Pet Bereavement – Understanding and Coping with Grief

In her previous article, Image 1psychologist Dr Susan Dawson gave an insight into pet loss and euthanasia. In this article she explains how to understand and cope with grief following the death of a beloved pet.


Grief related to pet bereavement can be really intense.
Pet bereavement can cause really strong emotional reactions, sometimes greater than grief in relation to a human loss. No doubt the accepting nature of pets and the unconditional love they provide for people contributes to the intensity of grief felt. Grief can begin before a loss, e.g. when we learn our pet is terminally ill or see our pet getting older: this is known as anticipatory grieving. Grief may also be ambiguous or unresolved when we don’t know what has happened to a pet, e.g. when they are lost or stolen.

Grief is messy, chaotic and unique to the individual.
Grief is our reaction to loss; it involves thoughts, emotions (feelings) and behaviours. Traditional understanding of grief reactions were based on stages models which suggest bereaved people pass through distinct phases.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stage model is often applied for understanding grief reactions to pet loss:-

  • Denial and Isolation: refusing to accept the reality of the loss, e.g. carrying on as though a pet is not seriously ill, we may avoid talking about our pet’s illness or even not comply with important veterinary treatment to help manage symptoms; after the death of a pet some people may feel unable to part with their pet’s body for burial or cremation; sometimes people withdraw from meeting friends, family or going out.
  • Anger: we may feel furious at our pet for dying, blame a family member or friend for the death or even feel hostile towards the veterinary teams that cared for our pet because they couldn’t make our pet better.
  • Bargaining: this can involve making all kinds of compromises and “deals” in our heads as a perceived trade-off that we magically believe may prolong our pet’s life
  • Depression: we can experience extreme sadness that prevents us from going about our daily tasks; if this is long-lasting it is a good idea to check out what is going on with a GP, as pet bereavement can also evoke feelings of grief from other, past losses in our lives.
  • Acceptance: this involves feeling more comfortable remembering good times with a pet and having thoughts of possibly investing in a relationship with a new pet or becoming involved in pet-related activities such as volunteering as a cat socialiser or dog walker at a local animal re-homing centre

More recent understandings of grief however, recognise its uniqueness to each individual and also its chaos and messiness; grief reactions are not neat and linear, but rather dynamic – oscillating between immersing ourselves in the pain of loss (actively grieving, e.g. crying, longing for our deceased pet’s presence) to recovery orientated behaviour, e.g. seeing friends, going back to work, having contact with other animals, considering having another pet. Grief may make us physically unwell, e.g. vomiting, not being able to sleep, feeling run down and being more prone to infections.

Everyone is individual and grieves in his or her own way.

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Pets are very much part of the family and each family member may have a different relationship to mourn. It is useful to know some of us are affective (emotional) grievers and our grief is very obvious to others, e.g. we cry and look for support from others; however some us are instrumental grievers and keep our emotions to ourselves, preferring instead to focus on tasks e.g. sorting out a pet’s cremation or burial. There is no “wrong way” to grieve. There is also no requirement to stop talking about a deceased loved one or remembering them, e.g. taking flowers to a grave or special place where ashes were scattered, keeping photographs around our home of a deceased pet and talking about them. Continuing bonds with lost loved ones are healthy and normal. If we have experience of multiple losses in our lives this may make us more vulnerable to complicated grief reactions as pet bereavement can trigger other painful memories and bring to the surface unprocessed emotions.

After-death body-care

In common with people, the most frequent method of after death body-care for pets is cremation. Veterinary surgeries can organise this at an extra cost. Cremations can be individual enabling returning of a pet’s ashes for keeping, burying or scattering; alternatively communal cremations (where more than one pet is cremated together) provide the option of having a ‘token of ashes’ to keep, bury or scatter.

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A more costly option is burial in a pet cemetery; some pet cemeteries also offer the option of human burials for people who want to be with their pets after their own death. Home burial is a further option, but considerations such as feelings regarding moving house in the future and legal requirements regarding the depth of pet graves need to be taken into account. For children in particular, holding a “pet funeral” can offer a useful ritual for remembrance and also provide a foundation for learning how to cope with future losses.

Rituals of remembrance

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Finding a way to remember a deceased pet can be very healing. Creating a memory box,e.g. of photographs, a clay paw print (this can be made pre or post death), a favourite toy can be a powerful way of retaining a continuing bond.
Planting a tree or shrub or flowers (e.g. forget-me-nots) offers a living memorial and focal place for remembrance as does a grave if a pet is buried or a special place where ashes are scattered (e.g. favourite tree on a walk). Making a donation in memory of a pet to an animal welfare charity e.g. Cats protection, Dogs Trust is another way some people memorialise their pets and also help other animals.

Sources of support

People are often embarrassed about grief related to pet bereavement and this can stop them seeking support. Emotional support is also available from Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) by phone 0800 096 6606 (8.30am – 8.30pm). All Blue Cross pet bereavement support volunteers have experienced pet loss. The Blue Cross also provides the option of creating an online memorial for your pet ( pet memorials). Another source of support for pet owners who have lost a beloved companion is the pet loss support website ‘The Ralph Site’ (

Always talk with your GP if you are struggling with grief or distressing thoughts arising from loss. He or she can offer referral to a qualified counsellor or psychologist.

Looking towards the future

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Some people will adopt or buy another pet very quickly because it feels right for them, but sometimes it feels wrong to even think about getting another pet, there may even be a sense of betraying or replacing the deceased pet. It can be helpful to remember no pet can ever be replaced; their unique character and personality is their own, even if you opt for the same species and breed.

A new pet will always be very different. Other options also exist for having contact with pets such as volunteering time at a local animal welfare charity re-homing centre, e.g. cat socialiser, pet fosterer, volunteer dog walker. The most important aspect of creating a positive future is to allow ourselves time to grieve and accept where we are now in terms of being able to have a pet in our lives and family. This may mean waiting a while or looking at other options such as pet fostering.