Losing a Cherished Pet

losing a pet

The late Queen Elizabeth II famously said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Loving pet owners know this very well. While there are some pets that have huge lifespans – such as some species of tortoises and parrots – the most common pets have a life expectancy of 15 years or so[1].

Take the housecat, with an average life expectancy of 12 to 18 years (though the record is held by a kitty who lived for 28 years). Small dogs, such as Chihuahuas, can live 12 to 20 years, according to Pet Helpful. The life expectancy of dogs declines with their size, with medium dogs surviving about 11 years and larger dogs surviving for an average of eight years. Rabbits can live up to 10 years, while fish typically live for only five years or so.

This means that at some point, senior pet owners may very well experience the loss of a treasured pet companion.

Pets can enhance quality of life, especially for seniors. About 55% of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 have a pet, and more than half of those individuals have more than one. Two-thirds of all pet owners find that a pet helps them stay physically active – and that’s especially true with dogs. It’s no surprise that 78% of dog owners say their pets keep them moving, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging.

In the same poll, about 75% of owners said their pets help reduce their stress levels and give them a sense of purpose. More than half of elderly adults credit their pet with helping them cope with physical or emotional problems, and almost half of them said that their pet takes their mind off pain or discomfort.

During trying times, pets can be incredibly valuable for keeping spirits high. A study from Frontiers in Public Health found that senior adults with pets experienced less loneliness and less need for social support during the Covid-19 pandemic. And while 65% of older adults find that having a pet helps them connect with other people, it’s also clear that the relationship with a pet is much less complicated than relationships with other humans, which can lead to very close ties[2].

Though pet ownership can come with downsides – some owners say that their pets cause them financial strain, and some seniors have fallen or injured themselves due to a pet[3] – many believe that the advantages outweigh the negatives.

But one of the biggest negatives – one that is unavoidable – is that we sometimes have to say goodbye.

The Unique Grief of Losing a Cherished Pet

When a beloved person dies, grief and sorrow are entirely expected. Friends and family gather to provide support for those who have lost their loved one. They will call and check up on you, send cards and flowers, and be understanding when you become withdrawn or emotional. They might even have a strong grasp of the stages of grief and not seem surprised at all if you lash out one minute and dissolve into sobs the next. Grief can be quite a messy business.

But when you lose a pet, that same understanding and support can be in short supply. They might see your cherished companion as “just” a pet. When you are overwhelmed by intense sadness, they might not understand why. They might tell you to simply get another pet, as if the one you just lost could easily be replaced.

What they might not understand is that pets become members of the family. They can be just as present as any human in the home, with their own personalities, quirks, likes and dislikes. A pet can become just as attached to its owner as its owner is attached to the pet. When death comes, it can be devastating.

Coping with the Loss

When you have to say goodbye, it’s important to remember that grief is entirely normal. You’ve not only lost a companion, but you’ve also lost a sense of routine and purpose in your day-to-day life. Every time you realize you don’t have to refill the water bowl is another moment of sadness and pain, and those moments come around many times each day.

Here are some ways to cope with the loss of your beloved companion.

·         Understand that grief is a process. There are at least five stages of grief, but they are not linear. While denial is often the first stage of grief – especially if the loss is a sudden and shocking one – you might also deal with anger, bargaining with a higher power, depression when that bargaining doesn’t work, and eventually, acceptance. These stages can come and go. One day might feel like full acceptance, but the next day you’re back at anger. You might even swing from one stage to another within a matter of minutes.

·         What you’re feeling is normal. No matter what you’re feeling, it’s perfectly normal and okay. It’s important to remember that, especially if some say your companion was “just” a pet. Your individual experience and how you felt about your pet is what matters.

·         Reach out for help. Losing a pet can be devastating. You once looked to your pet for comfort and companionship – now that very creature who gave you those things is gone. It’s important to reach out for help from others when this happens. This might include talking to a friend who understands how hard it is to lose a pet. Support groups that focus on pet loss can also help, either in-person or online. Ask your veterinarian if they can refer you to a support group.

·         Watch your physical health. Everyone knows that grief can take a major emotional toll, but did you know that it can lead to physical issues as well? According to WebMD, grief can lead to a host of problems, including increased inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure, higher levels of stress, and more. Some physical challenges, such as a lack of sleep, can translate into a fatigue, lack of concentration, and a higher risk of falling. It’s a good idea to consider medical alert systems with fall detection to give you some peace of mind.

·         Be ready for a flood of memories. Though you would certainly expect a constant stream of memories about your pet, you might be surprised by how the loss of a pet can dredge up grief concerning the loss of others. For instance, if you shared that pet with your late spouse, you might grieve not only the loss of your pet, but the loss of that connection the pet represented to your spouse. The grief over your pet might even open a door to old losses you didn’t take the time to grieve properly when they happened. Be patient with yourself when this compounded grief comes around.

·         Prepare a tribute to your pet. Memorialize your pet in ways that feel right for you. That might mean a small memory stone in the backyard that you can look at every day. It might mean planting lovely flowers at your pet’s grave that will bloom year after year. Or it might mean a memory book of photographs or keeping items that belonged to your pet, such as hanging your dog’s leash in a special place.

·         Get the emotions out. This might take the form of talking to someone, including a professional counselor or therapist. It might be more personal, such as writing in a journal or creating a poem. Cry when you need to, and if you get angry, find a constructive way to let that out, such as jumping into some form of physical exercise that will tire you out. A mobile medical alert pendant with built in GPS and fall detection is perfect for long walks in the park to clear your head.

·         Take good care of other pets. If you have other pets in the home, they will be grieving too. PetMD points out that an animal can grieve just like humans do, albeit in their own way. You need extra attention and support right now and they do too. Make a point of giving them more love and affection than usual, and pay close attention to their habits. Sometimes a pet can grieve deeply enough that they might need veterinary attention.

Should You Get Another Pet?

That’s a very individual choice with many points to consider. Of course, you know that each pet has a unique personality – there will never be a replacement for the one you lost. However, you might have room in your heart and home for a new companion to love. Don’t be pushed into the decision! It’s important to move forward on your own time. If that means you choose to get a new pet in a few weeks, so be it. But if it means that you choose to never have another pet again, that’s fine too.

There are factors to consider other than the emotional ones. Are you in a position to care for a new pet? Do you have financial constraints that make it difficult? Are you facing serious medical issues that mean you might not be around to care for the pet? Do you have mobility issues that might make you a greater fall risk around a pet? Carefully consider what you can and can’t do for a new pet companion and if the timing is right.

You might also want to consider the pet itself – for instance, if you’ve always had active dogs but you’re slowing down a bit, it might be best to go with a cat or smaller animal that will stay inside. When you do choose a new pet, it might make more sense to go with a settled, older animal rather than a rambunctious, younger one.

If you do choose to get a new pet, it’s important to keep yourself healthy. You’ll want to be able to enjoy them for years to come, and you’ll want to be able to give them the best life possible. That means watching your physical health, taking your medications on time, getting plenty of exercise, eating the right foods, and implementing aging in place solutions that will allow you to stay in your home with your pets through your golden years. With a pet in the house, it’s always a very good idea to invest in an emergency response solution, especially one with fall detection. The last thing you want is to suffer a fall that renders you helpless and unable to care for your pet. Having assistance available at the touch of a button can provide the peace of mind you need to know for both you and your furry family.