Coping With Pet Loss

WebMD explains how to survive the painful grieving process after losing one of your closest companions.

By Richard Sine
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Anyone who ever told a grieving pet owner, "Get over it -- it's just a dog," never met Keeper.

Fuzzy Davis met Keeper when he was just a stray puppy hanging around the dock where Davis was a charter fishing boat captain. The shaggy-haired husky-golden retriever mix spent every night sleeping under the ramp that went down to the dock at Calibogue Sound in Hilton Head, S.C. One night during a storm, Davis ventured out to check up on his boat. The puppy followed him down to the dock, soaking wet. That's when Davis knew he was, well, a keeper.

Keeper accompanied Davis on fishing trips for the next 13 years -- 3,000 trips by Davis' count. Friends joked that Keeper must have been a fisherman in his past life. He barked excitedly whenever Davis' customers reeled in a fish. If they stood for a picture with their catch, Keeper would sneak into the shot.

Dealing With Death

When Keeper got cancercancer, Davis traveled five hours to Atlanta, so he could get chemotherapy treatments. When he finally died a year later, an artist friend tied saltwater fishing flies using his hair; Davis gave them to his friends. Finally, Davis cremated Keeper and scattered his ashes in a favorite fishing spot.

"Now they call it Keeper's Cove," Davis tells WebMD. "I was just there last night to fish."

Maybe your favorite doggie or kitty didn't get written up in the local paper, or have a memorial attended by a fleet of fishing boats. Maybe you're even a little ashamed to admit to friends or family how sad you were to see Spot go.

Fortunately, pet grief has emerged from the doghouse. There's now a bevy of books, support groups, hotlines, and online forums where you'll find others who will share your pain, or at least listen without being dismissive.

Why We Grieve So Deeply

When Dallas-based author Diane Pomerance lost her favorite dog seven years ago, she found herself grieving more deeply for the dog than she had for her father. "I was crying all the time," Pomerance tells WebMD. "I had a very short fuse. I couldn't concentrate or focus on work. Family and friends kept telling me, 'It's only a dog. You can get another one.'"

Instead, Pomerance sought to understand her grief. She became certified as a "grief recovery specialist" by the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Grief Recovery Institute. She started a support group for grieving pet owners at the SPCA of Texas in Dallas, and wrote a book on losing a pet.

There are many reasons why we may grieve as deeply for the loss of a pet as we do for a friend or relative, Pomerance says. "These animals offer us unconditional love. They don't betray us. They don't have an agenda. They are always forgiving and happy to see us. And they're with us 24/7. When we're home we can let down our guard with them." Pets also provide a link to the natural world and its rhythms, Pomerance notes.

Pomerance's support group gives pet owners the freedom to grieve. Its participants come from all walks of life. One retired doctor came to the group with photos of a Dalmatian he had lost 25 years earlier, she recalls. He also brought an urn containing the dog's ashes. "He curled up and cried like a baby," she says.

"The bonds with our beloved pets are in many ways stronger, purer, and far more intimate than with most others of our species," says Wallace Sife, a retired psychologist and author of The Loss of a Pet. "We feel loved and secure in sharing our secret souls with them. How often can you do this safely, even with someone who is very close?"