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10 Common Questions Asked after the Loss of a Pet

The loss of a cherished animal companion can cause extreme sadness, intense guilt and a whirlwind of other emotions. Often, you will seek answers to questions that may not be black and white. Below, you will find some of the most common questions pet owners ask of themselves while grieving the death of a pet.

1. When is the right time to euthanize a pet?

Your veterinarian will make a recommendation based on your pet's physical condition and long-term outlook. You, however, have the unique insight into your pet's daily quality of life. By evaluating your pet's health honestly, you will be able to work with your veterinarian to come to the most humane decision for your individual pet. The decision to euthanize will never be easy, but is often the final act of love you can provide a pet who is suffering.

2. Should I stay with my pet during euthanasia?

This is a completely personal decision that you will need to make. Many pet owners want to be there for their pets and witness it so they can see it happened peacefully and without pain. This can be traumatic, but not witnessing the death may make it harder to accept that the pet is really gone. Also, you want to gauge your own emotional strength- if you have an uncontrolled outpouring of emotions before your pet passes, it may be upsetting for him or her to witness. Euthanasia can sometimes be performed at home. Discuss your options with your veterinarian beforehand.

3. I've heard of the stages of grief, but what are they?

The grieving process is often illustrated by five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Typically, you will move through them progressively, but everyone grieves in different ways. You'll know you're beginning to heal when you're thinking more rationally and more often of the good times you shared with your pet rather than of the "what-ifs" and the guilt.

4. How can I cope with my feelings?

Having someone to share your feelings with will help you not have to keep them locked up inside. Don't deny how you feel or simply put on a brave face. You must acknowledge your feelings to work through them. Some of your thoughts may be misguided and as time passes you will be able to realize this. Do whatever works best for you as a means of emotional expression – go somewhere secluded and scream, cry, talk, write, paint, create a memorial, or find a new activity to fill the time you previously would've spent with your pet.

5. Should I just get over it?

It is common to hear the phrase "it was just a pet" when others find your emotions to be too extreme or too long-lasting. These people aren't aware that the death of a pet creates the same emotional response as the loss of a human friend or family member. Grieving is natural and thousands of pet owners can attest to that.

6. Who can I talk to?

Share your feelings with family or friends who have pets. Reminisce about your pet. Or, speak with your veterinarian or local humane association to identify pet loss counselors or support groups. Hospitals and churches also often have resources for grief support.

7. Should I do burial, cremation, or disposal?

This is another decision which should be based on your personal wishes. It can be easiest to have a clinic dispose of your pet's remains (often for a fee), but many prefer something more formal. Based on your living situation, a burial at home may be a good choice. However, both burial and cremation depend on your personal or religious values, finances and future plans. Your veterinarian or an online search will provide options available in your area.

8. What should I tell my children?

Be honest with your children and provide as much information as they seek in a way that matches their age and maturity level. Saying their pet was "put to sleep" is not advised, as they may begin to fear bedtime. Allow your children to grieve in their own ways and be open about your own emotions around them rather than teaching them to keep it all inside.

9. Will my other pets get depressed?

Your other pets may notice a change in the household. Based on their relationship, some may search for their companion, eat less and seem to be grieving. Giving your surviving pets extra love and attention during this time will be beneficial not only to them, but to you as well.

10. Should I get a new pet right away?

Generally, it is best to allow yourself time to work through your grief and loss before introducing a new pet into your home and life. A new pet is a unique individual, not a replacement. Try to avoid getting one that looks the same or naming it the same as your deceased pet, and don't expect it to behave exactly the same either. Getting a new pet too soon may lead to resentment or feelings of disloyalty because you still want your old pet back.

End-of-Life Care For Your Pet

Pet ownership comes with the knowledge that, in most cases, you will outlive your pet. This truth, however well-known, is still not an easy one to bear. Coming to terms with the fact that death is a part of life, will help you best enjoy your time together with your beloved companion. Thinking and even planning ahead will give you the time to truly cherish your last months, days and moments with your pet when the time comes to say goodbye.

