Pets are more than just dogs and cats, they’re members of our families. So when our faithful companion dies, it is painful and we grieve.
When people close to us die, it is natural to feel sorrow, express grief and expect those around us to understand what we are going through. However, when a pet dies, we cannot always count on our peers to understand our heartache. But that does not mean we have to bottle up emotions. There are numerous venues available to help pet owners work through their loss – your veterinarian, online chat groups and, of course, friends who are also pet owners.
The loss of the family pet is often a child’s first experience with death. It is natural to want to protect children from the harsh realities of life, and death, but it is important to not sugarcoat things. Being honest about what has actually happened to the family pet will go a long way in helping children to learn how to cope with death.
When explaining a pet’s death to children, adults must avoid phrases such as ‘put to sleep’, especially when discussing euthanasia. “A child could misinterpret this common phrase… and develop a terror of bedtime,” according to Jeff Feinman, VMD, CVH. Another phrase to be avoided is ‘God has taken’ the pet as this may create a spiritual conflict within the child.
Very young children (2-3 years old) typically have no understanding of death and equate it with sleep. At this age, the child needs to be re-assured that he/she did nothing wrong to cause the pet’s death.
Four-to-six year olds have some understanding of death, however, they do not always fully comprehend the finality of passing away and believe the animal is asleep or living underground. At this age, children may also think of death as being contagious and fear the demise of others, and themselves, to be imminent.
Older children (7-9 years old) understand the irreversibility of death and become very curious about death and its implications. They may also develop concerns about their parents’ death.
The death of a pet can be particularly difficult for seniors, especially if they were living alone with the pet. Seniors will often feel an overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness. The pet’s death may also trigger painful memories of other loved ones they have lost and further remind them of their own mortality.
Do the other pets in the household grieve when their playmate dies? Yes. “Pets observe every change in a household and are bound to notice the absence of a companion,” writes author Moira Anderson Allen. “Pets often form strong attachments to one another and the survivor of such a pair may seem to grieve for its companion.”
Surviving pets may express their grief by whimpering, refusing to eat/drink and by being lethargic. The best things owners can do for the surviving pets are give them a lot of extra TLC.
Bringing another pet into the household is generally not a good idea for anyone – you, the children and the other pets. Everyone needs time to properly heal and grieve the pet’s loss before a new relationship can be formed with another cat or dog.