Having practiced veterinary medicine for 20 years, it has become absolutely clear to me that people grieve over a loved pet in the exact same manner as grieving for another human being. Obviously, there are all different degrees of attachment to pets, but pets are increasingly becoming like family members. Regardless, you will go through the five stages of grief whether you are grieving for a pet or another person.
The first stage of grief is denial, when you don't accept or even acknowledge the death as real. Many pet owners will initially say something like, "No, not my baby." People will often continue to set a place at the dinner table or look for the person in familiar places when they have lost a spouse. Fortunately, most people will not experience that stage very long.
The second stage is anger, when someone is mad about losing someone. Often, the person grieving will blame someone for the death and sometimes will even blame the deceased for leaving them. It is not unusual for some people to remain in anger for a very long time. It does not matter whether they have lost a pet or another family member, they may be angry for a variety of reasons. Again, you can't heal until you move past anger and proceed through the rest of the grieving process.
The third stage is bargaining. This is when we beg, wish and pray for the deceased to come back. Many people will bargain, or make a deal, with the deceased or with God to try and stop or change the loss. Usually, most people will only experience bargaining for a very short period of time.
The fourth stage is depression, which is the most noticeable and often the most difficult stage to deal with. It is the typical feeling of hopelessness and feeling a lack of control. Many people will lose hope for their future dreams and plans. Depression may last for a very long time and may require medical treatment and/or emotional support in order to recover.
The last stage of grief is acceptance. This is when we are able to accept the fact that our pet or loved one is gone forever. Is is also when we find comfort and healing as well as find the good that can come out of the pain and loss. It is not necessary to forget anything about your pet, but acceptance allows you to focus on the positive memories and to live without the previous emotional struggle.
What about when pets lose a loved one or another pet? How do pets grieve? It is pretty obvious that pets don't have the intellectual ability to go through the five stages of grief known to people. However, make no mistake that pets often do grieve. Pets have been known to grieve over the loss of their owner or another pet in the household.
Through the years, I have seen lots of cases of pets grieving even to the point of becoming physically ill. If a pet happens to pass away at their veterinarian's office, I recommend that other pets living in the home with the deceased pet be brought to see the animal that is not coming home.
Recently, a patient of mine became distraught over the loss of his owner. Winston is a 12 year old Yorkshire terrier who lost his male owner very suddenly. For the next two weeks, Winston started losing weight because he spent hours just sitting, watching and waiting for his owner to walk through the door. He is obviously depressed and no longer enjoys his normal routine.
One thing to consider when your pet loses a loved one or another pet is to allow your pets to visit and actually see the deceased. This allows your pet to accept the loss instead of wondering where they have gone and when they will return. Sometimes, we need to give pets more credit for being intelligent and include them in our emotional issues.
If your pet suffers from any grieving process, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.