The emotional bond between people and their pets can be very strong. We usually associate this close bond with cats and dogs, but in fact all pet animals, from horses to hamsters, birds, and even fish, can evoke strong feelings of attachment.
Because of this attachment, people react strongly when their pets die. If your cat dies, don’t be surprised or embarrassed by your grief. Allow yourself to say goodbye to your cat, and remember that others – especially children – may react very differently to the death of a pet.
Let yourself say goodbye
Many people are surprised at the depth of feelings they experience at the death of a pet. They forget that a loved pet is more than just a companion – she is also a member of the family and part of their everyday life.
Many owners need to say goodbye to their dead or dying pet. If the cat is euthanized, they may wish to stay with their pet as the procedure is completed. Most veterinarians will allow you to be present, but even if you cannot be there, you will be allowed to see and perhaps spend some time with your pet afterwards. This will enable you to say goodbye and allows you to verify in your own mind that she is actually dead.
Allow yourself to grieve
After the death of a pet, you may feel a variety of emotions: shock, disbelief, pain, anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, and finally, acceptance. Don’t suppress any of these feelings – they’re quite natural. Only by allowing yourself to grieve can you eventually come to terms with the death. With time, the sadness will fade.
If you are having difficulties, remember that you’re not alone. Look for the help and support of your family and friends. Sometimes, however, this is not forthcoming – many people don’t understand how much the death of an animal can affect you, while others may simply be embarrassed, not knowing how to react. Express your feelings openly, perhaps by discussing them with someone who will sympathize. You might talk to your veterinarian, who may be familiar with the circumstances of your pet’s illness and death. He or she may also be able to put you in touch with a local support group.
If openness is difficult for you – because you prefer to grieve in private, or feel that no one else would understand – you might write down your thoughts in a diary or in poetry.
Gradually, you will begin to adjust to life without your pet. After they’ve grieved, some people find it difficult to be constantly reminded of their absent pet and may wish to dispose of her belongings – or simply put them away for a while. Others prefer to keep the memory of their pet alive by displaying photographs or other mementos.
When you are able to remember your cat with happiness and affection rather than sadness and grief, you are starting to recover from your loss. You’ll soon be able to go about your daily life in a more normal way and, perhaps, make a rational decision about getting a new pet.
Children often have a particularly close relationship with their pet. Animals can play an important role in the emotional development of the child, and provide a source of companionship, non-judgmental affection, security, and stability. When a pet dies, the child’s response will depend not only on the strength of the emotional bond between them, but also on the age of the child and the manner in which the death is handled.
Up to about five years of age, most children do not understand the concept of death. They may understand that death is unpleasant, but typically they imagine that the situation is only temporary and the pet will eventually return. Even so, they may be deeply distressed by the physical separation from the pet and will need a great deal of parental support and reassurance.
Between five and nine years of age, children become aware that death is final. They may even believe in an afterlife. Because they are able to comprehend the meaning of death, children should be allowed to express their feelings of loss and should not be dismissed as “too young to understand.”
From nine years onwards, most children can understand the concepts of death and of grief. They may experience the same range of emotions as adults following the death of their pet.
Children’s grief, if extreme, can result in physical and/or behavioral problems. They may experience all of the symptoms of depression seen in adults, plus disturbances in their sleep or behavior patterns such as clinging behavior, bed-wetting, nightmares, unruly behavior, or the inability to concentrate at school.
Encourage children to talk about their feelings – if they want to – or to express those feelings in drawings or stories. Be honest with them about your pet’s death, using language, which they will understand, and allow them to share in the family’s grief.
If euthanasia is necessary for your pet, try to involve the children in the decision-making process if they are old enough to understand. They may resent their parents for “killing” their pet because they don’t understand why euthanasia may be necessary – explain the concepts of incurable disease, quality of life, and the limiting cost of treatment. Be careful about using the phrase “put to sleep” to describe euthanasia – this can cause misunderstandings and fear in children who may then equate sleep with death.
The loss of a pet can be devastating for any pet owner, especially elderly people. Many, particularly those who live alone, have a deep emotional attachment to their pets and can feel a loss of purpose when they die. The death of a pet may also renew feelings of grief for a deceased spouse or other relative or friend. Like everyone, elderly people need the support and understanding of the people around them at this time.
The decision to replace a pet can be particularly difficult for elderly people. If you are elderly, ask yourself if your situation has changed since you last adopted a pet. Think about the level of exercise a particular pet might require, the space and facilities you have available, and the cost and physical demands placed on you to care for the animal. You should consider, too, that the pet might outlive you. The factors should influence your choice of species, age, and breed of replacement pet if, indeed, a replacement is sought at all. Remember that in making your decision, the welfare of the animal is your prime consideration.
If its death is sudden or unexpected, a distraught pet owner may not know what to do with the pet’s body. Plan ahead. Discuss this issue with your family and your veterinarian while your pet is still alive. The available options fall into four main categories:
- Burial at home. Note that this is not permitted in some locations.
- Burial in a pet cemetery
- Individual cremation. Your pet’s ashes are returned to you.
- Communal cremation. Vets routinely dispose of most pets in this way.