Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.
What Is Pet Loss?
For many of us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. A pet can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life, and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. So, when a beloved pet dies, it’s normal to feel a painful sense of grief and loss.
While we all respond to loss differently, the level of grief you experience will often depend on factors such as your age and personality, the age of your pet, and the circumstances of their death. Generally, the more significant your pet was to you, the more intense the emotional pain you’ll feel. The role the animal played in your life can also have an impact. For example, if your pet was a working dog, service animal, or therapy animal, then you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of your independence, or the loss of emotional support. If you lived alone and the pet was your only companion, coming to terms with their loss can be even harder. And if you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong your pet’s life, you may even feel a profound sense of guilt.
Whatever the circumstances of your loss, remember that grief is personal to you, so you shouldn’t be ashamed about how you feel, or believe that it’s somehow not appropriate to grieve for an animal friend. While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of owning a pet, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and when the time is right, perhaps even open your heart to another animal companion.
Losing a pet, for any reason, is something that happens to every pet owner eventually. Whether your pet is stolen, dies, or must be re-homed – the loss can be overwhelmingly difficult to deal with.
Our pets often become members of the family, companions, confidantes, best friends, and some cases a coworker (working dogs) or ticket to independence (service dogs). For those reasons (and many others), the loss of a pet can trigger agonizing grief along with a whole host of other emotions – anger, guilt, shock, and many other strong emotions.
Grief and Pet Loss:
It’s natural to go through the stages of grief as you would with any loss of somebody you care for. In many cases, the people around you don’t understand the grief you are going through, and may tell you to “get over it.” You may hear things like “it was just a dog/cat/bird” or “you can just get another one.” Our society generally doesn’t recognize the significance of pet loss, nor does it allow for ‘proper’ bereavement.
Grieving is a highly individual experience. Some people find grief following the loss of a pet comes in stages, where they experience different feelings such as denial, anger, guilt, depression, and eventually acceptance and resolution. Others find that their grief is more cyclical, coming in waves, or a series of highs and lows. The lows are likely to be deeper and longer at the beginning and then gradually become shorter and less intense as time goes by. Still, even years after a loss, a sight, a sound, or a special anniversary can spark memories that trigger a strong sense of grief.
The grieving process happens only gradually.
It can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Feeling sad, shocked, or lonely is a normal reaction to the loss of a beloved pet.
Exhibiting these feelings doesn’t mean you are weak or your feelings are somehow misplaced. It just means that you’re mourning the loss of an animal you loved, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run.
For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it. By expressing your grief, you’ll likely need less time to heal than if you withhold or “bottle up” your feelings. Write about your feelings and talk about them with others who are sympathetic to your loss.
Some things that can make your grief harder to deal with are: lack of support or understanding, guilt over making the decision to euthanize, and wondering how to discuss it with your children. One of the most important things you can do to get through the difficult time of bereavement is allow yourself to feel it. Holding it in and hiding it is generally not conducive to working through the feelings.
Your journey of grief will not take on a prescribed pattern or look like stages, such as the five stages of grief, as Kubler-Ross, or other patterns of grief. The following tips can help with grief and grieving the loss of your beloved pet.
Acknowledge the reality of the death
Acknowledging the full reality of your loss may take weeks or months, but will be done in a time that is right for you. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for the “new normal” of a life without your beloved pet. Just as it took time to build the relationship with your pet, it will take time to get used to him or her not being there. Once you become accustomed to the idea that your pet has died, you can move forward. Just because your pet is now gone does not mean that you don’t still love him or her as much as you’ve always done.
Move toward the pain of the loss
Experiencing these emotional thoughts and feelings about the death of a pet is a difficult, but important, need. A healthier grief journey may come from taking your time to work through your feelings rather than trying to push them away or ignore it. Those who bury their feelings and pain of the loss of their much-loved pet find it coming out in very different ways: self-medicating with alcohol, irrational bouts of anger, and difficulty concentrating on daily tasks. It is far more healthy to feel your feelings rather than stuffing them down deep inside.
Continue your relationship through memories
Just because your pet has died does not mean that he or she never existed. Your memories allow your pets to live on in you. Embracing these memories, both happy and sad, can be a very slow and, at times, painful process that occurs in small steps. For example, take some time to look at past photos, write a tribute to your pet, or write your pet a letter recalling your time together. Most people can understand the loss of a beloved pet and it may prove beneficial to reach out to others. Plant a memorial garden. Find a special way for you to visit the memories of your pet.
