Final Act of Caring
End of Care Guidelines
End of life care and decision making embody the critical final state in a pet’s life and are as important and meaningful as the sum of the clinical care provided for all prior life stages. Care should focus on maximizing patient comfort and minimizing suffering while providing a collaborative and supportive partnership with the client. Animal hospice care addresses the patient’s unique emotional and social needs as well as the physical needs traditionally treated in clinical practice. A treatment plan should be personalized and consist of client education, evaluating the client needs and goals for the pet.
Most of us share an intense love and bond with our animal companions, so it’s natural to feel devastated by feelings of grief and sadness when a cherished pet dies. The pain of loss can often feel overwhelming and trigger all sorts of painful and difficult emotions. While some people may not understand the depth of feeling you had for your pet, you should never feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend. Instead, use these healthy ways to cope with your loss, comfort yourself and others, and begin the process of moving on.
Grief and Coping with Pet Loss
Grieving is a highly individual experience. Some people find grief following the loss of a pet comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that their grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet. Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak or your feelings are somehow misplaced. It just means that you’re mourning the loss of an animal you loved, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed. Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
Coping with the grief of pet loss
Sorrow and grief are normal and natural responses to death. Like grief for our friends and loved ones, grief for our animal companions can only be dealt with over time, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. Here are some suggestions:
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel
Don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets
Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section below for details. If your own friends and family members are not sympathetic about pet loss, find someone who is. Often, another person who has also experienced the loss of a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through.
Seek professional help if you need it
If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression. Remember that you are important and even while dealing with your grief you need to take care of yourself.
Rituals can help healing
Many people find it helpful to memorialize a beloved pet. There are many ways you can honor your pet, through a loving funeral, a donation to a favorite animal charity, or a loving post on social media. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy
Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on and be able to focus on the happy memories instead of the pain of the loss.
Look after yourself
The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood. Be extra kind to yourself during this difficult time.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine
Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but can also help to elevate your outlook too.
Tips for seniors grieving the death of a pet
As we age, we experience an increasing number of major life changes, including the loss of beloved friends, family members, and pets. The death of a pet can hit even harder if you are an older adult living alone, without the distraction and routine of work or the comfort of a close family.
Try to find new meaning and joy in life
Caring for a pet previously occupied your time and boosted your morale and optimism. Try to fill that time by volunteering, picking up a long-neglected hobby, taking a class, helping friends or animals shelters care for their pets, or even by getting another pet when the time feels right. Many shelters have a senior for senior’s program where they place older pets with seniors. This great program helps find loving homes for pets that are often overlooked but still have lots of love to give!
Stay connected with friends
Pets, dogs especially, can help seniors meet new people or regularly connect with friends and neighbors while out on a walk or in the dog park. Having lost your pet, it’s important that you don’t now spend day after day alone. Try to spend time with at least one person every day. Regular face-to-face contact can help you ward off depression and stay positive. Call up an old friend or neighbor for a lunch date or join a club.
Boost your vitality with exercise
Pets help many older adults stay active and playful, which can boost your immune system and increase your energy. It’s important to keep up your activity levels after the loss of your pet. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program and then find an activity that you enjoy. Exercising in a group—by playing a sport such as tennis or golf, or taking an exercise or swimming class—can also help you connect with others.
Helping Children Grieve
The loss of a pet may be your child’s first experience of death—and your first opportunity to teach them about coping with the grief and pain that inevitably accompanies the joy of loving another living creature. Losing a pet can be a traumatic experience for any child. Many kids love their pets very deeply and some may not even remember a time in their life when the pet wasn’t around. A child may feel angry and blame themselves—or you—for the pet’s death. A child may feel scared that other people or animals they love may also leave them. How you handle the grieving process can determine whether the experience has a positive or negative effect on your child’s personal development.
Some parents feel they should try to shield their children from the sadness of losing a pet by either not talking about the pet’s death, or by not being honest about what’s happened. Pretending the animal ran away, or “went to sleep,” for example, can leave a child feeling even more confused, frightened, and betrayed when they finally learn the truth. It’s far better to be honest with children and allow them the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
Let your child see you express your own grief at the loss of the pet
If you don’t experience the same sense of loss as your child, respect their grief and let them express their feelings openly, without making them feel ashamed or guilty. Children should feel proud that they have so much compassion and care deeply about their animal companions.
Reassure your child
Reassure them that they weren’t responsible for the pet’s death. The death of a pet can raise a lot of questions and fears in a child. You may need to reassure your child that you, their parents, are not also likely to die. It’s important to talk about all their feelings and concerns.
Involve your child in the dying process
If you’ve chosen euthanasia for your pet, be honest with your child. Explain why the choice is necessary and give the child chance to spend some special time with the pet and say goodbye in their own way.
If possible, give the child an opportunity to create a memento of the pet
This could be a special photograph, or a plaster cast of the animal’s paw print, for example.
Allow the child to be involved in any memorial service
Holding a funeral or creating a memorial for the pet can help your child express their feelings openly and help process the loss.
Do not rush out to get the child a “replacement pet”
Don’t rush getting a “replacement pet” before they have had chance to grieve the loss they feel. Your child may feel disloyal, or you could send the message that the grief and sadness felt when something dies can simply be overcome by buying a replacement.
Getting another pet after a loss
There are many wonderful reasons to once again share your life with a companion animal, but the decision of when to do so is a very personal one. It may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death by immediately getting another pet. In most cases, it’s best to mourn the old pet first, and wait until you’re emotionally ready to open your heart and your home to a new animal. You may want to start by volunteering at a shelter or rescue group. Spending time caring for pets in need is not only great for the animals, but can help you decide if you’re ready to own a new pet.
Pet Loss Counseling
Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California at Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine
Washington State University
International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care
In-Home Pet Hospice and Euthanasia Services
Recommend Books for Children:
- Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
- Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
- I'll Always Love You by Hand Wilheim
- A Special Place for Charlee: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss by Debra Morehead
- A Gift from Rex by Jim Kramer, DVM
- Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert and Chuck DeKlyen
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
- Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris
Recommended Books for Adults:
- Goodbye My Friend by Herb and Mary Montgomery
- A Final Act of Caring by Herb and Mary Montgomery
- Journey Through Pet Loss by Deborah Antinori
- Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty J. Carmack
- How to Go on Living When Someone You Loves Dies by Therese Rando
- The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman
- Healing Your Grieving Hear by Alan Wolfelt, PhD
- Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by Gary Kurz