Monday, November 2, 2009

Losing a Cherished Pet: Myths and Misconceptions

[Reviewed and updated May 12, 2024]

Unfortunately, since the normal life span of most animals is so much shorter than our own, sooner or later most animal lovers will experience the loss of a beloved pet. Whether struggling with an animal’s chronic illness, facing a decision about euthanasia, or mourning the loss of a pet, our reactions may be so intense that we feel shocked and overwhelmed by them.

Yet grief at the loss of a beloved companion animal is no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special member of the family. Grief is a natural, spontaneous response to the loss of a significant relationship.

Even so, in my work with bereaved animal lovers and in conversations with family, friends and colleagues, I've still encountered a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding this different sort of grief. Here are just a few of them:

There is nothing special about the relationship between animals and humans. Your relationship with a companion animal can be just as special and loving as those you have with any other family member or close friend. Loving an animal is different from loving a human being, because a pet loves you in a way that people cannot: profoundly, boundlessly and unconditionally.

Losing an animal is less painful and less significant than losing a human loved one. Pain over the loss of a beloved companion animal is as natural as the pain you would feel over the loss of any significant relationship. Since cherished pets weave their way into every aspect of your daily life, in some ways it may be even more difficult to cope with losing them. Once they're gone, you're repeatedly encountering evidence of their absence and constantly reminded of your grief.

Having close relationships with animals (and grieving at their loss) is abnormal and unnatural. You need not let anyone influence you to believe that your relationships with animals are somehow wrong or less important than those you have with humans. Loving animals well and responsibly teaches all of us to better love all living beings, including humans. Grief is the normal response to losing someone you love, and grief is indifferent to the species of the one who is lost. Love is love, loss is loss, and pain is pain.

Relationships we have with animals are not as important as those we have with humans. Having deeply meaningful, spiritual and healthy relationships with animals is not abnormal, and in some cases may be more emotionally healthy, spiritually healing and personally rewarding than those we have with humans. Pets offer us a kind of loyalty, devotion and unconditional love that cannot be found in the more complicated relationships we have with relatives, friends and neighbors.

Death of a pet can be a useful “dress rehearsal” for the real thing, especially for children. Death of a pet is often a child's first real encounter with a major loss. Suddenly friendship, companionship, loyalty, support and unconditional love are replaced with overwhelming and unfamiliar feelings of loss, confusion, emptiness, fear and grief. Far from being a so-called dress rehearsal, for most children pet loss is a profoundly painful experience.

Most people think of euthanasia as a quick and easy way to get rid of their sick, dying, old or unwanted animals. Deciding when and whether to euthanize a beloved pet is probably one of the most difficult choices an animal lover ever has to make. On the one hand, you know that choosing to end your animal's life will intensify your own emotional pain, yet postponing the decision may prolong your animal's pain and suffering needlessly. At such times it is very important to explore all aspects of the euthanasia decision with your veterinarian and with others whom you trust, to listen to what your animal may be trying to tell you, and to trust your own intuition.

Conducting rituals, funerals or memorial services for dead animals is a frivolous waste of time and money, and those who engage in such practices are eccentric and strange. Whether for animals or for humans, death ceremonies and rituals help meet our needs to support one another in grief, acknowledge the important role our loved ones played in our lives, honor the memory of our departed companions, and bring meaning to our loss.

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  1. We had to have my beloved dog Gus put to sleep when I was sixteen. I felt the loss for years. He was my best friend during my awkward early teen years and was only 4 years old when he died. I agree completely about the profound "real" emotions of a pet's death.

  2. I lost my beloved cat Danny on 04/23. He was 11 years old & he was diabetic. He could hardly stand up and I had no choice according to his vet. I have never felt heart ache like this before in my life & I am in my early forties. I have lost close relatives but coped with that pretty well. Danny does have a sister & she is still with me so she gives me comfort. She is also 11 y.o. and they are from the same litter. I am trying to move forward but didn't realize how hard it can be!

  3. I lost my cat 4 days ago. I do not know if he was eaten, trapped, or hit by a car. I do not know if he is still alive.

    He has been my best friend for many years, and I promised him I'd look out for him. I keep looking and hoping he will show up. Every creak and bump sounds like him.

    I know he has waited up for me many nights when I have come home late.
    Not sure when to give up waiting. He is deeply missed.

    1. Dear friend, I'm so sorry to learn that your cat is missing. Because this is such an ambiguous loss, in many ways it can be more difficult to endure than a death. Please read my Open to Hope article, "When Your Companion Animal Is Missing," as it contains some ideas that may be useful to you. You will find it here:


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