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

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?

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, one dog, and two cats.

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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: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181362

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  1. Having had so many, I can assure you that the circumstances of their death make an enormous difference to my own reactions.
    I feel guilt about Topsy -- she was dying of mammary cancers (and probably other cancers). The vet assured me that she was not in any pain, and so I put off having her euthanased. But I could see the pain and suffering in her eyes and face. I subjected her to FAR too much distress and pain by being wimpy about euthanasia.
    I feel anger and despair about Goody and Tassie. Goody ( red kangaroo I'd raised rom a pouchling) broke her neck because my husband had decreed that she must have an enclosure and he built roof to it that was far too low for a hoping animals. Tassie took a strychnine bait.
    I feel guilt about Honey -- not having her euthanased but because she hadn't had a good life -- she had problems and I got terrible raining advice :-(
    I feel angry with the vet who put Sam down, poor little old Sammy, and she just plonked him on a stainless steel bench for the injection.
    I remmber Pearl's death with love -- the vet came out, she was euthanased at home and at peace. Annie (cat) also -- the vet was lovely and left me to old her when she was put out of pain and distress. Princess and Big Ted (father and daughter) both died naturally at home of a heart attack. Kelly died peacefully at home -- I miss her but have only good memories of her.
    Scotty's death is too recent - the scar is still raw. We wanted him to die at home, but he was blind, deaf and incontinent and in distress :-( No anger, no guilt, but we miss him.

    1. So sorry for your pain. I still have regrets and guilt about not euthanizing one of my cats soon enough and subsequently letting one linger longer than I should have. It is so hard to know when to say goodbye when you love them so much. A little part of you dies each time.

    2. I also had different experiences - some I would prefer not to remember. I have had good vets and some rather bad ones too. I have lost many over the years and with each one I have learned what I have to do and when. Putting a stop to a loved pets pain is the hardest thing we can do. When you love them so much we some times hesitate. Thank you for your story - it makes a difference

    3. I know it's tough. Most of my pets lived to old age and then went down hill very fast and had to be euthanized. The two I feel most guilty about were cats that I'd asked my husband to take to the vet because I was crying so hard, I didn't want to be seen. He promised he'd stay with them to the very end and then I found out that he's simply just dropped them off. I can never forgive myself for making them face their end alone and scared.

  2. I had lost a daughter almost 30 years ago and I recently had to put my little pomeranian down that I had for almost 15 years she had enlarged heart and starting to have heart failure. And I will tell you from experience losing a pet whether it's euthanizing them or they suddenly die either way is the same pain and your world completely shattered as losing a child. The pain is no difference the grief, sorrow, anger,guilt no different. My little "Angel" was my world, my support, my best friend and the love of my life.

  3. We gone through this 5 times.All our dogs lived long and were deeply loved.They all wound up with one type of cancer or another.We knew when it was time.Still didn't make it easy. All but one was an in home euthanasia. We much prefer that than having to go to the vets office.As hard as it is ,I feel that the last loving thing you can do for your dog or cat, is to hold them and be with them in the end. The most interesting thing was to experience how the dogs reacted to loosing one of the pack.

    1. Nobody should assume that at home euthanasia is peaceful. A couple weeks ago the vet was mad I called her at 10 PM, she was in her pajamas. She came and pulled my baby out of his crate in his weakened state, threw a blanket over his head, stuck him with the needle and he was down in 1 minute with the biggest eyes I have ever seen. I said WHAT ARE YOU DOING, I wanted to hold him. She pulled the blanket off his head and said "Ok, now you can hold him. " I am having trouble getting over her abuse of him. Not just bad bedside manner---it was abuse and disrespect for me and the dog who I worked so hard with. I adopted him at almost 14 and he died almost 15. The way she did it violated the trust. I promised him he would never be scared but this witch has caused me severe grief. I should have kicked her out of the house but I was so stunned and grief stricken and confused. I let the dog down.

    2. That's horrible. I realize your post is over a year old but I hope you reported this uncaring person.

  4. I have been through this many times. I find it interesting that they found that people who were more attached didn't necessarily have more guilt. I've always been quite attached to my critters and I've almost always experienced feelings of guilt. I finally just gave up and admitted to myself that I will always feel guilt, so I can't let that influence any decisions I have to make. I'm glad someone is studying this.

