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Pet Bereavement: Dealing with the Death of a Pet

All dogs (and cats) go to Heaven

Posted by: Nick Braun

Like humans, animals can fall victim to injury or illness that could end their lives. In some cases, a pet's death can be an unexpected and heartbreaking surprise. At other times, a pet may suffer from a terminal disease or condition that causes it to linger for months or even years.

Regardless of how a pet dies, this loss can leave both adults and children filled with grief, anger, and even guilt. During this difficult time, families must not only deal with a range of emotions associated with their loss, but they also face a number of important decisions.

Understanding the Death of a Pet

On many levels, the death of a pet can be difficult for people to understand. Adult pet owners may have trouble comprehending the unexpected death of a beloved companion or the intensity of their grief.

Children, depending on their age, may have difficulty with the concept of death in general or with understanding why a pet that may have seemed healthy and happy is no longer around. For people who do not have pets or deep attachments to them, they may not understand how a person can feel such sorrow and even depression over what they see as only an animal.

Although some people are unable to relate to the emotional attachment that many have with their furred, feathered, or scaled pets, there are ways for those who do mourn the loss of their pet to better understand if not fully alleviate their sorrow.

When it comes to children, parents can help by discussing what it means for something or someone to die and explaining that the animal was sick or elderly.

It can be helpful for children to understand that their pet is no longer in pain, tired, or afraid. In the event of an accidental death, children should understand that they are not at fault.

For adults, seeking out grief counselors or support groups can help them better understand and deal with the loss.


Preparing for a Loss

In some cases, the death of a pet can come unexpectedly, while others have the opportunity to prepare for the impending loss. For example, when one is aware that their pet is dying, they are able to consider their options, such as pet hospice or, if their pet is in pain, euthanasia.

Euthanasia allows them to determine the time and, in some cases, the place of their pet's death. For example, some may choose to have their pet put to sleep at home where it is surrounded by things that are familiar.

If euthanasia is not an option, one should take steps to make their pet as comfortable as possible and to ease any distress or discomfort that it may have. A veterinarian can help by prescribing pain medication if necessary and by offering tips on how to provide comfort suitable for the animal's particular situation.

A warm bed and favorite toys or objects can also prove comforting in a pet's final days. Parents also have the opportunity to talk with their children and prepare them for the upcoming loss.

When preparing for the death of a pet, one should also make arrangements for the remains.


What to Do After a Pet Dies

When a pet dies, the initial next step depends on the circumstances. An unexpected death leaves most pet owners at a loss. Amid their anguish, they must also properly take care of the body. If a pet dies at home, one should call their local vet.

The vet may be able to store the body or provide the number for a pet cemetery. If the death occurs over a holiday or in the middle of the night and there is not a 24/7 service available to pick up the body, it must be properly stored to prevent odor associated with decay.

Because this happens quickly, the body should immediately be put in several bags and placed in a freezer or refrigerator. If this isn't an option, put the bagged body in the coldest area in the home, such as a basement or garage, as the cold will slow decomposition.

Pet owners will also need to make a decision regarding aftercare. Options include cremation, burial at home if the law allows, or burial at a pet cemetery. Not all pet owners choose to bury or cremate their pet, however.

In these instances, it may be possible to make arrangements for local sanitation services to pick up the body. For specifics, one should contact their city's sanitation department for information and guidance.

After the arrangements have been made, it is important for people to expect and allow themselves to grieve. There are various ways to express grief after a pet dies.

This expression may differ from one person to the next, as some may cry, while others may feel better talking or writing about their feelings. Talking to people who understand the loss of a pet is often helpful, and support groups are also available.

Even planning a small memorial service with family can prove to be helpful, and it is often a good way for children to say goodbye.


Additional Help for Pet Owners

  • AAHA Accredited Hospital Locator: Discover where the nearest American Animal Hospital Association accredited veterinary hospital is located by visiting this page of the AAHA website.
  • CPR for Cats and Dogs: Prepare for an emergency situation by reading the directions on this page for how to perform CPR for cats and dogs.
  • Pet First Aid Tips for Owners: Click on this link to get pet first aid tips to use in the event of an emergency.
  • Treating Pain in Your Dog: This FDA page provides information for people who are treating their dog's pain with NSAIDs.
  • End-of-Life Values and Goals Worksheet (PDF): When faced with a pet at the end of its life, this worksheet can help pet owners make and come to terms with difficult decisions.
  • CPR and Artificial Respiration for Kittens: Learn how to perform CPR and artificial respiration on a kitten that has stopped breathing by reading this informative page on the PetMD website.
  • Fundraising Tools, Tips, and Resources: Open this page to view fundraising strategies that can help pet owners pay expenses that pet insurance will not cover.
  • Find Emergency Vet Clinics: Pet owners can find information on emergency veterinary clinics when they visit this page and either click their state or enter their ZIP code.
  • Pet Loss Support Hotlines and Helplines: People who need support following the loss of a pet will find a list of hotlines and helplines on this Ohio State University page.
  • Pet Loss Resources: Click this link to find pet loss support chat rooms, groups, and hotlines on the website for the nonprofit organization Land of PureGold.

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