Adjust your self-identity
Part of your self-identity might come from being a pet owner. Others may also think of you in relation to your pet. You may be “the guy who always walked the big black dog around the neighborhood” or “the friend whose cat always jumped on laps.” Adjusting to this change is a central need of mourning. Now you’re in a new reality without your beloved pet. It may feel scary and awful, but over time, you’ll be able to see yourself as the same person who loved that pet, only without the pet. Adjusting to a loss is always complicated and fraught with sadness, but in time, you will be able to look back on cherished memories of your pet.
Search for meaning
When a pet dies, it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of pets in your life. Coming to terms with these questions is another need you must meet during your grief journey. Know that it is the asking, not the finding of concrete answers, that is important. Many people feel silly or stupid for being so upset about losing their loved pet, like it’s not that serious, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This was someone you shared your life with, your home; someone you were responsible for. The emptiness of your life may feel overwhelming, which is why you should try to search for your new normal, place to belong, and practice self-care.
Receive support from others
You need the love and support of others because you never “get over” grief. Talking with other pet owners who have experienced the death of a pet can be one important way to meet this need. Try reaching out to others who’ve been where you are so that you can share your sad times and happy times with each other. Support will remind you that you are grieving a very real loss and help you through that grief.
Coping With Pet Loss:
The experience of loss is different for everyone and can present unique challenges to each person in each situation, but some of the following tips may help you come to terms with the loss of your fur-baby.
The deafening silence – the silence in your home after the death of a pet may seem excruciatingly loud. While your animal companion occupies physical space in your life and your home, many times their presence is felt more with your senses. When that pet is no longer there, the lack of their presence – the silence – becomes piercing. It becomes the reality of the “presence of the absence.” Merely being aware of this stark reality will assist in preparing you for the flood of emotions.
The special bond with your pet—the relationship shared with your pet is a special and unique bond, a tie that some might find difficult to understand. There will be well-meaning friends and family members who will think that you should not mourn for your pet or who will tell you that you should not be grieving as hard as you are because “it’s just a cat” or “just a dog.” Your grief is normal and the relationship you shared with your special friend needs to be mourned.
Grief can’t be ranked—sometimes our heads get in the way of our heart’s desire to mourn by trying to justify the depth of our emotion. Some people will then want to “rank” their grief, pitting their grief emotions with others who may be “worse.” While this is normal, your grief is your grief and deserves the care and attention of anyone who is experiencing a loss.
Questions of spirituality—during this time in your grief journey, you may find yourself questioning your beliefs regarding pets and the after-life. Many people around you will also have their own opinions. It will be important during this time for you to find the answers right for you and your individual and personal beliefs.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
Reach out to others who have lost pets. Check out online message boards, pet loss hotlines, and pet loss support groups—see the Resources section below for details. If your own friends and family members are not sympathetic about pet loss, find someone who is. Often, another person who has also experienced the loss of a beloved pet may better understand what you’re going through.
Rituals can help healing. A funeral can help you and your family members openly express your feelings. Ignore people who think it’s inappropriate to hold a funeral for a pet, and do what feels right for you.
Create a legacy. Preparing a memorial, planting a tree in memory of your pet, compiling a photo album or scrapbook, or otherwise sharing the memories you enjoyed with your pet, can create a legacy to celebrate the life of your animal companion. Remembering the fun and love you shared with your pet can help you to eventually move on.
Look after yourself. The stress of losing a pet can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time. Spend time face to face with people who care about you, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to release endorphins and help boost your mood.
If you have other pets, try to maintain your normal routine. Surviving pets can also experience loss when a pet dies, or they may become distressed by your sorrow. Maintaining their daily routines, or even increasing exercise and play times, will not only benefit the surviving pets but can also help to elevate your mood and outlook, too.
Seek professional help if you need it. If your grief is persistent and interferes with your ability to function, your doctor or a mental health professional can evaluate you for depression.
When Others Devalue Your Loss:
One aspect that can make grieving for the loss of a pet so difficult is that pet loss is not appreciated by everyone. Some friends and family may say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a pet!” Some people assume that pet loss shouldn’t hurt as much as human loss, or that it is somehow inappropriate to grieve for an animal. They may not understand because they don’t have a pet of their own or are unable to appreciate the companionship and love that a pet can provide.
- Don’t argue with others about whether your grief is appropriate or not.
- Accept the fact that the best support for your grief may come from outside your usual circle of friends and family members.
- Seek out others who have lost pets; those who can appreciate the magnitude of your loss, and may be able to suggest ways of getting through the grieving process.
How Do I Tell My Children?
