There are more than 353 million animal companions in the United States. More than 61 percent of households own a pet; 39 percent have dogs as pets; and 32 percent have cats. In addition to dogs and cats, other animals considered animal companions—that is, pets—are birds, fish, rabbits, hamsters, and reptiles. Every year, millions of pets die from natural causes or injury, or are euthanized. Because many people form deep and significant emotional attachments to their pets, at any given time the number of people suffering from grief in relation to the loss of a pet is quite high. Pet loss has been shown to potentially have a serious impact on an owner's physical and emotional wellbeing. Part of what accounts for the profoundness of the human reaction can best be explained through a discussion of the bond between animal and human.
Factors contributing to the formation of bonds between people and their pets include companionship, social support, and the need for attachment. Pets often become active members of a household, participating in diverse activities with the owners. Indeed, according to the grief expert Therese Rando, pets have some outstanding qualities as a partner in a relationship. "They are loyal, uncritical, nonjudgmental, relatively undemanding, and usually always there. Many of them are delighted merely to give and receive affection and companionship. They can be intuitive, caring and engaging, often drawing us out of ourselves" (Rando 1988, p. 59). Understandably, therefore, when the bond between pet and owner is broken, a grief response results.
Grief is defined as "the complex emotional, mental, social, and physical response to the death of a loved one" (Kastenbaum 1998, p. 343). Rando adds that grief is a process of reactions to the experience of loss: It has a beginning and an end. "Research and clinical evidence reveal that in many cases the loss of a pet is as profound and farreaching as the loss of a human family member" (Rando 1988, p. 60), with grief, sometimes protracted and crippling, as an outcome. However, there is generally little social recognition of this form of loss. Despite the fact that the resolution of the grief often surpasses the length of time seen with human losses, the easy accessibility and replacement of the lost animal often provokes hidden grief reactions. Grief may also be hidden because of the owner's reluctance and shame over feeling so intensely over a nonhuman attachment. People who have lost a pet may repress their feelings, rationalize or minimize their loss, or use denial as a way to cope. The intensity and stages of grieving depend on various factors, including the age of the owner, the level and duration of the attachment between pet and owner, the owner's life situation, and the circumstances surrounding the loss.
In 1998 social worker JoAnn Jarolmen studied pet loss and grief, comparing the reactions of 106 children, 57 adolescents, and 270 adults who had lost pets within a twelve-month period. In her study, the scores for grief for the children were significantly higher than for the adults. The fact that children grieved more than adults over the loss of a pet was surprising being that children seem more distractible and are used to the interchangeability of objects. The grief score was higher for the entire sample of the one-to-four-month group—after death—than the five-to-eight-month group. Similarly, in 1994 John Archer and George Winchester studied eighty-eight participants who had lost a pet, and found that 25 percent showed signs of depression, anger, and anxiety a year after the loss. Grief was more pronounced among those living alone, owners who experienced a sudden death, and those who were strongly attached to their pets. Pet owners who are elderly may suffer especially profound grief responses because the presence of a companion animal can make the difference between some form of companionship and loneliness.
Within a family, the loss of a pet can have a significant impact. Pets frequently function as interacting members of the family; hence, the absence of the pet will affect the behavior patterns of the family members with the potential for a shift in roles.
Grief from pet loss is not confined to owners. For veterinarians, the option of euthanasia places the doctor in the position of being able to end the lives, legally and humanely, of animals they once saved. As the veterinarian injects the drugs that end the suffering of the animal, he or she is involved in the planned death of a creature, perhaps one dearly loved by the owner(s). In the presence of death and grief, the veterinarian is often placed in a highly stressful situation.
For people with disabilities, the loss of a pet takes on another dimension because the animal not only provides companionship but is relied on to assist its owner with a level of independence and functioning. For this population, the necessity to replace the animal is paramount to maintain a level of functioning; the grief over the loss may become secondary. Counseling may be important to help the owner remember the unique qualities of the deceased animal as he or she works to train a new one.
When to replace the animal is often a dilemma. Quickly replacing a pet is rarely helpful and does not accelerate the grieving process. The loss of a pet is significant and immediate replacement tends to negate the healing aspects of grief.
Counseling for grieving pet owners should be considered when individuals experience a prolonged period of grief with attendant depression, when it is the first experience of death (usually for young children), and when a family seems to be struggling to realign itself after the loss. The focus of counseling is to help clients cope with the loss through discussion of their feelings, fostering of remembrances, and support of positive coping mechanisms.
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