Weekly Topic: Coping with the loss of a pet
Jonathan Chapman

Pet loss is a serious issue that needs more attention

As a society in the United States, there is lacking recognition how painful pet loss can be and how much it can impair a person’s emotional and physical health.

Losing a pet is an emotionally devastating experience for many people. Signs and symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from 1-2 months or even up to a year on average. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that a woman whose dog died experienced “Broken Heart Syndrome,” which is a condition that a person exhibits signs and symptoms that mimic a heart attack because his or her response to grief is so severe.

While grief of pet loss may be as intense and even as lengthy as when a significant person in our life dies, our mourning process for a pet is quite different.  Many of the aspects of social and community support for death of a loved one are absent when a pet dies. Few people ask employers for time off to grieve the loss of a pet for reasons such as fear of judgment and rejection, either of one’s self or of the request.

Scientific American

Losing a pet can be as hard as losing a friend or relative

Psychologist Julie Axelrod states that the loss of a dog is so painful as pet owners aren’t just losing the pet, they are losing a source of unconditional love from a primary companion who provides security and comfort, and maybe even a member of the family that’s been mentored like a child.

Our strong attachment to pets, such as dogs, was shown in a recent study about misnaming, which is when a person calls someone else by another person’s name. The study revealed that people sometimes confuse a dog’s name with another family member, such as a child. This provides evidence that humans store cognitive memories about a pet in the same area of the brain as memories about a child or other family members.

According to a recent survey, many people grieving from pet loss will even misinterpret ambiguous sights and sounds as movements, pants, and whimpers of the deceased pet, especially short after the death of the pet.

The Conversation

There are ways to help cope with pet loss

The grieving process is not uniform between different people as many people grieve in all sorts of ways.

During a period of grief, it’s helpful to remember to acknowledge the reality of death, move toward expressing the pain from loss, cherish memories, search for meaning and a self-identity, and to be open to receive support from others.

There are many other ways to help cope with the loss of a pet. The Animal Legal Defense Fund provides pet loss resources and hotlines for several areas throughout the United States. If you or someone you know is in distress, crisis, or in need of intervention, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

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Jonathan Champan

Jonathan Chapman

Jonathan was a VPHPM resident from 2016-2018. He is a licensed veterinarian with a career focus on veterinary public health, epidemiology, zoonotic disease, and One Health. He has been involved in a broad range of activities ranging from small animal general practice and emergency medicine to disease surveillance and outbreak investigation. Jonathan hopes to continue to promote medicine, public health, education, and local and international community collaboration around the world. Jonathan is originally from Chicago, Illinois and he has spent time living in St. Kitts, West Indies and San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has 2 Golden Retrievers named Bauer and Nikki and 3 cats named Sienna, Simon, and Conchita.