Young children aren’t developmentally ready to understand death in the same way adults do. As their understanding deepens over time, the lens through which they view death changes too. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life by taking it to the doctor for a shot. Magical thinking also may prompt your 4-year-old to believe he somehow caused the pet’s death when he wished for a playful puppy to replace an elderly dog with bad breath and health problems.
From ages 6 to 8, children usually know death is irreversible but believe it only happens to others. They understand the concept but may not be able to accept that a death is happening to them. From ages 9 to 11, children come to understand that death is inevitable, even for them. However, children in these age ranges may still feel somewhat responsible for the pet’s death, thinking their beloved pet may not have died if only they’d taken her for more dog walks or kept the water bowl full.
You are the best judge of how to discuss the loss with your little ones. Honesty is important, and you should encourage your children to talk out their feelings with you. This may be the first time a child has dealt with death in any way, and an opportunity for you to help them understand how to grieve, as well as clear up any misconceptions they may have about death and dying.
One of the most difficult parts about losing a pet may be breaking the bad news to kids. Try to do so one-on-one in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and not easily distracted.
As you would with any tough issue, try to gauge how much information kids need to hear based on their age, maturity level, and life experience.
If your pet is very old or has a long illness, consider talking to kids before the death happens. If you have to euthanize your pet, you may want to explain that:
- the veterinarians have done everything that they can
- your pet would never get better
- this is the kindest way to take the pet’s pain away
- the pet will die peacefully, without feeling hurt or scared
Again, a child’s age, maturity level, and questions will help determine whether to offer a clear and simple explanation for what’s going to happen. If so, it’s OK to use words like “death” and “dying” or to say something like “The veterinarian will give our pet a shot that first puts it to sleep and then stops the heart from beating.” Many kids want a chance to say goodbye beforehand, and some may be old enough or emotionally mature enough to be there to comfort the pet during the process.
If you do have to euthanize your pet, be careful about saying the animal went “to sleep” or “got put to sleep.” Young kids tend to take things literally, so this can conjure up scary ideas about sleep or surgery and anesthesia.
If the pet’s death is more sudden, calmly explain what has happened. Be brief, and let your child’s questions guide how much information you provide.
Sticking to the Truth
Avoid trying to gloss over the event with a lie. Telling a child that “Buster ran away” or “Max went on a trip” is not a good idea. It probably won’t alleviate the sadness about losing the pet, and if the truth does come out, your child will probably be angry that you lied.
If asked what happens to the pet after it dies, draw on your own understanding of death, including, if relevant, the viewpoint of your faith. And since none of us knows fully, an honest “I don’t know” certainly can be an appropriate answer — it’s OK to tell kids that death is a mystery.
Helping Your Child Cope
Like anyone dealing with a loss, kids usually feel a variety of emotions besides sadness after the death of a pet. They might experience loneliness, anger if the pet was euthanized, frustration that the pet couldn’t get better, or guilt about times that they were mean to or didn’t care for the pet as promised.
Help kids understand that it’s natural to feel all of those emotions, that it’s OK to not want to talk about them at first, and that you’re there when they are ready to talk.
Don’t feel compelled to hide your own sadness about losing a pet. Showing how you feel and talking about it openly sets an example for kids. You show that it’s OK to feel sad when you lose a loved one, to talk about your feelings, and to cry when you feel sad. And it’s comforting to kids to know that they’re not alone in feeling sad. Share stories about the pets you had — and lost — when you were young and how difficult it was to say goodbye.
After the shock of the news fades, it’s important to help your child heal and move on.
It can help kids to find special ways to remember a pet. You might have a ceremony to bury your pet or just share memories of fun times you had together. Write a prayer together or offer thoughts on what the pet meant to each family member. Share stories of your pet’s funny moments. Offer lots of loving hugs. You could do a project too, like making a scrapbook.
Keep in mind that grieving over the loss of a pet, particularly for a child, is similar to grieving over a person. For kids, losing a pet who offered love and companionship can be much harder than losing a distant relative. You might have to explain that to friends, family members, or others who don’t own pets or don’t understand that.
Perhaps most important, talk about your pet, often and with love. Let your child know that while the pain will go away, the happy memories of the pet will always remain. When the time is right, you might consider adopting a new pet — not as a replacement, but as a way to welcome another animal friend into your family.
Euthanasia: The Difficult Choice
While some pets die of old age in the comfort of their own home, many others become seriously ill, get injured in some way or experience a significantly diminished quality of life as they grow very old. In these situations, it may be necessary for you to consider having your pet euthanized in order to spare it from pain and suffering. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this difficult decision, as well as some information about the euthanasia procedure itself.