  5. We had to put our beloved Dylan to sleep 12 days ago. At 13.5 years old he had 2 kinds of cancer and a bad rear end. Woke up hardly able to walk but not in pain. The vet determined his rear end was numb and we decided it was time. The vet was wonderful and so kind, but the pain is terrible. Not guilt or anger.

  6. I held Emily ,sick & tired from a stroke, other illness too, while the vet out her to sleep. I was so scared, I wanted to come out of my skin! I really needed to hold her and kiss that beautiful animal one more time, and have her respond to me! I couldn't��

  7. I've always felt that losing a beloved pet (and all of mine have been beloved) is, in a way, more difficult than losing a human. The pet has never said a nasty word, never criticized, always greeted me when I returned home whether I've been away for five minutes or a day. Dogs are the most loving, comforting companions in the world!!

  8. Agree an unexpected loss is harder and has a different range of emotions. You're time to prepare becomes very condensed.

  9. What helped me cope? My other pets waiting at home. If felt no guilt at putting down 6 dogs over the years as there was always a health reason for it. I have been present at all their deaths except for Sable, who died overnight at the vet from biliary, which I feel I caused for not giving her tick medication timeously. For this I will never forgive myself and the fact that I couldn't be with her when she left. That was the most painful death. My vets have been wonderful with each putting to sleep - kind, gentle, considerate and said they would come to my home to do it. Sometimes I don't think of them often as I do have another 4 who need my attention, but every now and then they will creep into my mind and the memories, pain and tears return. I know they are safe and well and waiting for me.

  10. We lost our little yorkie 1 mo. ago-he came running into our room and suddenly he was blind and couldn't stand. He looked to us for help and we went to the vet-our baby couldn't breathe and they felt it was congestive heart disease and a stroke. He came to us for help, and we were told it was hopeless and we had him euthanized. To this day I feel like he wanted us to help fix him, and instead we put him down. Will never forgive myself, even tho I know deep down it was the best for him. We cry every day.

  11. Had my beautiful boy pts 9 months ago. Still raw. Guilt is indescribable. He was in pain for unknown reasons so took him to vet. Various appointments after that, ending in going to vets 3 times in 1 day for various shots. He was in a lot more pain after that, came home from work and dog had had a seizure or something- mind was willing but his body was pretty much shutdown. Had him euthanized - he was in too much pain. And I blame myself. If I hadn't insisted on going to the vet, he may have gotnover whatever was wrong initially. It sounds bonkers. ultimately I know i did the right thing but man, it hurts!

    1. It does still hurt, even though you know you did the right thing. I'm sorry for your loss.

  12. The way the vet AND tbe desk staff treat you are big factors. I felt sad, lonely and not emotionally ready to put my pet down when the time came. My vet and the evening desk staff knew it was coming as he was sick on end of life care and my vet appointments were always in the evening. They were fantastic through the whole ordeal and I am grateful for there care, compassion and how they treated me during the time. When I called to make the euthanasia appointment I called during the day, an office person answered the phone and was very rude to me when I scheduled the appointment. They didn't know who I was, hadn't looked at my file. I had just told them I needed to schedule an euthanasia appointment with Dr. XYZ some evening that week and they became extremely rude. I had major exams that week, my pet had gone down hill fast in the last week and I honestly should have just walked in to put him down but scheduled it so I had a few days to grieve. The way I was treated on the phone was terrible and unacceptable. I should have reported the desk staff as it was frankly unprofessional and that behaviour could lead to a person or animal suffering.

    1. I'm sorry you had that experience. So difficult on top of an especially difficult time.

  13. I remember being around 12 or 13 and my parents had an appointment to have our 16 year old cat put down due. He couldn't walk anymore and was in a lot of pain, very stiff. My parents went to work and I was left home with him and he didn't make it to the vet. He crawled across the house to the door to try and hide and he died in front of me a slow, horrible, and painful death. I was crying, I couldn't even be next to him when it happened, I didn't know what to do. I've always felt guilty towards myself, anger at my parents as he should have been put down weeks earlier. Honestly that scarred me as a kid. Now I have a panic attack everytime any of my pets get even a little hurt..

  14. Just yesterday my wife and I put down our beloved 5 year old coon hound rescue. She was the love of our lives. We have no children so we treated her as our baby. It was unexpected illness and we had little time to prepare emotionally. We had her put down in my wife's arms at home. The pain is tremendous and there is a gigantic hold in our hearts and home. Love you pets every day.

    1. I'm so sorry for your loss. It must have been such a shock. Take care.


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