Losing a Pet Can Lead to Different Types of Grief

New research looks at the factors that influence how we feel after euthanizing a pet.

A sad-looking Shiba Inu lies on a bed; losing a pet causes different feelings of grief and sorrow
Photo: mannpuku/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The loss of a pet is a difficult process. People’s feelings of grief may be the same as for losing a human family member. New research investigates some of the factors that may affect people’s grief and sorrow after euthanizing a dog or cat.

The study, by Sandra Barnard-Nguyen (University of Sydney) et al, is one of the first to use a survey designed specifically to measure people’s responses to loss of a pet, rather than a human. This takes account of differences in the experience, including the decision to euthanize a pet.

A reaction of grief and sorrow on the loss of a pet can be seen as part of a normal psychological process.  However in some people there may be feelings of guilt and anger that are more problematic. This type of grief is seen as ‘complicated’ and may sometimes develop into depression or other mental health issues.

The study looked at these three types of grief in people who had euthanized a pet in the previous year. Sorrow and grief was measured by questions like “I miss my pet enormously.” Anger might be directed at the person themselves, or at veterinary staff (e.g. “I feel anger at the veterinarian for not being able to save my pet.” Guilt included feeling that “I feel bad that I didn’t do more to save my pet.”

One way of understanding our relationship with pets is through attachment theory, the idea being that we become attached to our pets in much the same way as we do to people. From this perspective, you would expect people with a stronger attachment to their pet to feel more grief when the pet dies.

And this is one of the findings of the study. People who were more attached to their pet reported more grief and sorrow, and also more feelings of anger (but not guilt).

The scientists write,
“While guilt can certainly be related to the decision to euthanize a companion animal, it may be the case that pet owners are effectively rationalizing this decision as being in the best interest of the pet. Additionally, veterinary staff may be helpful in explaining the need for euthanasia in end-of-life situations and in supporting and validating the decisions made by pet owners.”
The researchers expected to find that people who were younger or lived alone would be more like to experience complicated grief, perhaps because they might have less social support. However, this was not the case, even though it has been found in earlier work. It shows that more research is needed into possible links between owner characteristics and experiences of grief.

Finally, they found that the circumstances of euthanasia made a difference to people’s grief. A sudden death for the animal was linked to greater feelings of anger. In contrast, if the pet had had cancer, people had lower feelings of both anger and guilt.

A St. Bernard in a snowy landscape is a metaphor for the grief we feel when losing a pet
Photo: Grigorito Ko/Shutterstock

The scientists have recommendations for veterinarians:
“Identifying pet owners who may be at greatest risk for problematic grief reactions has substantial clinical value for veterinary staff. While veterinary staff should be prepared to support all clients in their grief, recognizing that an owner is highly attached to their pet or that a pet has died a sudden or traumatic death, for example, should trigger additional support responses.”
The survey was completed by 409 people who had euthanized a dog (78.5%) or cat in the previous year. The average age of the pet was 10 years old; 52% had died suddenly and 43% had been diagnosed with cancer.

Earlier research by Tzivian et al (2015) found that losing a pet is a stressful life event, and social support is important to help people cope. This new research by Barnard-Nguyen et al is an important addition to the literature and helps us to better understand people’s experiences of grief when losing a pet.

Although social support is important to everyone who loses a pet, this study suggests some pet owners may need that support even more than others. It also suggests that the way veterinarians support their clients to make decisions about euthanasia and to understand what is in the best interests of the pet may make a difference to people's subsequent grief response.

What helped you to cope with losing a pet?

Barnard-Nguyen, S., Breit, M., Anderson, K., & Nielsen, J. (2016). Pet Loss and Grief: Identifying At-risk Pet Owners during the Euthanasia Process Anthrozoƶs, 29 (3), 421-430 DOI: 

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