Loss of a companion
Many people feel the loss of a pet as profoundly as the loss of a family member. The deeper the bond with the animal the deeper the grief is likely felt.
Our emotions towards our pets can be explained by the attachment theory, where a deep bond will likely form if one or more of these four key elements is present in a relationship:
1. Proximity Maintenance – desire to be near to someone
2. Safe Haven – actively seeking out someone for comfort when scared
3. Secure Base – actively seeking out someone for comfort when in a new environment or stressful encounters
4. Separation Anxiety – becoming anxious when separated from someone
This theory, although derived from humans, is relevant in describing the human-animal bond. It is known to us that strong bonds with our pets exist, as our four-legged friends are often considered to be a member of our family capable of providing us with companionship and feelings of love.
When a recent study looked at online memorials to pets:
34.6% considered themselves to be their pets ‘mom’
7.7% considered themselves to be their pets ‘dad’
49% referred to their pet as family
51% referred to a sort of pet after life
Although we don’t need numbers to prove how our companion animals impact our lives, it is heart-warming to see that many animals are loved and welcomed as a member of their human family.
Unfortunately, there are no established norms and traditions for when a pet passes away. Although most employers offer a leave of absence for the loss of human family members or friends, this is rarely observed for pet loss. Fortunately, there are a number of bereavement and support groups that can be of use for those who have lost a pet that can be useful in navigating through your emotions.
OVC Pet Trust
They provide resources on how to prepare for a loss, cope with a loss and helping children in this time
Ontario Pet Loss Support Group
They provide support groups, now virtually, for those who are coping with a loss of a pet
Gateway Pet Memorial Services
They provide summaries of pet loss support resources, counsellors and books
For the pet's in the home:
Other pet's in the household will be aware of the noticeable absence of the deceased pet. Unlike humans, we can't tell them exactly what happened, and provide words of comfort. As such, it can take time for them to realize the other pet won't come back.
In helping them adapt, it can be helpful to:
1. Maintain their schedule - e.g., food and walk schedule/location should remain unchanged
2. Provide extra attention and spend quality time - e.g., petting, brushing, playing
3. Keeping an item out that has the scent of the deceased pet - this can potentially provide some comfort, as they can still feel connected
4. Be patient, as there is no timeline for these things and it may be challenging for them to adapt to such a sudden change.
It is also important be mindful of your pet's behaviour during this grieving process, as some animals can display new behaviours when faced with change. Some behaviours that can arise include: eliminating out of the litter box, house-soiling, destructive behaviour, etc. If you are concerned with your pet's behavioural changes and need assistance modifying their behaviour, consult an animal behaviour professional.
This post is dedicated to Willow.
Willow became a part of my family just over two years ago. Willow filled our home with so much love for two beautiful short years. In December 2020, she experienced sudden heart failure. My heart is forever changed because of her.
The loss of a pet is whole heartedly felt and the grieving no different from the loss of a family member.
Kwong, M., & Bartholomew, K. (2011). “Not just a dog”: an attachment perspective on relationships with assistance dogs Attachment & Human Development, 13 (5), 421-436 DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2011.584410
MacKay, J., Moore, J., & Huntingford, F. (2016). Characterizing the Data in Online Companion-dog Obituaries to Assess Their Usefulness as a Source of Information about Human–Animal Bonds Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 431-440 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181374