On June 1, 2012, I spied a then two-month-old scruffy gray terrier mix huddled in a wire cage at North Shore Animal League—a no-kill shelter in Long Island. I asked a shelter worker to let the puppy and me have a one-on-one ‘look-see.’ Once on my lap, the dog’s canines latched onto a button on my knee-length white cardigan and happily chomped. I said, “Yes, this is the one.

More than nine years later, Shea is still the one.  Indeed, his butt is nudged against my hip as we share the computer chair by my computer. I adore this bossy, cuddly, lick-dispensing machine whose middle name should be Spoiled. But I know one day (I pray many, many, many, many days hence) I will have to face his passing. As I have faced the passing of two beloved cats—Thor and Axel—whose remains are in urns that have places of honor in my home.

sherry amatenstein and shea

The author and her rescue dog, Shea.

It’s estimated that roughly two out of three Americans open their hearts and homes to a pet. Especially during the pandemic when life is so scary and uncertain, the comfort and stability provided by a pet is indispensable. Indeed, the bond between pets and people is easy to see.  Comedian Miranda Hart, whose love for her Shih Tzu/Bichon Frise inspired her 2007 memoir Peggy and Me recently announced she was taking a career break following the death of her beloved dog.

A small 2019 study of 82 people found that the length of intense grief experienced by bereaved pet owners varies —with 25 % taking between 3 months to a year, 50% between one year and 19 months, and 25 % between two and six years. It’s no wonder that pet loss therapy is an emerging field.

Pet grief unchecked can lead to physical consequences. In October 2017 The New England Journal of Medicine outlined the case of a woman who suffered “broken-heart syndrome” aka takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition mimicking an actual heart attack, after the death of her nine-year-old Yorkie, Meha.

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Hopefully, the loss of your pet is far, far, far off in the future but it’s extremely helpful to know how to deal with this painful circumstance.

Coping Tip #1: Grief is Personal, We Feel How We Feel

When a patient asks why a pet’s death can feel worse than the loss of a human, I respond that in addition to being a family member, a pet is a source of unconditional love, soothing, constant presence, especially during the pandemic, a witness to our lives, and living, breathing, whining reason to get dressed and out of the house in the morning. Our pets give us so much and in return, ask for so little. How can that loss not feel devastating?

The devastation can be magnified if others make you feel ashamed for being grief-stricken over the loss of a dog/cat/bird/fill-in… If others don’t understand your grief, that is their problem. Don’t let them dictate your mourning process. You feel what you feel.

Twenty years after her pet Doug died, Deborah Skolnik, a Scarsdale writer still seethes on this topic: “When people hear the phrase ‘pet loss’ they think about the bereaved owner of a fuzzy cat or faithful, elderly dog.” Allergic to fur babies but craving a pet, in 1985 Skolnik purchased a goldfish she named Doug. “He was my constant companion for 12 of the most pivotal years of my life, so his death was wrenching. If my dog had died, would people have asked me for his leash and bowl the same day?

Coping Tip #2: Whether Death Comes Naturally or Not, Pet Loss is Awful

Betsy Graziani Fassbinder, a San Francisco psychologist and host of The Morning Glory podcast has “dealt with the topic of loss and grieving millions of times over the last 30 years” and yet when it came to putting down Edgar, her 13-year-old golden doodle nearly two years ago the pain still feels raw. She explains, “There are people who have a series of animals they love and every once in a while there is an animal soulmate. Edgar helped my husband and me weather losses such as my brother’s death.

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What Are the 5 Stages of Grief?

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five common stages of grief

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Sloan Smiloff, a New Jersey-based psychiatrist, has had many pets over the years and her grief when each one has had to be put down (last year it was her 17-year-old deaf since birth Shih Tzu Sugar) is physically and emotionally devastating. “When is the right time to say goodbye?” she opines sadly. “Vets say if the dog or kitty has been aging and it’s been five days since they could even get up from their bed and are exhibiting a lot of physical stress…”

The vet came to Smiloff’s house to ease Sugar over the Rainbow Bridge (it’s said the pet crosses over this Bridge to heaven), but the gentle transition didn’t make it easier to handle. “For every animal I’ve had to put down I cry and pray…It’s always awful.”

