Mourning the Death of a Pet

April 21, 2010 - NEW YORK TIMES


Years ago, I had an orange tabby cat named Dave who was more person than pet. Sometimes when my husband and I were visiting our neighbors in Houston, we would hear a knock at the door. “It’s probably Dave,” our friends would say, and sure enough, there he was on the step, waiting to be invited in with the rest of us.

When Dave died after being hit by a speeding car, I remember feeling a profound sense of loss and dreaded going to work the next day. “My cat died,” I told my editors, wiping my eyes with a tissue. Even as I explained, I knew I sounded silly to them.

I thought about Dave recently as I was reading an article on about the death of a pet. Leigh Pretnar Cousins writes about how she lost so much more than a pet when her 14-year-old silver cat, Luna, died.

I am stunned at how much I miss her and how empty the house feels without her soft round self asleep on the sofa. With her passing goes a chunk of my son Matt’s childhood. He was 10 years old when he selected her out of a box of kittens abandoned at the wildlife center….In Matt’s raising of and caring for Luna, I witnessed an enduring trait in my son: his extraordinary gift for nurturing.

Last year, researchers from the University of Hawaii’s animal science department conducted a study to determine the level of grief and stress that a pet owner experiences when a pet dies. Among 106 pet owners interviewed from a veterinary clinic, 52 percent had lost one or more pets from natural causes, while 37 percent had lost a pet to euthanasia. Although many pet owners experience significant grief when a pet dies, about 30 percent reported grief that lasted six months or longer. Severe grief that resulted in major life disruption was less common but was estimated as high as 12 percent of those studied.

It’s not only animal researchers who are taking note of the grief that occurs when a pet dies. The journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care noted that the bond between people and their pets can affect both physical and mental health, and that the grief reaction that occurs after a pet’s death is “in many ways comparable to that of the loss of a family member.”

“Unfortunately, the loss of a pet is not recognized consistently by friends, acquaintances or colleagues as a significant or authentic occasion for bereavement,” the journal authors wrote.

When my cat died, the reaction was mixed. One person shrugged and said, “Well, I’m a dog person.” A well-meaning friend fumbled when he asked, “Are you over the cat thing yet?” The best response was from a man I worked with who adored his pet basset hounds. I received a sympathy card in the mail noting that a donation to the local animal shelter had been made in the memory of Dave.

To learn more, read the full PsychCentral post, “When a Beloved Pet Passes Away.” The Humane Society of the United States also offers advice on coping with grief after a pet dies.

Please join the discussion. How did you cope with the grief of losing a pet?

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm on my couch reading this, and my female Shiba came up to me out of the blue and started showering me with affection, eventually ending up in my lap and taking a nap as I rubbed her belly. I will be heartbroken when I lose her. She is always there to comfort and calm us when we are angry, upset, or sad. She is the sweetest and most kind creature I have ever known.

Digressing a bit, this made me think of a Futurama episode called "Jurassic Bark". In it, Fry discovers the fossilized remains of his dog, Seymour, from the 21st century. According to the Wiki article about it, " critic Dan Iverson remarking that the climax was 'one of the saddest endings to a television program that I have ever seen'". I am not ashamed to admit I cry just thinking about it and I bawl anytime I watch it.

There is something deep in most pet owners relationship with their pets, and I can see how for some it is like losing a human family member.
Thanks for posting this! I just posted a discussion topic about helping someone deal with the loss of a pet. When we lost our last cat, Riley (he was 18 and half and in the last stages of chronic renal failure), one of my co-workers actually LAUGHED at me when I, tearing up, said that I was upset because that evening we were taking him to the vet to "say goodbye" to him. This co-worker said, "Why not just let the animal's just a cat." I had to bite my tongue, but I realized that was just his attitude. He then took off on a discussion about, what if it was a human...would I be inclined to "put it down." I said, yes, that In fact I did believe in euthanasia for humans OR animals that are suffering. He was a little shocked...just a difference in opinion...but I still think I'm right! :)


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