“You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings.” Jane Goodall
Pets offer important social and emotional support to their adoptive family members. According to the American Humane Society, 164 million or 62% of American households included at least one pet in 2012. Research published by the American Psychological Association found that pet owners can be just as close to some of the people in their lives as to their pets. Because the bond can be so vital, lack of compassion regarding the loss of a pet can interfere with the healthy mourning process for many grieving pet owners.
The People-Pet Bond
Psychologists at Miami and Saint Louis Universities conducted three studies that examined the potential benefits of pet ownership (McConnell, Brown, Shoda, Stayton, and Martin, 2011). All three studies demonstrate that pet ownership is beneficial both physically and emotionally to owners. In the first study, pet owners were found to benefit from several measures of well-being. For example they were shown to have greater self-esteem, better physical fitness, more conscientiousness, and less fear than non pet owners. The second and third studies used different samples both in and outside of the laboratory to empirically demonstrate positive aspects of pet ownership.
Many people in our society are dependent on pets; and more today than ever. Dogs help guide people who are blind or visually impaired, in addition to those with deafness or hearing impairments, diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, anxiety, autism, and addiction. K9 forces assist with law enforcement in many ways. In all of these cases, the dogs often become a close and most trusted companion. As demonstrated in the University studies mentioned above, a strong bond often forms for pet owners who do not suffer serious medical or psychological issues as well (McConnell, et al, 2011). People most commonly bond to dogs and cats though other pet-human bonds also exist. The research of McConnell et al and others have consistently shown that pets can benefit owners psychologically and physically as well as constituting an important support system or at the very least, an important part of daily life. Pets can improve the well-being of their people in countless ways.
In terms of social bonding, pets and their humans often understand each other in critical situations. Dogs and cats can sense when their owners are sad or angry and people can understand when their pet feels distress or hunger. Pets become a significant and constant part of daily life. Even when the owner is not engaged directly, whenever they are home the pet is with them. Among other things, pets are a source of comfort, companionship, unconditional love, fun, and a distraction from stress.
When People Lose Their Pets
Because pets share so much with the people who love them, they are hard to lose. From this perspective it’s easy to understand the intense pain that may accompany the loss of a pet. Intense grief over such a loss is normal and natural though it is not always seen that way by others. Grief over the loss of a pet can feel very much the same as grief over a human loved one. Such feelings can be very painful though different people experience grief differently.
Regardless, there is a general lack of social acceptance for grief over the death or other loss of an animal. The ritualized support that we give to the death of a close human is lacking for people who are facing the loss of a pet. Outward expressions of grief when a beloved human is lost are expected and the funeral along with other rituals brings family together to help those mourning to cope. There is little such acceptance of grief when the loss is of a pet. The grieving person may be seen as weak or childish, at best. Burial and pet funerals are not regarded with respect and many owners are not offered expressions of sincere sympathy.
There are some factors that might intensify the grief one feels over losing a pet. These include the intensity of the bond with the pet, the type of loss or death, the personal previous loss history of the owner and the owner’s social support or religious beliefs. In dealing with the loss of a beloved animal, coming to terms with the sadness, pain, guilt, anger and other feelings is crucial.
It is helpful to examine and come to terms with such feelings in order to work through them and get beyond grief. The grief must first be acknowledged; the loss of love, support, and companionship is real. Working through feelings of grief with a friend, relative or counselor can be ideal. Talking things over with a compassionate person can help put them in perspective and help in finding ways to handle the difficult feelings when they emerge. After a loss, it’s often helpful to be able to talk about the pet – how much she meant to you and how much you miss her. Some find helpful self-expression by writing in a journal, looking through photographs, or taking time to think about the many feelings and memories that come up through-out the grieving process.
Role of Friends and Family
The reaction of friends and family can be very important to validate the owner’s feelings and help him to come to terms with his loss. Talking about the pet and memories highlight the positive aspects of having loved the pet. When people die, funerals and rituals where family and friends get together to reminisce and share memories help people to work through their grief and feel less isolated in their darkest hours of grieving. Psychological support from a friend or relative can make a difference in legitimizing the sincere grief that a pet owner may feel. It is also important for the owner to take the time to work through their grief before trying to establish a new relationship with a new pet. No new pet can take the place of the old. In time, a new and unique relationship can be formed with a new and unique pet.
Once the reality of the loss is accepted, the pain of the loss will rise to the forefront. The usual stages of mourning and grief will be experienced which may include such feelings as guilt, anger, sadness, and relief. There is no strict time limit but some people may need professional help to move through their mourning if they cannot do so on their own after a significant amount of time passes. Signs that may signal a problem in the mourning process include grief that just does not lessen with time and/or grief in which the owner cannot function normally in daily activities. There are a lot of changes that the owner must confront and they must adapt to a new stage of life; one that does not include the beloved pet. The pet will no longer be there when she arrives home, won’t be there for long walks or cuddles in bed, won’t be looking for dinner at the usual time. Over time, adjustments are made and the owner may feel ready to reinvest energy into a new loving relationship with a new pet.
Loss, in its many forms, is one of the hardest parts of life. We experience loss throughout life and the way we deal with each one will in some way impact our future losses and our ability to cope with them. People and their relationship to their pets is an attachment that often involves mutual affection and deep emotional bonding. Pet owners suffer a real loss when their pet is gone. The strength and importance of this relationship has been studied somewhat but continues to be often underestimated by well-meaning people. The loss of a pet can be devastating and can result in genuine grief that needs and deserves support. Even people who have personal experience with their own intense pet bonds may not understand another’s intensity since people often feel that their pet is something truly special, and unique. In fact, they all are.
Cordaro, M. (2013). Pet loss and disenfranchised grief: implications for mental health counseling practice. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 29, 283-294.
McConnell, A.R., Brown, C.M., Shoda, T.M., Stayton, L.E., & Martin, C.E. (2011). Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from American Psychological Association 2011, Vol. 101, No. 6, 1239 –1252 0022-3514/11/ DOI: 10.1037/a0024506
The Humane Society (2014). Pets by the numbers. www.humanesociety.org/issues/pet- overpopulation/facts/pet_ownership_statistics.html.