Jennie couldn’t sleep, lost her appetite and was overcome by waves of grief that caused her to burst into tears at work and in public places. She exhibited the classic symptoms of grief for a loved one. In addition to feeling guilty, she was consumed with anger. Jennie wasn’t grieving the loss of her spouse or a close family member; she was grieving for her pet Schnauzer, Jezabel. In the wake of the tainted pet food scandal, thousands are suffering from the loss of their pets. The US Food and Drug Administration has received reports of approximately 8500 animal deaths, including at least 1950 cats and 2200 dogs. What compounds the grief for many, is that they are grieving alone, feel silly for being so upset and burdened by the belief that they may have caused the death of their pet.

Silly or Not?

Is the depth of grief that Jennie experienced normal? Susan Cohen, DSW, director of the Human-Animal Bond Program of the Animal Medical Center in New York, says that we now understand that deep grief in response to the loss of a pet is the norm, not the exception. People who have lost a pet experience the same range of grief responses as if they had lost a human they love. The idea that humans and animals bond with one another is as familiar as the childhood stories of Lassie, Toto and Black Beauty. The main characters of our grade school readers were Dick, Jane and Spot. We have loved, been amused and charmed by Snoopy and Garfield. And recently, the escapades of the beloved yellow Labrador, Marley, captivated us in the New York Times bestseller. But even though we have been socialized to understand the human-animal bond, we still seem to fail to fully grasp how intense it is. Linda Peterson, ACSW, a social worker in Pennsylvania who has been doing pet loss counseling since 1989, says: “Our society doesn’t sanction deep, extended grief for a pet. I see quite a few people, even people in their 30s and 40s, who have not been through the loss of anyone close to them-human or animal. When they get hit with these tremendously overwhelming feelings they feel ashamed. They just aren’t prepared for the depth of their feelings.” “When I first started doing this work, 50% of my job was telling people, ‘No, you are not crazy.’ Now, 25 years later, many more people are aware of this relationship, how important it is, and that people are very sad when their pet dies: they understand that they are not weird,” explains Cohen.

Unconditional, Positive Regard

Pet owners experience a sense of unconditional, positive regard from their pets that most people find life expanding. “When you lose your pet, you lose someone who thinks you are wonderful just the way you are,” says Cohen. “Somebody who doesn’t care if you gained 30 pounds, or lost money in the stock market-all the things that our human companions care about.” For some people, their relationship with their pet may have been their only experience of unconditional, positive regard, suggests Linda L. Lawrence, LMSW, a social worker at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Our pets are always happy to see us and run to greet us at the door. They don’t hold grudges against us. They are always there. That is meaningful to everybody, but especially to someone whose pet plays a central role in their life– a latchkey child, for example.” No wonder we feel so hurt when we lose our pets. But, our pets play more than a psychological role in our lives. “The simple act of petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure by inducing an instant relaxation response,” says Alan Beck, Sc.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana. “And animal owners have a higher one-year survival rate following a heart attack and lower cholesterol levels, than those without pets-even when they have the same levels of exercise.” It turns out that our pets are good for both our head and our hearts. When we lose them, we suffer not just a psychological stress, but a physiological one too.

Pets are Family

Beck says that people view their pets, especially their dogs and cats, as members of the family. He cites the way people behave with them. They carry photographs in their wallets and have pictures of their pets on their desk at the office, right along with the pictures of their families. They include their pet in their Christmas card picture. People name their pets, talk to them, and often refer to themselves as “mom” and “dad.” They plan part of their day around their pets. They don’t begrudge discretionary spending for their pets. “These are behaviors that you reserve for members of your family.” Cohen agrees. “We think of them as members of our family, sort of like children, but even better than children, because they are more innocent.” The impact of losing a pet that we consider to be a member of our family, like an innocent child, because we fed it tainted food is immense. “These are people who fed their pet food that caused their innocent animal to die-that is very, very difficult for people.” Guilt and anger when losing a loved one are typical reactions, but in the pet food scandal, they may be severe. “As is often the case when there is some kind of accident, you really are not culpable-but at the same time you feel culpable,” says Beck. “I think the recall is probably that way. People are probably thinking to themselves: ‘I really should have read those labels. I should have switched foods. I should have been more observant.’ I think most people were caught by surprise; I suspect that it was spotted pretty quickly, but that doesn’t stop the guilt.” Cohen adds, “Because we see pets as very innocent and very dependent on us, we feel extra responsible.” There is a difference between a loss that is anticipatory and one that is traumatic, suggests Beck. “One of the problems with the food issue is that people didn’t have time to mobilize their feelings and start the mourning process in a healthy way. Whereas, if you know that your animal is going to die in a few weeks, then you spend some extra special time together. It makes it a little easier.”

How Long Will the Grief Last?

