This article is from the Mar.-June 1993 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Marc A. Rosenberg, VMD
Part 1 of 2
These are excerpts from the booklet published by ALPO Pet Center, ALPO Petfoods, Inc., P.O. Box 4000, Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, 18001-4000. 1986. Permission granted to reproduce sections.
Dr. Marc Rosenberg is a private practitioner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he was chosen for Veterinarian of the Year for southern New Jersey in 1982. He is also a consulting member of the ALPO Veterinary Advisory Panel, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Outside private practice, Dr. Rosenberg is most widely known for his numerous radio and television appearances. His television series, “People, Pets & Dr. Marc,” is syndicated throughout the Public Broadcasting Service television network.
By Jamie Quackenbush, MSW, School of Veterinary Medicine, University
In the past several years there has been an explosion of interest and concern about human-animal bonds. Because of this enthusiasm, we have begun to understand the nature, strength, and significance of bonds that develop between humans and their nonhuman companions. For instance, it is typical for a pet to be perceived as and treated as a member of the family. As a result of this perception and subsequent feelings and behavior, animals provide special and beneficial relationships for many owners.
On the other side of these emotional attachments, we now know that the death of a special companion animal can produce feelings of loss that were previously thought to occur only when people die. As you will find in this monograph, grieving and mourning the death of a pet is difficult even under the best circumstances and can truly be an emotional ordeal without support and understanding from veterinarian, family, or friends.
Just as owning, caring for, and loving a pet shapes and modifies the life of an owner, a pet’s death alters and reshapes an owner’s sense of who he is and how he is to behave. The death of a pet is more than the demise of “just a dog” or “just a cat”; it signals the end of a unique period in a person’s life and can dramatically change the person’s best laid plans for the future. The greater the pet’s role and importance in a person’s life, the more likely its death will affect him or her deeply.
Death in any form is a difficult social issue—one that is often avoided and ignored. For many, an owner’s reaction to the death of a pet is seen as childish, stupid, even crazy. There is little acceptance of bereavement in this situation; few people consider it necessary or appropriate. Such attitudes impede and distort the natural healing process of active and public grief.
Caring for a pet and allowing the relationship, in life and death, to influence an owner need not be viewed as either “good” or “bad”; rather, having companion animals adds a richness and depth to many human lives and is therefore appropriate for those people. In the following pages, Dr. Marc Rosenberg provides critical information for all those affected or influenced by the death of a companion animal.
The death of a pet is frequently traumatic to the owner who faces both the loss of a companion and the process of resolving his or her grief. This grieving process is timeless, but the way in which veterinarians and other health care professionals perceive grief is beginning to change.
The loss of a loved one—human or pet—causes emotional pain and characteristic behavior that is classified as grief. The model for various forms of grief is the typical response to the death of a human by members of that person’s family. The death (and dying) of a family pet causes a pet owner to respond in a fashion similar to that expected when a human loved one dies.
An overview of the grieving process associated with human death is carefully illustrated in Dr. Kubler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying1.
One reason pet owners may have problems in dealing with the loss of a companion animal is that there are no socially acceptable means for mourning a pet.2 Society is, unfortunately, somewhat insensitive. When a human loved one dies, a support group assists the bereaved. Visitors come to the home and funeral parlor. Household chores are often handled. Condolence messages are numerous.
When a pet dies, the immediate family is often sympathetic, the veterinarian offers support and assistance, but society provides little help. The pet owner may feel embarrassed about his or her feelings. Often when the owner mentions the pet’s death to friends, they minimize the situation with such insensitive remarks as “Don’t worry, you can get another dog,” or “Don’t be so upset; it was only a cat.” Comments of this sort offer little comfort to a person experiencing emotional pain.
When a person first learns of a pet’s terminal condition or sudden death, his or her mind takes protective steps to prepare for emotional trauma. The first response many pet owners display is denial. Psychiatrists say denial occurs at a subconscious level.
When denial is obvious, it is advisable to allow the person time to digest the reality of the situation. Hospitalizing the pet for further tests often maintains the gravity of the moment; often it allows the pet owner time to consider the animal’s true condition. If the client resists the idea of hospitalization, the veterinarian can intervene by offering literature on the pet’s disease, and then, in a day or two, following-up on any questions. Both approaches allow the client time to accept and deal with an acute emotional trauma. The veterinarian is not minimizing the gravity of the animal’s predicament but instead is gently reminding the owner that he or she must eventually deal with the reality of the pet’s condition.
