How to Deal with the Loss of a Pet

The information in this article was reviewed and approved by registered veterinary nurse, Beth Walker

Animed Veterinary Nurse, Beth Walker

Nothing can prepare you for the heartbreak of losing a pet. Our cats, dogs and other furry friends form such a big part of our lives, making us smile with their unique personalities and unconditional love for us. So, when a pet passes away, or goes missing or gets stolen, it can feel comparable to the death of a close family member. It’s normal to take time to grieve the loss of a pet, and the process of grieving will look different for everyone. If you have recently suffered the loss of a pet and are unsure how to cope, we hope this advice will help you come to terms with the passing of your companion.

Remember That We All Respond to Loss Differently

There is no right, wrong or normal way to grieve. Everyone responds differently to loss, and the way you feel or react is unique to you.

You might have heard people talk about the ‘five stages of grieving’, which are said to include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, grief doesn’t necessarily follow an order. Nor does it always consist of these steps at all. You might feel any of the following, in any order:

  • Deep sadness
  • Numbness – you may not feel many emotions at all, and instead feel empty
  • Relief – it’s completely normal to feel relief, particularly if your pet had a long-term illness or was in pain
  • Guilt – many people will feel guilty or ashamed right after experiencing relief. They might also feel like they are somehow to blame for the loss of their pet
  • Confusion
  • Anger – this might be directed at yourself, others, or even your pet for leaving you
  • Anxiety
  • Tiredness or insomnia
  • Sickness – some people may get an upset tummy or a change in appetite after the loss of a pet
  • Physical pain
  • Embarrassment – some people worry that others won’t understand the devastation you feel for the loss of your pet, and think them silly

There is also no time limit on grief. You might feel this way for a very long time, or you might feel able to move on more quickly. Either way is completely normal.

Never Feel Like You’re Overreacting

Not everyone will understand how upsetting the loss of a pet can be. Lots of people worry that others will think them silly or that they are overreacting. But the truth is, the loss of a pet can be devastating for many people. This is particularly the case for those who live alone with their pet as their only companion.

Even if it feels like nobody around you understands how traumatic the loss of your pet is for you, know that there are lots of people out there who do. The charity Blue Cross has a Facebook group dedicated to people who have experienced the loss of a pet. Here you can find support from a community of people who understand exactly what you’re going through.

Talk About How You Feel With Family and Friends

If you have friends or family that you feel comfortable talking to about your loss, do. It’s never a good idea to bottle up your feelings. Talking about your pain, or any other emotions you feel, can really help you to begin to heal. It can be especially helpful to speak to those who knew your pet well.

Make sure you spend time with loved ones, even if it’s just a phone call every couple of days. You might not feel that you want to speak to anyone at this time, but it’s important to accept help and support from those around you.

Write Down How You Feel

You might find that writing down your thoughts and feelings can provide comfort too. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to others, this can be a good alternative.

Try writing down everything you’re feeling and all the thoughts that are going through your head. You might also like to write down what you would say to your pet if you could. Penning a goodbye letter can help to provide closure, particularly in the case of missing or stolen pets, or if your pet’s death was sudden.

Look After Yourself

Though it might feel difficult, try to follow a normal routine as much as possible after the loss of a pet. Try to eat and sleep as normally as you can, and if you have other pets in the household, continue to care for them as you always have. You could also try exercising regularly if you feel able, as this can help to boost your mood.

You might feel the loss of your pet particularly strongly at certain times of the day, for example when you would usually have fed them or taken them for a walk. Owners who lived alone with just their pet will feel this particularly strongly. Caring for a pet can provide a sense of purpose and routine. It can be very stressful and disruptive to lose that. Try to fill your time with activities you enjoy. You could return to an old hobby, take up a new one, join a local club, organise coffee with friends, or even volunteer at an animal charity.

Don’t Declutter Until You’re Ready

You might feel pressure to dispose of your pet’s belongings soon after they pass. There is no right or wrong time to start thinking about what to do with your pet’s belongings. It’s important to not feel pressured to do anything before you’re ready.

You might think that quickly ridding your home of any reminders of your pet will help you cope. However, it could actually emphasise your loss, and you might later regret it. If you’re unsure about what to keep, it can be a good idea to put things out of sight until you’re ready to face them. You might decide that you’d like to keep a few things that bring back happy memories, like their collar or favourite toy.

Seek Professional Help

There is no shame in speaking to your GP, a grief counsellor or a therapist. If you are struggling to cope, or don’t feel comfortable talking to friends and family, speaking to a professional can help you to manage your grief.

