Is pet grief real?

Julia Dicconson
Content Manager
December 20, 2020

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with almost two-thirds of households being home to pets. That’s more households with a pet than homes with a child!

The relationship between people and their pets is recognised as a strong emotional bond. Pets provide companionship, unconditional love, loyalty and acceptance throughout their lives. For some people, the connection can be likened to that experienced in close human-to-human relationships. 

In many households pets are even regarded as important family members. In fact, 70 to 80 per cent of owners either describe their pets as family members or consider them as their children. 

But the unfortunate part of pet ownership is that animals commonly have much shorter lifespans than humans. Sadly, almost everyone who opens their home and heart to a pet will experience the death of their companion animal at some stage of their life. As a result, the loss of a non-human family member can still cause significant grief.

Pets and grief

Pet-related grief is often traumatic and distressing for many people. The loss can be extremely difficult, leaving pet owners to feel alone and isolated in their grief. So it’s important not to dismiss grief following the death of a pet.

When a pet dies, the loss of these sacred bonds can be devastating and cause an intensified grief reaction. Recent studies into pet grief suggest that the closer a person’s relationship was with the deceased pet, the stronger their grief response will be. But despite death being a permanent physical separation, a lingering emotional connection sometimes remains. 

Pet grief has no timeframe

Some research suggests that pet grief tends to decrease after six months. But for others, grief may persist for more than a year. In some cases, grief may be complex and last for several years. The way in which we experience and express our grief is as unique as our individual fingerprint. Just as there is no set timeframe for grief after the loss of a loved person, there are no rules for how long pet-related grief should last.

But grief is not something that ever goes away. It waxes and wanes. Grief takes time. In the same way that the loss has permanently changed your life, grief is now something that is a part of you. You do not ever move on from grief or get over it. Instead, think about it as integration into your life and look at ways to move forward with your grief. Its intensity will change and lessen as you keep moving. In some cases, however, the grief may be prolonged and can require clinical intervention.

Why pet grief shouldn’t be dismissed

When a pet dies, not only is there grief associated with the emotional experience of loss of the animal companion, but it's often compounded by the guilt with the decision to put a sick pet to sleep. Researchers have found this guilt and grief is often felt by vets as well. The consequence of this ethical dilemma isn’t generally a factor when it comes to the end of a human life.

Many people who have experienced the death of a pet regard the bereavement to parallel with the grief of losing a close human companion. Some grieving pet owners experience numbness and disbelief, while others feel a part of them has ‘gone’. The grief even can be so overwhelming that it causes trouble with eating, sleeping, concentrating, and other psychological and social difficulties. Some people even miss days of work due to their immense grief following the death of a pet. 

Despite these parallels with human-related grief, the grief associated with the loss of a pet is often misunderstood and undervalued in today’s society.

The heartache following a human loss is a universally accepted reason for grieving. But bereavement after the death of a pet is often not acknowledged or validated by society. This is what’s known as ‘disenfranchised grief’. Disfranchised grief can also be self-imposed, resulting in us not being able to openly talk about our grief experience.

People may feel embarrassed to express their grief after the death of a pet. They can be hesitant to share their experiences and memories of their pet publicly if they fear they may be ridiculed for mourning the loss of an animal life. On the other hand, those who are encouraged to share their experiences in a supportive setting often find it helps validating that their experiences are not ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’, but a normal response.

To better support pet owners to cope with their grief, a new field of veterinary social work began around 20 years ago. While it is still an emerging study area, some universities in America have altered their curriculum in recent years to include veterinary social work to better support bereaved pet owners.

If so many people regard their pets as their ‘children’, then why shouldn’t pet grief be acknowledged as a valid form of loss? Grief is unique to each relationship and it deserves the appropriate recognition to help people better cope with their bereavement. Our articles Coping with pet grief and Supporting those grieving a pet offer some practical tips.

We’re here for you

Don’t wait until the very end. It’s important to consider your pet’s end-of-life journey early, so that you, your family and your pet are all supported through the process.

When the time comes, we’re here for you. Goodbye Good Boy provides a range of end-of-life services to make the difficult process of saying goodbye a little easier. 

We offer quality of life assessments from qualified vets, specialist grief counselling, at home euthanasia from dedicated end of life veterinarians, as well as cremation services and memorial options to help remember your pet for their unique character.

We are with you at every step of the journey.

To find out more, you can call our team of passionate pet lovers on 1800 953 619.