The following are all things to consider as your pet progresses in age.

Senior Pet Care

As cats and dogs age more rapidly than humans, most are considered to be entering their senior years around age 7, which equates to roughly middle age for a person. Although advances in veterinary medicine are leading to longer pet life expectancy, aging will always occur and with it comes a variety of unique health concerns. Older pets can develop conditions similar to those seen in older people. These include cancer, diabetes, disease of the heart, joints/bones, kidneys/urinary tract and liver, as well as senility and weakness. Bringing your pet in for regular wellness exams with your veterinarian and developing a plan for veterinary care throughout his or her senior years will help catch and address potential problems early on.

Hospice Care & At-Home Euthanasia

Hospice care for pets is becoming more and more widely available, as is the decision to euthanize within a pet's home rather than in a clinical setting. The goal with both is to make your pet's final days and moments as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

If Your Pet Passes at Home

If a pet passes suddenly or unexpectedly at home, you can be left unsure of what to do next. Having this discussion with your veterinarian in advance will leave you more well prepared and reduce the emotional trauma you may experience. Generally, a pet's body needs to be removed from the home as soon as possible and kept in a cool spot until that time.

Cremation & Burial Options

Cremation is a very common option for pet owners. With private/individual cremations, you are given your pet's ashes to do with as you please. Others may choose to bury a pet in their backyard or at a local pet cemetery. It is important to look into your options ahead of time because planning, however difficult, will help lessen your future pain and worry.

Grief Counseling by Phone After Losing a Pet

If you are struggling with the grief accompanying the loss of a pet or just want to talk about your feelings with someone, there are many support lines available. You can search for support groups and resources in your area or consider calling any of the following:

Provider Type Phone #
ASPCA Grief Counseling Hotline (800) GRIEF-10
Chicago Veterinry Medical Assoc. Pet Loss Support Hotline (630) 325-1600
Cornell Univ. Pet Loss Support Hotline (607) 253-3932
Iams Pet Loss Support Hotline (888) 332-7738
Michigan State Univ. Pet Loss Support Hotline (517) 432-2696
SPCA of Texas Pet Grief Counseling Support Line (214) 461-5131
Tufts Univ. Pet Loss Support Hotline (508) 839-7966
Univ. of Illinois C.A.R.E. Pet Loss Helpline (217) 244-CARE
Univ. of Tennessee Veterinary Social Work Helpline (865) 755-8839
Utah State Univ Pet Loss Support Hotline (435) 757-4540
Washington State Univ. Pet Loss Hotline (866) 266-8635

Signs You're Healing After Pet Loss

Recovering from the loss of a cherished animal companion takes time. As you move through the stages of grief you'll encounter emotions based on denial, anger, bargaining and depression. The last stage, that of acceptance, is where you will begin to truly heal.

The following are all indicators that you are beginning to show signs of healing:
• You begin to reminisce about your pet's life more than dwell on his/her death
• You don't intentionally try to avoid everyday reminders of your pet
• You are able to think more freely of the "good times"
• You aren't as emotionally distraught when thinking of your pet's death
• You have more control over your emotions
• You are acting more like yourself again – eating, sleeping, hobbies, etc.
• You are able to enjoy yourself without feeling guilty
• You no longer feel guilty for not dwelling on the death
• You don't feel like you're betraying your pet by regaining normalcy
• You are able to talk about your pet without feeling intense sadness or crying
• You are focusing more on the present and future instead of on the past

It is important to note that if a loss occurs suddenly or unexpectedly, such as from an accident, you may deny yourself the opportunity to reach a place of acceptance. Coping with grief is an entirely personal journey that can't always be outlined in fluid stages. You should, however, consider seeking professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of clinical depression and/or it has been more than two months since the death of your pet and you are still experiencing feelings of intense grief.