The loss can be even tougher when the deceased is a young pet and/or the cause of death was an accident. Both circumstances applied for Rachel Pastiloff. The health coach’s 43rd birthday January 15th was tragically marred when her 3-year-old Boston Terrier was hit by a car while running around the 20-acre-ranch Pastiloff lives on with her parents and autistic 14-year-son.

Intellectually Pastiloff knew the death was an accident and it was the correct decision to euthanize Bug—he was paralyzed with serious head trauma and his liver was leaking toxins. Yet she struggled with guilt and self-blame in addition to grief. “Bug was the other half of my heart.

She says, “I feel blessed to have amazing friends and family and to have had a private session with Rabbi Steve Leder, author of The Beauty of What Remains, based on his sermon about loss…The Rabbi told me, a loss is a loss whether it’s an animal or a human.

Still, she says, “Grief is a roller coaster.”

Grieving the Loss of A Pet

The bond between animals and humans is undeniable. After the loss of a beloved pet, it’s important to be kind to yourself. Here are some ways that have helped others get through the most painful parts of the grieving process and may help you, too.

Reach Out to Others Who Understand

Julie Barton wrote the best-selling Dog Medicine to help process the death of her Golden Retriever Bunker, who she put down when cancer began fiercely attacking his body. Since her husband “didn’t understand the depth of grief” she experienced, it was essential to reach out to those who did. “One of the benefits of social media today is the avalanche of empathy, understanding, love, and kindness you receive.

With COVID-19 it’s hard to spend time with fellow grievers but there are online support groups you can join. (See resources, below.)

Be Kind to Yourself

Barton says, “The most important thing when you’re grieving is to be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself like a newborn baby.” Healing takes time. Honor your pet and yourself by being patient. Take comfort in your happy memories. Time should eventually soften the blow.

Find Ways to Memorialize Your Pet

Elizabeth Shapiro, aka Mrs. Doolittle, The Healer in High Heels, is a pet loss grief counselor. She suggests coming up with rituals that give you comfort. “Have your pet’s ashes put in an urn. Make a shrine with pictures or other meaningful mementos.

Some people create online photo galleries or scrapbooks. When my 16-year-old cat Thor died I invited his friends over (coincidentally my friends as well!) to visit and share memories.

Write About Your Pet

Another tip from Shapiro: Journal, write letters to your pet, whatever feels soothing…

Find New Routines

Especially in this isolating time walking a dog several times a day gets you out of the house regularly. It’s important to still take walks, and do other things that keep you occupied.

Help Your Children Grieve

Sloan Smiloff, who had to euthanize her Sugar, advises, “Never belittle your child’s feelings. This should be handled with as much sensitivity as the loss of a relative your child adored.”

Julie Barton’s daughter was two when their dog died—too young to really process the passing of her four-legged sidekick. Five years later the child wrote a book about the dog—sprinkling it with pictures of her and Bunker.

Get Other Animals Into Your Life

This can be anything from volunteering at a shelter to getting a new pet. Every animal is its own unique self but getting another furry creature brings a new and loving energy into your home. Shortly after Bug’s death a friend bought Pastiloff a Boston Terrier puppy. She loves her new pet but that doesn’t mean Bug is not hugely missed. Still, “I’m doing ok,” she says.

Long Term Pet Grie

If after a few weeks you find yourself still too emotionally incapacitated to function, talking to a grief counselor therapist can be a helpful way to process your pain. Pet Works can connect you to pet loss grief counselors.

Pet Loss Resources

Here are more resources to help you deal with the loss.

  • Lap of Love. Grief resources, support groups, and counseling information.
  • Rainbow Bridge. Pet loss forums, chat groups, and FAQs.
  • Red Rover. Directory of national organizations to help grieving pet owners.

Constant companion. Cherished confidant. Supporter, stress-reliever, friend. It’s easy to love a pet. Perhaps that’s why so many of us continue to make pets a part of our lives when their loss feels so devastating.

Last Updated: Mar 5, 2021