Grieving the loss of a pet - it's tough to lose a furry friend

Don’t ever let anyone belittle you if you’re sad over the loss of a pet. “It was just a cat,” or “Why are you so upset over a bird?” can make you feel even worse. But grieving a companion’s death is natural and can range from a moment of quiet respect to numbing sadness.

In a time when we buy our pets special food and toys, remember our animals’ birthdays or adoption days, and spend whatever it takes to have top-notch veterinary care, it shouldn’t be a surprise that pets are important to us. Children confide in pets, single people consider their furry friends as roommates, seniors rely on their animals for companionship and families celebrate holidays with the pets. We grow up with our pets and grow old with our pets. It’s not a big leap, then, to understand why losing a pet can open up such holes in our hearts.

My first rabbit, Sebastian, died a couple of weeks ago. Sebastian was a spayed Dutch mix bunny who had lived with me before I was married, moved to four new places in two different states with me and was the spark for my interest in rescuing rabbits. Even though I know she was much more than “just a rabbit,” I have had a hard time explaining to other people that I am not myself because of the loss of a pet. But I have learned from reading more about how we grieve for our animals that giving yourself permission to be upset is A-OK. You can be as sad as you need to be, and you can express that sadness however you need to.

If you can find someone who is willing to listen, it can be helpful to talk to other people about your pet and remember some of the great things you shared. The staff at Heartland Humane Society (where I volunteer and am on the board of directors) all signed a card for me when they learned that Sebastian had died. Many of them asked how I was doing and offered to listen if I needed to talk. Executive Director Kerry Mullin made sure I had plenty of chocolate to help me through my tears. I felt very lucky to know such a great group of compassionate people.

Sometimes you aren’t comfortable sharing with those you are close to. If that’s the case, there are online communities. PetLoss.com offers tribute pages, personal support and advice as well as resources like grief hotlines and counselors who specialize in pet bereavement. Many vet schools offer such hotlines, including Washington State University (where Oregon State vets-in-training go for part of their schooling). The Pet Loss Hotline at WSU maintains a Web page at www.vetmed.wsu.edu/PLHL/home/ where you can find the current hours that the phones are staffed. The WSU web site also lists common signs of grieving – it helps to know that others have gone through the same emotions that you are experiencing.

Another tough emotion to deal with is guilt. I went through this with Sebastian. But guilt, though it must be worked through, doesn’t do anyone any good. In my case, Sebastian was under the care of a wonderful and knowledgeable veterinarian. I decided to have a necropsy – that’s an animal autopsy – done and the results pointed to a painful and somewhat unusual condition that would have been near impossible to diagnose.

Even if you did not take your pet to the veterinarian, remember that animals are great at hiding symptoms and pain – that’s part of their inborn survival instinct. Because of this, the time between when pets show obvious discomfort and when they die can be incredibly short. Loving pet owners do the best they can to provide care for their animals. Or maybe your pet was older and died from old age – what a wonderful blessing to have had your pet’s companionship for so long.

Children who lose their pets will grieve differently than adults do. Some children are too young to understand the whole concept of death, or this is their first experience with it. It is important to be honest with your children and explain truthfully what happened. “Fido went away” or “Fluffy got a new home” can confuse children or upset them when they find out it was a lie.

Good books for families in dealing with pet loss include “It’s Okay to Cry” by Maria Luz Quintana and “Saying Good-Bye to the Pet You Love” by Lorri A. Greene. There are many other books on the subject so browse the shelves at your favorite local or online bookstore to find more.

Other pets in the house, especially if they were close to the deceased animal, may act differently in the days following the loss. They may be distressed because they pick up on your emotions or they may legitimately miss the animal that is gone. Caring for them and spoiling them a bit in the time to follow can help both you and them recover.

Grieving pet owners often ask, “When is the right time to get another pet?” You might feel too sad to get another animal right away. But when it feels right, another animal can be helpful in getting over the pain. Don’t overlook a humane society or rescue when seeking another pet. An adult animal can be less work than a young one and has a more developed personality that you can evaluate when selecting a good pet for the whole family.