Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Coping with the Death of a Pet


Pet Column for the week of September 5, 2011

Related information:

Related site - University of Illinois CARE Pet Loss Helpline
Services - Human-Animal Bond
Services - Pet Loss

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Julia Disney
Information Specialist

Whether the animal is as large as a horse or as small as a hamster, these companions can play a huge role in our lives. When our animal companion dies, we may feel as though we've lost a best friend and a family member. At the same time, we may worry that a deep sense of grief over the loss is silly or ridiculous.

Cheryl Weber, a client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, works with hospital staff to support animal owners through the emotional difficulties of injuries, illness and loss on a daily basis. The hospital team works to provide both medical care for the pet and emotional support for the owner.

Each person's response to loss is unique. It is not unusual to have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or to feel physically sick. People may feel depressed, guilty, angry, numb, or a combination of emotions. Likewise, the way individuals cope with the death of their animal can be diverse, varying to meet each person's unique needs.

Weber says that grieving owners can explore many resources that may be helpful to them, ranging from the internet to your local veterinary hospital to support groups.

One common method of coping with your grief is to memorialize the animal in some way.

"Memorializing a beloved companion animal is important because you're honoring that animal's life. You're remembering, and those memories are a treasure. They help you go forward, knowing that you'll always love that animal," Weber says.

Memorialization allows you to cherish the bond you and your animal had. It could be accomplished through anything meaningful to you and your loved ones. Scrapbooks, sharing stories about your animal, and making donations in memory of your animal are a few ideas, but you should not limit yourself in discovering what will be comforting to you.

For some owners, it may be helpful to better understand what happened to your animal in a medical sense. If you feel this would help you in coping, your veterinarian is a great resource. Most veterinarians also have experience in dealing with their own pet loss and in helping their clients manage grief.

"Many owners receive compassionate support from their veterinarian and animal hospital staff at the time of their loss," Weber agrees.

Some communities also have a pet loss support group. Sharing your experience and hearing the experiences of others in similar situations can be helpful in both memorializing your animal and also in helping you understand that you are not alone in your grief.

Weber advises, "I encourage people to reach out to others who understand their love for their pet, and avoid discussing the loss with people who don't 'get it.'"

There are so many of your fellow animal owners who understand the importance of the human-animal bond and would happily listen and lend a shoulder to lean on in such a difficult time.

Telephone support lines provide another outlet for owners' grief. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is home to the CARE Pet Loss Helpline, a toll-free service operated by trained veterinary students. These volunteers can listen and provide compassionate support as you talk about your companion animal and your emotions regarding your loss. The volunteers can also provide you with educational materials on grief and recommendations for your unique situation.

Weber stresses that it's normal to grieve the loss of a cherished family member, whether it's a person or a pet. Because we love, we grieve. Allow yourself to express your feelings and mourn your beloved companion in ways that help your heart to heal. Don't forget there are resources available to help you through this painful time.

The CARE Pet Loss Helpline is available at (877) 394-CARE (2273) and at griefhelp@vetmed.illinois.edu. Please refer to the website (http://vetmed.illinois.edu/CARE/) for hours and for additional resources.