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Understanding Pet Loss and Grief

Dr Micheal O’Donoghue BVSc graduated from the University of Queensland in 1992 and has practiced as a vet in Australia and the United Kingdom. As an experienced veterinarian specialising in small animals, it was a natural choice for Michael to co-found support network Pets and People, a network that aims to provide opportunities for grieving pet owners to find and reach qualified pet loss counsellors.

All of us need to love and to be loved, and loving animals is an important part of being human. As we develop bonds of love and affection, we become attached to a pet, and when we lose one, we grieve.

Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of someone or something to which a person is strongly attached. The intensity of grief is dependent on the degree of attachment, the type of relationship, the circumstances of the death, as well as the personality and social support of the person suffering the loss (The Centre for Grief Education).

Only you can know what this pet meant to you. If they have been an important part of your life, then it is normal to grieve when they die. It is therefore often necessary to speak to someone who is understanding of pet loss and grief.

The Human-Animal Bond

We humans have the capacity to engage in many relationships at the same time, including relationships with animals. A strong bond can exist between humans and animals, with these relationships bringing joy to both the human and the animal. Animals have a way of loving unconditionally. They are faithful, loyal, and often very forgiving of our mistakes and failures. This bond can be strong for a variety of reasons. You may have had more daily contact with your pet than with other people, so their death leaves a hole in your life which needs to be acknowledged (Barbara Meyers, 2002).

Responses to Loss and Grief

The ways we respond to loss can sometimes be overwhelming, and even frightening. Grief has such an individual impact that each person’s experience is unique to them. It is not unusual for people to suffer from intense grief when a pet dies. Reactions to grief can be manifested through feelings, some of which might be: anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, guilt; thoughts such as disbelief, confusion, preoccupation; physical reactions like sleep disturbances, empty sensations in the stomach, breathlessness or tightness in the chest, or behaviour such as crying, sighing, hyperactivity, inability to concentrate and social withdrawal. These are only some of the ways that grief is experienced.

Is the grief of pet loss different to other losses?

The loss of a pet is often disregarded by others as unimportant. But losing a pet can be very significant and the grief can be just as intense, or greater, than when a person dies. The problem is that it is often not openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported. Work colleagues, friends or even relatives can minimise or even laugh at the loss of a pet. For some people, the capacity that pets have for unconditional love and faithfulness has provided an experience of love not matched by humans. Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge the real loss of those who are grieving their pets and show support rather than judgement.

The information on this website is for general information only and are not (and nor are they intended to be) a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, nor is it used for diagnosis and treatment. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional medical or mental health advice and treatment from suitably qualified medical and clinical practitioners and providers. 

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If you are in crisis or think you may have an emergency, immediately call Emergency 000. If you're having thoughts of self-harm or harm to others call Lifeline on 13 11 23 to talk to a skilled, trained counsellor. If you are located outside Australia, contact your local emergency line directly.

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Dr Micheal O’Donoghue BVSc graduated from the University of Queensland in 1992 and has practiced as a vet in Australia and the United Kingdom. As an experienced veterinarian specialising in small animals, it was a natural choice for Michael to co-found support network Pets and People, a network that aims to provide opportunities for grieving pet owners to find and reach qualified pet loss counsellors.

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