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Losing A Pet Is Just As Hard As A Loved One — Here Is How People Cope

Recent research indicates there are five different themes people can experience while grieving the loss of a pet.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiApr 15, 2024 1:00 PM
memorial of a past dalmation
(Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)


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On The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart tearfully described how his dog passed away just the day before.

Stewart’s family had Dipper, a three-legged pitbull rescue, for more than 12 years. He went to work with Stewart, and the loss was hard to accept.

“He was ready. He was tired, but I wasn’t,” Stewart said in a video.

Many people with pets can relate. In recent years, scientists have also been trying to better understand the grief people experience when they lose a pet. Researchers are learning that pet grief is complex and often profound.

How Many People Have Pets?

Sixty-two percent of Americans have a pet, and 97 percent consider them a member of the family. About half say furry family members are just as important as the humans.

Because many people consider their pets family, losing a companion animal can be devastating. In a 2020 study in OMEGA- Journal of Death and Dying, researchers analyzed online forum posts (N=401) in which people discussed loss.

Among the posts, the researchers selected 100 related to the loss of a spouse, 100 for the loss of a child, 96 for siblings, 52 for cats and 53 for dogs.

The analysis found similarities between pet and partner loss discussions. People were more likely to use “we” when discussing their dogs and partners than the posters writing about their siblings or children. The researchers noted that we-speak is an indicator of a shared identity as well as an indicator of how well the relationship functions.

Overall, the researchers found a similar use of language when describing human and pet loss and concluded that pet grief should be taken seriously, especially in clinical practice.    

Losing a Loved One

Mocha Latte (Credit: Rachel M.P. Caddiell)

For Rachel M.P. Caddiell, her Shih Tzu, Mocha Latte, had been in her life since she was eight. Caddiell showed her off at 4-H events when she was young and later trained her as a therapy dog who visited nursing homes.

“I spent quite a bit of my life with her. She had seen me through college and my master’s program. She had been with me a long time,” says Caddiell, now a post-doctoral research scholar in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University in the Comparative Behavioral Research Laboratory.

Mocha passed away at age 16 when Caddiell was in her doctoral program. The loss prompted Caddiell to think about the grief response. Her research found there is an array of emotions tied to pet loss. 

Read More: The Stages of Grief Are Unique to Everyone, but They Can Help us Cope

Grieving the Loss of a Pet

In a 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Caddiell and her research partners examined 48 studies that addressed how people coped after losing a companion animal. They identified five major themes within the literature.

1. Owner Response

The first theme related to owner response. People who felt close to their animals had a greater grief response. Women tended to report greater despair as well as a willingness to seek help. Teens and seniors were identified as groups vulnerable to profound grief. For teens, the loss could be the first time they ever experienced death. Seniors, in contrast, might experience a pet passing along with a series of other painful losses in their lives.

2. Letting Go

The second theme addressed euthanasia. In many instances, euthanasia can allow a family time to say goodbye to their beloved pet and even engage in some meaningful rituals. Caddiell, for example, had an Australian shepherd, Java Bean, who loved the sun. Before they said goodbye, she set up a blanket on the grass so they could sunbathe together.

The study found euthanasia was a complex topic. It brought anticipatory grief, meaning people had to think about the pending loss well before they experienced it. One study found that 83 percent of people felt euthanasia brought their pet an “honorable death.” Still, 30 percent still reported experiencing profound grief. 

3. Feeling Alone

The third theme identified disenfranchised grief, in which a person doesn’t feel they can share their sorrow because others won’t understand or think, “It was just a cat” or “only a dog.”

“People who view animals differently can minimize the loss. They can dismiss the grief or not recognize the grief, and this can lead to the pet owner internalizing the grief,” Caddiell says.

Internalizing grief can prolong the experience while deepening negative emotions. 

4. Not Knowing

The fourth theme, ambiguous pet loss, is a grief experience that lacks closure. For some people, it can involve a non-death loss such as relocation, divorce, or an animal running away.

Caddiell says the literature identified ambiguous pet loss as greatly upsetting, but it’s also an understudied topic that needs to be studied further because it can have a long-term, distressing impact on grieving humans.  

5. Coping Mechanisms

The fifth theme identified coping mechanisms. For some people, grief was about isolation and internalizing their despair. Others were able to engage in social support. For example, Caddiell says friends brought her flowers after she lost Mocha, and those bouquets reminded her that her grief was valid and she wasn’t alone.

Memorialization was also a way for people to work through their grief. This could mean displaying a dog’s favorite toy or keeping their ashes in a special place. In a related coping mechanism, Caddiell says the literature found spirituality as comforting, something she wasn’t expecting but thought it made sense. “When I was little, I lost my Guinea pig, and I invited my friends to his funeral. We buried him in the backyard,” she says.

Connecting with animals was another way people worked through their grief. For some people, this meant caring for animals already in their family. For others, it meant bringing new pets into the family.

Caddiell says participants in the study understood the new pet wasn’t a replacement. But the new animal allowed them to carry on with rituals they treasured like walking the dog or meeting people at the dog park.

Java Bean (Credit: Rachel M.P. Caddiell)

For Caddiell, the loss of Mocha and then Java was grief-inducing. Comfort soon came her way through a new coffee-named family member — Chai Latte.

Read More: Do Dogs Grieve Other Dogs?

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Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

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