Cohen says that how long the grief lasts after losing a pet has not been carefully studied. Everybody is different. “It is clear that for some people losing a pet is a big trauma; it is a big loss like any other big loss and they will never be the same again.” The fact that it can take a long time “is where people get hung up,” says Peterson. “They say, ‘I have been upset for a couple of days, or a week or two weeks and I have to get beyond this. It is going on too long.’ I tell them that it is an individual thing. The more you loved your pet, the longer it is going to take to get through these feelings.” Cohen says how long the grief lasts often depends a lot on what else is going on in the person’s life at the time. This has been Lawrence’s experience also. “If you are going through multiple stresses at the same time, if you are going through a divorce, or recently lost your job, or have a family member who is ill and you have a pet die, that is going to compound the amount of time that the grief will last.” Sometimes the pet is the last link to another lost relationship. “I have had people who have lost a pet that was left to them by their children or that was part of their life before their spouse died. It is the last living connection to that child or spouse and so their grief and their sadness and depression is huge,” explains Lawrence. It may be especially painful for an older person to lose a pet. For some, their pet is a cherished companion that has given them a reason to keep living. At a time in life when they are experiencing the death of friends, losing their pet also, could be catastrophic. Because their pet may have been the sole focus of their attention and affection and may have be a substantial part of their daily routine the loss they feel will be especially intense. Beck suggests that most people do get over a pet loss sooner than a human loss. One reason probably is that the major changes in one’s life that often accompany a human loss don’t occur when you lose an animal. “Things like your economy, what you eat and where you live may change when you lose a spouse, for example, but aren’t a factor when you lose your pet. There are some studies that show that how long you have had the animal has some influence on the duration and the impact of the loss,” according to Beck.

How About a New Pet?

The suggestion that a grieving pet owner should replace the lost pet is a reflex that should be avoided. “Pets are not just a box of Kleenex, something that you can just go out and buy another one and have the same experience. They have their own personalities. Pets are spontaneous and they do things that make you laugh, they surprise you with their love and their acceptance of you, and that makes them different,” says Cohen. Beck says that the suggestion that you should “just get another pet” is as inappropriate as saying: “I heard you lost your husband; by the way, I have a brother who is just right for you.” Beck has found that it takes people about two years before they replace their pet. Although, some people want to do it right away. There are some people who want to replace their pet with the same breed all the time. And there are some who seem to want to maintain the original memory of their pet and switch breeds so as not to compete with it. According to Beck you see both responses, but the loyalty to one breed is more common. Peterson doesn’t encourage people to run right out and get another pet primarily because it takes a lot of energy to bring a new pet into your home at a time when your energy is drained from grieving. The new pet is not going to be like your other pet; you are still remembering the pet that died and comparing the two, and in her experience, that doesn’t work. Too often people who have adopted a new pet too soon ended up actually returning the pet or not being able to keep it, which is an added guilt factor. “That is another trauma and you don’t want to set yourself up for that.”

Supporting a Pet Owner in Loss

When social workers are confronted with a client bereft from the loss of a pet, “the most important thing is be accepting without judgment,” says Beck. “Regardless of your own personal feelings, owning a pet is very important to many people (about 60% of Americans own a pet) and very much part of the family community.” “Most people who are grieving from the loss of a pet improve when someone is able to listen to them and not think that they are crazy,” according to Cohen. Pet Loss Support Groups have proved to be enormously helpful for many, especially for those who don’t have someone with whom to share the loss. When you consider the depth of feeling that people suffer when they lose their pets and the numbers of pets that have been lost to the pet food scandal the impact of this crisis is devastating. Jennie, and the others who are grieving for their pets, will for the most part get better. Lawrence gives important advice that may make the difference. “Anyone suffering from the loss of their pet should be treated as though it was a human being that was lost and they should be provided the same grief and loss services that you would to a person who lost their spouse, or child, or another family member.”

Pet Loss Support Groups

In her early social work career working with the disabled, Susan Cohen, DSW observed the strong bond between humans and animals. Appreciating the important role that pets played in her client’s lives, she established one of the first counseling program in a veterinary hospital and the first Pet Loss Support Group. Now collaborations between veterinary schools and social work programs exist around the country, as do Pet Loss Support Groups. Pet Loss Support Groups have proved to be a comforting place to share feelings such as confusion, sadness, and guilt with others in a compassionate environment. Cohen says that one way that Pet Loss Support groups are uniquely helpful is that people suffering from the loss of a pet hear how others are handling the process. “They are often told by their friends and family that they did everything they could for their pet and they tend to discount it: ‘They are just saying that to me to make me feel better.’ But when they hear someone one in their group say those things, they can see that they are beating themselves up unnecessarily and then they can say to themselves, ‘Wow, I think that guy did everything, and look how hard he is being on himself. Maybe I am being too hard on myself.’ You can’t tell them that, but they can see it in someone else. And they can let themselves off the hook.”

Author:   Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Certified Personal and Executive Coach