Dealing with the death of a pet

It's normal to feel intense grief after the death of a pet.

By Diane James · February 11, 2021

If you haven’t suffered the loss of a pet before, you might be surprised that so many people are in need of support after a pet dies. But last year over 14,200 people contacted Blue Cross over the loss of a pet.

Blue Cross is a charity that has been helping sick, injured and homeless pets since 1897. And for over 27 years, they’ve been supporting people who have suffered the loss of a beloved pet by phone and email. People contact the service about everything from dogs, cats, horses to small pets, birds and fish.

What it is important to remember is that although we might all grieve differently, it’s normal to grieve for pets and animals.

Why do we grieve for our pets?

  • Companionship

For some people the loss of a pet can be the loss of their only companion, or their last link to a loved one after their partner or a family member has passed away.

  • Echoing past losses

We often hear cases where a pet is part of a couple’s life and, sadly, one of the partners dies. The remaining partner grieves that loss, then has the pet to remind them of their loved one and be their focus. If the pet then dies, the person is now left on their own, and they will not only grieve the passing of their pet but also the links that the pet had with the partner who died earlier. This is called echo grief and, as the name suggests, is echoing the loss.

  • Loss of assistance

Blue Cross also support people with the loss of assistance animals where they will not only have an emotional bond with the animal, but also rely on it as a lifeline. It can therefore be life-changing in many ways for the owner when the animal dies, as well as all those involved in getting the animal ready for the owner.

Supporting children through pet loss

Another area of pet loss people often ask about is how to deal with children and pet loss. Thankfully, children can be more resilient than we realise, but it’s very much age-dependant. The stories of ‘it’s gone to live on a farm’ or ‘run away with the circus’ don’t often help, as the child may feel they were the reason it left.

Part of what Blue Cross do as a service is to also train vet professionals and explain that the phrase “put to sleep” is also not a good analogy to use, as a child might fear not waking up when they are going to bed.

If you’re aware that your time left with your pet is sadly coming to an end, Blue Cross recommends many things that are also used when a person has died or is dying. Some of these suggestions can be before or after the loss, but involving the child is important.

Tips for coping with a dying pet

  • Make a bucket list of all the things you’d like to do while you’re pet is alive
  • Hold a special event with your pet. This might involve taking them on their favourite walk or giving them their favourite food
  • Create a memory box, filled with items, pictures, photos, what ever reminds you of them. Decorate the memory box, personalise it make it special
  • Draw a picture of them, or write a poem or a letter to them
  • Find ways to remember them

We all know sadly that all living things die and I know that the grief and pain of loss will not diminish, but understanding loss from an early age could make a difference in the future.

Diane’s story

I have two dogs, Hero and Chester; Chester is 10 a food hoover, who will spot a crumb at a mile away; Hero is three and can run for hours and not be tired, but can also sense sadness instantly and gives the most amazing dog hugs.

I had Chester for six and half years before we got Hero. Chester joined our family, when my daughter was nine and they are inseparable, but when Chester was three my father sadly died and my daughter became aware that Chester would die one day.

Chester is and was a fairly healthy dog. For a number of years, she said little on the matter. Then when he was nearly six, she started to experience anticipatory grief; she was grieving his future loss instead of enjoying the time they had.

What I did next is not a recommended suggestion; I decided we would rescue another dog, (rescuing  a dog is recommended, but maybe not for this reason!)  to join the family and we were very lucky to get a rescue puppy, Hero. I hoped that by having another pet, it would help my daughter if Chester was to pass away. Unfortunately, she now worries about two dogs.

There’s no right thing to do when you’re dealing with grief, and every one of us is different in how we grieve loss. But I do have two wonderful dogs now.

Support after a pet dies

Blue Cross offers support to anyone who has lost a pet through the Pet Bereavement Support Service. It is a free and confidential service and is open every day of the year.