Knowing when it’s time
Talk to your veterinarian. He or she is the best-qualified person to help guide you through this difficult process. In some cases, your veterinarian may be able to tell you definitively that it is time to euthanize your pet, but in other cases, you may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude. Here are some signs that may indicate your pet is suffering or no longer enjoying a good quality of life:
- He is experiencing chronic pain that cannot be controlled with medication (your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is in pain).
- He has frequent vomiting or diarrhea that is causing dehydration and/or significant weight loss.
- He has stopped eating or will only eat if you force feed him.
- He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself.
- He has lost interest in all or most of his favorite activities, such as going for walks, playing with toys or other pets, eating treats or soliciting attention and petting from family members.
- He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk.
- He has chronic labored breathing or coughing.
Once you have made this very difficult decision, you will also need to decide how and where you and your family will say the final goodbye.
- Before the procedure is scheduled to take place, make sure that all members of your family have time with the pet to say a private goodbye.
- If you have children, make sure that you explain the decision to them and prepare them for the loss of the pet in advance. This may be your child’s first experience with death, and it is very important for you to help her or him through the grieving process. Books that address the subject, such as When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers or Remembering My Pet by Machama Liss-Levinson and Molly Phinney Baskette, may be very beneficial in helping your child to deal with this loss.
- It is an individual decision whether or not you and your family want to be present during the euthanasia procedure. For some pet owners, the emotion may be too overwhelming, but for many, it is a comfort to be with their pet during the final moments. It may be inappropriate for young children to witness the procedure since they are not yet able to understand death and may also not understand that they need to remain still and quiet.
- Some veterinarians will come to your house, which allows both the pet and the family to share their last moments together in the comfort of their own home.
What Happens During Euthanasia?
Making the decision to say goodbye to a beloved pet is stressful, and your anxiety can often be exacerbated if you do not know what to expect during the euthanasia procedure.
- Your veterinarian will generally explain the procedure to you before he or she begins. Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for further explanation or clarification if needed.
- Small to medium-size pets are usually placed on a table for the procedure, but larger dogs may be more easily handled on the floor. Regardless of the location, make sure that your pet has a comfortable blanket or bed to lie on.
- In most cases, a trained veterinary technician will hold your pet for the procedure. The veterinary technician has the skill needed to properly hold your pet so that the process goes quickly and smoothly. If you plan to be present during the entire procedure, it is important that you allow enough space for the veterinarian and technician to work. Your veterinarian will probably show you where to stand so that your pet can see you and hear your voice.
- Your veterinarian will give your pet an overdose of an anesthetic drug called sodium pentobarbital, which quickly causes unconsciousness and then gently stops the heartbeat. Your veterinarian will draw the correct dose of the drug into a syringe and then inject it into a vein. In dogs, the front leg is most commonly used. In cats, either the front or rear leg may be used. The injection itself is not painful to your pet.
- Often, veterinarians will place an intravenous (IV) catheter in the pet’s vein before giving the injection. The catheter will reduce the risk that the vein will rupture as the drug is injected. If the vein ruptures, then some of the drug may leak out into the leg, and it will not work as quickly.
- Your veterinarian may give your pet an injection of anesthetic or sedative before the injection of sodium pentobarbitol. This is most often done in pets that are not likely to hold still for the IV injection. An anesthetic or sedative injection is usually given in the rear leg muscle and will take effect in about five to 10 minutes. Your pet will become very drowsy or unconscious, allowing the veterinarian to more easily perform the IV injection.
- Once the IV injection of sodium pentobarbitol is given, your pet will become completely unconscious within a few seconds, and death will occur within a few minutes or less.
- Your veterinarian will use a stethoscope to confirm that your pet’s heart has stopped.
- Your pet may experience some muscle twitching and intermittent breathing for several minutes after death has occurred. Your pet may also release his bladder or bowels. These events are normal and should not be cause for alarm.
- After your veterinarian has confirmed that your pet has passed, he or she will usually ask if you would like to have a few final minutes alone with your pet.
The choice to stay for the euthanasia or not is a personal one. Some vets will make a home visit to ease the transition, others prefer not to have the owner present at all. You’ll want to discuss your desires and concerns with your vet, and if they are unable or unwilling to accommodate you, then perhaps you should ask for a referral.
After your pet’s death, you will need to decide how to handle the remains. It may seem easiest to leave your pet with a clinic for disposal (a fee may apply – check with them), but there are several other options available to you.
Your veterinarian can offer you a variety of options for your pet’s final resting place.
