Loss of a Dog: The Importance of Social Support

New research finds that losing a pet dog is a stressful life event.

A pug fast asleep
Photo: Muh/Shutterstock.com

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Sooner or later, all pet owners have to face the realization that the lives of our animals are far too short. Grieving for a lost pet is further complicated by some people who fail to understand what a pet means. Comments like, “It was just a dog” can be very hurtful. A new study by Lilian Tzivian (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) et al investigates the psychological effects of pet loss.

The study compared 103 dog owners who had been bereaved in the previous 2 – 4 weeks with 110 owners who currently have a dog, and who had not suffered a pet loss in the previous two years. The cut-off of two years was chosen to ensure that people in this group were not grieving an earlier pet. 

Amongst the bereaved owners, 89% had had their dog euthanized due to illness, and 9% due to an accident.

Although the results will not surprise those for whom pets are family, they may surprise others who do not have an attachment to a pet.The recently-bereaved owners had higher levels of stress overall.  They also had lower ratings for quality of life. 

The authors write, 
“The levels of Quality of Life in three of the four Quality Of Life domains (Physical, Psychological and Relationship) of current owners were significantly better than the levels among bereaved owners. These findings reflect the negative contribution to well-being of losing a dog…”

Social support was found to be an important factor affecting quality of life, with lack of social support proving negative for bereaved owners. 

The scientists write, 
“In the case of mourning for a person, social support is very common and expected, but when a pet dies people do not always grasp the depth of the bereaved owner’s sadness. Lack of social support in the case of death of a companion animal may strongly affect owner’s grief reactions.”

They also say that the dog himself (or herself) may have previously been a source of social support to the bereaved owner.

The study involved standardized questionnaires that measure stress and quality of life. The Physical quality of life questionnaire measures ability to function, sleep and work, while the Psychological scale measures feelings, self-esteem and enjoyment of life. Relationships refers to people’s friendships and relationships with other people. Only the Environmental aspect, to do with finances, physical safety and the home was unaffected in bereaved owners.

All of the participants were female and living in Israel. In an earlier study, the researchers had few male participants and so they decided to concentrate on women. Although many studies include more women than men, this raises interesting questions about whether the expression of grief over a pet is perceived as more acceptable for women than men.

All of the dogs lived indoors and were kept as pets, not working dogs. The bereaved owners were recruited via veterinary clinics who verified the pet loss, whereas the other group were recruited by different sources. Although many demographic variables were similar across both groups, there were some significant differences. The bereaved owners tended to be older and more were parents. Amongst the current owners there was a higher proportion of students and more had never been married.

This is in fact a limitation to the study. Because the two samples were not matched, differences could potentially be due to other factors. However this does not affect the finding that levels of social support were important amongst bereaved owners.

The study is a useful step in understanding the effects of losing a pet on people’s psychological health. The results confirm what many pet owners already know, that losing a pet is a stressful life event. Perhaps this will help those who don’t have a special bond with animals to understand.

What kind of support have you found helpful when coping with the loss of an animal?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Tzivian, L., Friger, M., & Kushnir, T. (2015). Associations between Stress and Quality of Life: Differences between Owners Keeping a Living Dog or Losing a Dog by Euthanasia PLOS ONE, 10 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121081

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  1. Thank you or this meaningful post. Loosing anyone, pets included is difficult to navigate.

  2. As I am grieving the passing of my dog right now, this was very validating. Thank you

    1. I'm very sorry for your loss. I hope you have good support from friends and family. Thank you for letting me know you found the post helpful. Take care.

    2. Cindy, I'm so sorry you've lost your dog. I have always had either or both cats and dogs and whether they are with me for weeks or decades, I am always torn up. Hugs to you. My heaven is me with all the sweet animals that were ever born. You can come too.

  3. I had one go yesterday and another dog has about 4 weeks. My other dogs will comfort me but this one coming up will be devastating. I talk about wanting to go with her. if you could ever imagine a perfect dog, she is it. I will do my best but it's going to take a long time to get over this girl leaving us.

    1. I'm so sorry you are having and facing such a difficult and incredibly painful time. But just know it will have been worth your pain to have known your baby and to have had her in your life. And best of all, they will all be waiting for you by the bridge! Gentle hugs to all who must face this part of the journey soon. X

  4. As anyone with experience can tell you, there is no comparing the relationship with other human beings to that with a companion animal; non-human animals beat other people, hands down, for what we seek in relationships. The loss of a special companion animal is unspeakably devastating. There are simply no words.

  5. Just lost my precious Freckles last night. Comforting to know other people understand how much an important part pets are in our lives. Freckles was a rescue puppy. She had an inoperable tumor in her mouth. She was great till the end!

  6. Thank you .....

  7. We lost our dog 3 days ago. The words of condolence from family and Facebook friends showed that we know a lot of caring people. A bouquet of flowers we received that day from the staff at the vet clinic provided additional comfort.

  8. As a man I can say that I had to put down my beloved Sebastian 10 days before my 50th birthday. I was miserable and sad. We had 12 wonderful years. He was diabetic and blind. Pneumonia is what took him. I gave him his shots and loved him more each day.

  9. Just lost our beloved Lab; less than 6 weeks ago we lost our equally beloved Rottweiler. Devastated, bereft, debilitating are words that just begin to describe it. You say "Only the Environmental aspect, to do with finances, physical safety and the home was unaffected in bereaved owners." Not true. On top of the huge hole in my heart I am left with bills top pay from chemotherapy, and our Rottie was a big part of our home security system. Trying to focus on the good memories...

    1. I'm so sorry for the loss, and you are right the bills are not trivial. Take care.

  10. The connection that we have with our beloved fur babies cannot be underestimated. We share a part of our soul that even the closest humans never get to see that is why this loss is so great. To lose a "heart pet" can be devastating at the best of times but when such deep grief is not validated or understood it can impact people socially, emotionally and physically.


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