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

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A Day to Remember Our Animal Friends

Pet Column for the week of September 6, 2004

Related information:

Services - Pet Loss

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

The second Sunday in September--this year, that's September 12--has been designated National Pet Memorial Day by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries. It's a day to recognize that pets, living or past, are worth cherishing.

More than a pet, an animal companion can be a best friend. Humans form deep connections with their animals, so when a pet dies, the experience can be devastating. According to Cheryl Weber, client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, people can experience intense stress and grief when they suffer any loss, whether it is loss of a human loved one, a job, a relationship, or a pet.

Weber says that National Pet Memorial Day can be a good time to remember our pets by looking at pictures of them, thinking about the joy they've brought us, and telling others about them. If pet owners have their pets buried or their ashes in an urn, the day may be an ideal time to visit, hold a remembrance ceremony, or create a living memorial by planting a tree, bush, or flowerbed. It's also an opportunity to set aside time to spend with current pets.

Weber believes people can also honor the memory of animal friends by taking action to benefit the welfare of other animals, whether by donating to a local humane society, volunteering at an animal shelter, or getting involved with a rescue group. Actions as simple as baking cookies for a humane society bake sale or pet-sitting for a friend are meaningful and tangible.

Weber, a licensed social worker with experience in human hospice care, assists veterinarians at the teaching hospital by providing emotional support for anxious and grieving pet owners. She also teaches a class about bereavement issues to veterinary students and advises the C.A.R.E. Helpline, a confidential telephone service for people grieving the actual or anticipated loss of their companion animal. (The number is 244-CARE locally or 877/394-CARE toll free.)

Weber says, "The loss of a pet comes with some emotional quandaries not experienced with loss of a human loved one. With pets, euthanasia is an option, and with this option come the stress of making a decision determining a pet's fate and the guilt associated with whichever decision is made." In addition, society does not always understand bereavement of a lost pet.

Some of the clients Weber comforts apologize for crying, and many of them have friends or co-workers who scoff at the idea of grieving for a pet or spending money on advanced veterinary care, adding more
stress and guilt to an already rough experience.

National Memorial Pet Day can be a good time for both pet owners and "non-animal people" to recognize that everyone experiences loss and that it's healthy for pet lovers to acknowledge their love for their pets and the grief they feel when a pet dies.

Weber says that no matter what our culture may pressure us to believe, an animal friend is not "just a pet," and it's unhealthy to deny our feelings of grief. Pet owners need to face all phases of grief, especially the sadness, and to experience their grief instead of suppressing it.

Weber suggests that if you're not an animal lover, you can show support for a friend or co-worker who loses a pet by simply giving a sympathy card or saying "I'm sorry you lost your cat." Many veterinarians and owners pay tribute by making a contribution to the Companion Animal Memorial Fund, which supports research at the College of Veterinary Medicine to benefit companion animals (see for more information).

There is no set schedule for grieving. In fact, no one ever completely gets over the loss of a loved one, whether a person, dog, or bird. Weber affirms, "The grief never completely goes away; it's always a part of you." National Pet Memorial Day may be a time to step back and acknowledge that our pets, past and present, will always be significant parts of our lives.