when we remember more of the happy, special times shared with the deceased pet.
In collaboration with participating veterinary hospitals and other animal-related facilities in the Richmond, Virginia area, telephone pet loss support is offered for clients of participating facilities. Support is provided by a licensed mental health professional with expertise in pet loss counseling. Currently, the following groups are supporting the Pet Loss Support Service:
- Ashland Veterinary Hospital
- Cary Street Veterinary Hospital
- Colonial Heights Veterinary Hospital
- Ironbridge Animal Hospital
- Lee-Davis Veterinary Hospital
- Midlothian Animal Clinic
- Springfield Veterinary Center
- Sycamore Veterinary Hospital
- Town & Country Veterinary Clinic
- Veterinary Referral and Critical Care
- Wellesley Animal Hospital
For those who don’t have an understanding family member or friend to whom they can talk about their grief, and for others who need some additional support during this difficult time, there are a variety of pet loss resources available. A sample of these are listed below:
Pet loss author Moira Anderson offers a pet loss resource site at www.pet-loss.net
Pet Loss Support Helplines (free service):
There are a number of telephone help lines for pet lost. An online list is available at www.petloss.com/phones
Individual Pet Loss Counseling (pay for service):
Most mental health professionals are sensitive to the pain and grief associated with the loss of a pet. The National Board for Certified Counselors maintains a national directory of certified counselors available to the public.