- Cremation is the most popular choice, and you can choose whether or not you would like to have your pet’s ashes returned to you. Most cremation services offer a choice of urns and personalized memorials.
- Burial is another option. You may want to bury your pet in your own yard, but before doing so, be sure to check your local ordinances for any restrictions. There are also many pet cemeteries throughout the United States. To locate a pet cemetery near you, check with the International Association of Pet Cemeteries.
Home burial is a popular choice, but you’ll need to have the land, and make sure it’s legal in your area.
Cremation is generally less expensive than a cemetery, and offers up more options as to what you do with the remains. You can choose to keep the ashes with you, scatter them somewhere special, or bury them. Your vet, a pet store, or local shelter is likely to have more information about the options available in your area. It might be a good idea to have a plan in place ahead of time, rather than trying to muddle through in the midst of your grief.
When Should I Get Another Pet?
You may be tempted to rush right out and get another pet just like the one you lost. However, it might be better to mourn your old pet and wait until you’re more emotionally ready. You’ll also need to be careful of expecting the new pet to be the exact same as the older pet; this can lead to disappointment and frustration.
There are many wonderful reasons to once again share your life with a companion animal, but the decision of when to do so is a very personal one. It may be tempting to rush out and fill the void left by your pet’s death by immediately getting another pet. In most cases, it’s best to mourn the old pet first, and wait until you’re emotionally ready to open your heart and your home to a new animal. You may want to start by volunteering at a shelter or rescue group. Spending time caring for pets in need is not only great for the animals, but can help you decide if you’re ready to own a new pet.
Some retired seniors living alone may find it hardest to adjust to life without a pet. If taking care of an animal provided you with a sense of purpose and self-worth as well as companionship, you may want to consider getting another pet at an earlier stage. Of course, seniors also need to consider their own health and life expectancy when deciding on a new pet. Again, volunteering to help pets in need can be a good way to decide if you’re ready to become a pet owner again.
Children may feel it’s disloyal to love a new pet, especially if what they really want is the old pet back. In most cases, it is better to get a pet that is different from your old one, to avoid making comparisons, but you will know what you and your family can handle.
If you live alone, you may want to find a new pet sooner, to help stave off loneliness and give you a sense of purpose and companionship.
You’ll also need to consider the needs of any other pets you have.
Additional Pet Loss Resources:
Pet Loss Support Page – This page is a little cluttered, but has extensive resources, including many international ones, as well as several articles and many links to other helpful pages.
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement – Professionally trained volunteers in pet bereavement counseling, and many resources, including a pet memorial
Support Line Pet Bereavement – Article on dealing with pet loss with links and information specific to the UK.
Delta Society: The Human-Animal Health Connection – Offers up articles, information, and links that may be very useful (and quite a bit of information about pets in general and how they can benefit us).
Pet Loss Memorial Pages:
Rainbow Bridge – Well known Rainbow Bridge poem. Also has resources about animal health and pet loss grief.
Pet Loss Hotlines:
US Pet Loss Hotlines:
C.A.R.E. (Companion Animal Related Emotions) Pet Loss Helpline – (877) 394-CARE (2273) We are here to accept calls from 1 to 6 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You may call at any time and leave a message, and your call will be returned as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours.
Washington State University Pet Loss Support – 1-(866) 266-8635 Phone and/or email message can be left for staff 24 hours a day. Phones are normally staffed during the semester Monday-Thursday from 7 PM-9 PM and Saturday 1PM-3 PM PST. While school is not in session and during holidays – abbreviated hours checking phone and email messages Monday-Thursday and Saturday once daily.
ASPCA National Pet Loss Hotline- 1-877-GRIEF-10
Iams Pet Loss Support Hotline 1-888-332-7738 M-F 9am-5pm
Canadian Pet Loss Hotlines:
Ontario Veterinary College Pet Loss Support Hotline – 519-824-4120 x53694 Tuesday – Thursday 6:00 pm -9:00 pm ET An answering service is available outside regular hotline hours.
Greater Victoria Area: Pacific Animal Therapy Society Pet Loss Support Line 1-250-389-8047 Daily 8:00 am – 9:00 pm Pacific Time
Edmonton: 780-707-3007, Pet Therapy Society; leave message if no response
UK Pet Loss Hotlines:
Pet Bereavement Support Service- 0800 096 6606 Daily 8.30am – 8.30pm
Animal Samaritans Pet Bereavement Service: 020 8303 1859
Australian Pet Loss Hotlines:
Pet Rest Grief Line – 03 9596 7799 from 12pm – 3pm 7 days a week