You can also get in touch with charities like Blue Cross and Cats Protection for support:

Blue Cross Pet Loss Support Team: Call 0800 096 6606 (available between 8.30am and 8.30pm every day)
Cats Protection Paws to Listen grief support service: Call 0800 024 94 94 (available 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, excluding bank holidays)

Give Your Pet a Meaningful Send Off

You shouldn’t feel silly for wanting to properly say goodbye to your pet. It’s normal to give a send off to someone you care about. Holding a simple ceremony allows you to say goodbye properly, and can help you to cope with your loss.

Having a funeral or memorial ceremony can be a meaningful way to do this. It’s up to you what you do during the ceremony, but it could include:

  • A burial – Even if you can’t bury your pet themselves, you could bury their ashes if they were cremated, or something like their collar.
  • Scattering their ashes – You could do this in a favourite spot in the garden, or on a walk you used to go on together. Alternatively, you might prefer to keep your pet’s ashes in a special casket somewhere in your home.
  • Saying a few words – You might like to talk about your pet and the happy memories you have of them.
  • A moment’s silence – If you’d rather not speak, it can be just as meaningful to have a moment of silence where everyone thinks about the pet, taking the time to remember them.
  • Planting something – You could plant a tree or flower in a special spot in your garden in your pet’s honour.

If you decide to cremate your pet, the following services can help:

Find Special Ways to Remember Your Pet

Once you’ve given yourself time to grieve, you might also like to find ways to celebrate your pet’s life. There are lots of ways you can remember your four-legged friend:

  • Make a scrapbook or photo album
  • Make a keepsake box containing things that bring back happy memories of your pet
  • Write a letter to your pet
  • Paint a picture of you pet, or commission one that you can hang in your home
  • Volunteer for an animal charity
  • Make a donation to an animal charity or sponsor an animal in your pet’s memory

Helping Children to Deal with the Loss of a Pet

If you have a young family, you might be worried about how to help your children navigate the loss of their pet.

The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience of death. Many of the emotions they feel will be similar to those a grieving adult can experience; they might feel very sad, lonely or numb, as well as experience disbelief, denial and sometimes anger or guilt. However, depending on their age, children might not process or fully understand the death of their pet. Teens might actually feel closer to the pet than with other members of the family, and struggle to talk about it.

You can help your child to deal with the loss of a pet by:

  • Making sure that you, or another close family member, is the person that tells your child about the pet’s death. Don’t let them find out from someone they don’t know.
  • Using clear and direct language. It might be tempting to tell your child that their pet has been ‘put to sleep’ or ‘gone to live somewhere else’. However, this can cause confusion and anxiety. Younger children in particular might think that the pet will wake up or come back again. It’s best to be honest so that they can understand what has really happened and begin to accept it.
  • Answering their questions. Some children will have a lot of questions when they find out that their pet has died. It’s important to help them understand, so be prepared to talk about it, but don’t include any details they might find distressing. Answering your child’s questions might be tough for you – don’t be afraid to share your own sadness with them.
  • Encouraging them to talk about their feelings. Asking them to write a poem or draw a picture of the pet is another way to help them express their emotions.
  • Informing their teacher. If your child is very upset, discreetly making their teacher aware of the situation can help to ensure they get the support they need at school too.
  • Not minimising their grief. In some cases, for example with smaller pets like hamsters and fish, you may not have the same attachment to the pet as your child does. If you are not grieving yourself, it’s important to try and understand the importance of the loss for your child. Try not to make them feel as though they are overreacting.
  • Considering other potential difficulties in their life. Sometimes a child’s grief over one thing can be influenced by something else. For example, if your child has recently experienced other losses or changes, such as the death of grandparents, parents splitting up, changing schools, or any other kind of disruption. Professional help might be needed to help them through a particularly difficult time.

For more support with helping your child cope with the loss of a pet, take a look at this free resource, ‘Goodbye My Friend‘. This activity booklet can help children come to terms with their loss and remember their special friend. Is available to use digitally online or you can print it.

Wrapping up

The loss of a pet we love dearly can be truly devastating. Remember that it’s ok to feel the way you do, and allow yourself that time to grieve. You may find that certain events or dates trigger your grief, such as your pet’s birthday, or passing their favourite places. It’s normal to feel fresh waves of grief even after a long time.

Being kind to yourself, accepting help from others, and talking about your grief are all important steps in the healing process. A funeral or other form of meaningful send off can help you to say goodbye.

When the time is right, don’t feel guilty for bringing a new pet into your life. The right time to do this is different for everyone, so take things at your own pace. You might decide you don’t want another pet any time soon. Or, you might feel that a new furry family member will help you and your family to heal.

Whatever you decide, there will always be a special place in your heart for the dearly beloved pet you have lost.