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How to cope with losing a pet

When a loved pet dies, the grief you feel is very real. Here’s how to help your family, a friend or yourself through the loss of an animal.

Border collie Australian shepherd dog on brown leather couch under blanket looking sad lonely bored hopeful sick curious relaxed comfortable

More than 5 million Australian households include a pet. Where our animals were once resources, and treated with the appropriate level of pragmatism, they are now companions, friends, a source of comfort, and even provide a boost to your wellness.

Unlike other relationships in your life, the affection you feel from your pet is considered to be unconditional (although some cat owners might take exception to this idea). If you’ve noticed your dog will run to you when you get home, or when it’s feeling anxious, know that they are the only species, apart from humans, who will react in this way. And cat owners know the simple pleasure of hearing their cat purr, literally vibrating with happiness.

Since pets have become a big part of our lives, it follows that we should find their deaths traumatic. When it comes to losing that bond and connection, the loss can feel very profound. Yet, there’s a perception that the death of a pet is something that you can get over quickly. People might hear comments like “you can get another one”, or “it was for the best”. In fact, research has now confirmed what many pet owners already knew, that in terms of grief, the death of a pet compares losing a human family member or close friend.

Here are some ways that you can support yourself, family, or friends through that difficult time.

Caring for a pet through illness

Like medical care for humans, veterinary care for animals has advanced to the point that conditions which might have previously been incurable can now be treated. This means that some pet owners will find themselves embarking on a difficult course of treatment, to try and save their animals. Caring for a pet through an illness can be stressful emotionally, demanding financially, and put huge strain on time and resources, as you attend appointments and administer treatments.

If your vet suggests that it could be time to consider putting your pet to sleep, it’s important to thoroughly discuss this with them, and your family to make sure that you’re comfortable with the option. If paying for your pet’s medical treatment is proving to be too difficult, and this can be very expensive, this is a discussion you need to have with your vet, as they will be able to fully outline your alternatives.

Dealing with grief

Support for your loss might not come from the places that you expect. Not everyone will be able to relate to what you’re going through, and they won’t respond in the way that you might want. But people with a similar experience, or a close attachment to their animals will understand and will be able to extend you empathy. Just remember, when it comes to grief, you’re on your own timetable. It’s important to tell people what you’re feeling and what you need.

Keeping an eye on stress

Whether you’re looking after a cat, a dog, a rabbit, or something more exotic, this means routine. Daily feeding, exercise, grooming, and playtime add up to a timetable.

When you pet suffers a serious illness or dies, this routine is disrupted. And changes in routine and lifestyle are a primary cause of stress. If have you have other pets, it’s important to try and keep to your routines to minimise the effect on them.

If walking your dog was your primary source of exercise, make sure you substitute in an alternative, like the gym or a sports team.

Pet owners have reported that after the death of a pet, they will often mistake random sounds for the sound of the animal moving around the house. A house that is suddenly missing the movement, noise, and yes, mess of a loved pet can feel very empty, magnifying the absence and increasing the stress you feel.

If this is something your family is going through, look at ways that you can make your house feel warm again, whether this is through a shared activity like a board game or movie, putting music on, or using this time to remember your pet together.

Explaining the death of a pet to children

For children, the loss of a pet may be their first experience of death. Rather than resorting to stories about “their life on the farm” or dodging the issue, this is an important time to display and discuss your own grief. It’s especially important to be honest about having your pet put down and talk this through with your family so that they can understand the reasons that this is the best option for the animal.

You may wish to consider a ritual, similar a funeral, to help mark the end of your pet’s life. This gives your family a chance to talk about why they loved your pet and what they will miss. Perhaps plant a tree, or create a similar spot that your child can go to remember your pet.

Creating a memento

Some people choose to cope with the loss by creating a physical memento to help them remember their pet. Common examples are framed photos or paintings. While taxidermy is an extreme example, pets can be cremated and the ashes stored in a decorative urn. You could also consider making a plaster cast of a paw print as a quirky way to remember them.

Supporting a friend through a loss

As a fellow pet lover, you’re in an important position when someone around you suffers a loss. A simple act like acknowledging the gravity of their loss through a card, flowers or a phone call can be hugely meaningful to someone struggling to cope with the death of an animal. Given that people often don’t have an outlet to discuss what’s going on, simply checking in is a wonderful way to show support. For someone who is still feeling a huge amount of grief in the months following their loss, knowing that a friend is taking their pain seriously is very important.

Milly’s story

Mike and Angela Lee

One of three much-loved cats, Milly came in and out of remission for an aggressive cancer for a year before dying.

Despite what was often a tough prognosis, Mike and Angela made the decision to continue with treatment: “due to Milly’s strength and love for life. She would always have the strength to purr away and cuddle up to us, constantly seeking company instead of being reclusive and drawing away from interaction, like other sick pets we’ve had in the past.”

A good vet will help you to weigh up the effects of the treatment and your pet’s happiness. As Mike says, “our instructions to our vet was that prolonging life should never come before her quality of life.” When Milly began experiencing frequent seizures, to the point of losing consciousness, the couple and their vet decided to let her go.

Now Milly is remembered as “the easy-going, happy-go-lucky friend that would always greet us after a hard day at the office, and always a wonderful host to friends who visit.”

Skipper’s story

Megan McNaughton and Phil Bingley

Like so many pets, Skipper wasn’t just a dog. He was also the thing that helped Megan through the loss of her baby Crispin, who was stillborn. But shortly after Skipper came home, Megan and Phil discovered that their pup had probably come from a puppy mill, and his health problems began to surface.

Their vet was determined- sometimes possibly to Skipper’s detriment. Finally, liver disease took hold, and the tiny and much-loved dog began to experience a lot of pain. Megan says, “I finally made my husband take him one morning as we’d had a terrible night with him and I could just tell by looking into his eyes that he needed to be let go from the pain.”

The small dog was a big part of the family. Dealing with the fact that he had such a bad run with illness was hard, as Megan says: “I felt so cheated that he’d only been with us for six years.” There was one thing that helped though: “my son made a new dog out of a box at kindy that week he died. It has little googly eyes and wee legs and a tail. He gave it to me to make me feel better – I still have it.”

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