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

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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 award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

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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