This stage is well documented in the human grieving process.1 Many times, after discovering that a loved one is dying, an individual may “bargain” with God. Some veterinarians question whether a similar grieving stage occurs in response to the death of a pet. Studies indicate that people who are losing or have lost a pet do not experience the bargaining stage of the grieving process nearly as often as do people who are losing or have lost a human loved one.2 This difference may be linked to the concept held by some animal owners. Influenced by religious beliefs, they hold that a pet, though a treasured member of the family, does not have a soul.
Anger follows denial. In many cases, displays of grief-related anger distresses the veterinarian. Because of the nature of the emotion, recognizing this stage is seldom a problem; however, dealing with it often is.
Anger can be obvious or subtle. Obvious anger manifests as hostility and aggressiveness, while subtle anger surfaces as guilt. Guilt is simply anger turned inward or directed at the self.1 The way in which the veterinarian deals with this traumatic phase of the grieving process is important because anger is often essential to the resolution of grief.
Guilt is easier to deal with than hostility but is seldom recognized as a grieving stage.
Owners who exhibit a guilt response need support from the veterinarian. It is helpful to remind the owner of the diligent care that the owner has provided over the years. In many cases, it is this devotion that has allowed the pet to live as long as it did.
The true sadness that is part of the bereavement process is appropriately termed grief. The stage at which grief occurs is somewhat delayed, and its onset and termination vary greatly from one owner to the next.3 After denial has faded into acceptance, and anger subsides, the pet owner is left with true grief.
This is a time when a pet owner especially needs support. It is not unusual for a pet owner’s sleep patterns to be disturbed, work efficiency to be decreased, and appetite to be affected. Unfortunately, society does not tolerate more than a few token days of grief from a distraught pet owner. Some people grieve for many years without resolution. This lack of resolution is partly attributable to the owner’s great attachment to the pet, and the void the pet’s death has created.
Lack of support prolongs the grief stage. Denial is easily recognized, anger requires self-control, but what of the requests of the grieving pet owner?
The grief stage, like all other phases of the process, is necessary. It is normal and acceptable to be saddened and to display grief when a close companion dies. Others have experienced the same feelings and ultimately have dealt with them quite well.
Occasionally, a client in the grief stage will be unable to cope with his or her emotions without professional assistance.4 Suppressing grief has been found to be unhealthy; a support group is often the vehicle for the bereaved to manifest this grief.
Many veterinary colleges and large veterinary institutions have specially trained social workers and mental health care professionals available to counsel bereaved pet owners who are having difficulty coping with their loss. The following have programs to address the problem:
Resolution is the final stage of the grieving process. The pet owner is able to resolve the stress that went along with the loss of the animal and thus can enjoy the memory of a friend without great emotional discomfort.5 The client often will look for a new animal after resolving grief. The new pet will not represent an attempt to replace the lost companion, as is often the case when this move is made during an acute grieving stage. Rather, the animal is meant to fulfill the need to have a pet in the household.
Occasionally a relapse into grief may occur when a strong reminder of the pet is presented.6 This generally doesn’t last, and the resolution becomes stronger and more defined.
When the pet owner becomes receptive to suggestions of a new pet, the clinician needs to recognize this as a sign of resolution. Advice that may help the new pet to avoid health related problems encountered by the previous companion animal is well received at this time. It should be noted that when similar suggestions are made during earlier grieving stages, the owner usually responds with resistance.
Some disagree with the theory of progression through the stages of denial, anger, grief, and resolution. They believe grieving can be complex and involve such other additional emotions as bitterness.6
Virtually all research on humans in grief stems from studies on grief as it relates to the death of a human loved one. It was not until the mid 1970s that interested veterinarians, psychologists, and psychiatrists began looking into the grief associated with the death of a companion pet.5 The findings in many instances are similar but by no means identical to those found in the human study model.
In any case, the stages presented here provide broad guidelines for the veterinarian. Of course each clinician should recognize the uniqueness of a pet owner’s relationship with a dying or deceased companion pet.
ED. NOTE: Other sources are The Pet Loss Support Hotline at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine (916) 752-4200, Monday through Friday, 6:30 P.M.–9:30 P.M. Pacific Time; summer hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 6:30 P.M.–9:30 P.M. Pacific Time. They also put out a little pamphlet that also has a list of suggested reading material. You can write to: The Center for Animals in Society, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616. The book, Forever Friends: Resolving Grief After The Loss Of A Beloved Animal, by Joan Coleman, has topics on stages of grief, children and pet loss, older adults and pet loss, sudden loss, pre-grieving and euthanasia, grief/loss and trauma exercises, memorializing your pet, and safe place exercises. The soft cover book or four cassette audio album is available from J.C. Tara Enterprises, Inc., 3230 E. Flamingo Road, Ste. 276, Las Vegas, NV 89121 or phone 1-800-438-8813.