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How to Cope With the Death of a Pet

Grief and loss can leave a hole that’s hard to fill

spinner image man and his pet cat touch noses
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Kate Cole desperately misses Cassius, her boxer-Great Dane mix who died in January.

He used to stand between her feet when she did the dishes. He binge-watched Netflix with her during COVID-19 quarantine and wouldn’t leave her side when she had cancer. He could even say “I love you” (sounding exactly like Scooby-Doo).

spinner image Kate Cole and her dog Cassius
Kate Cole with her dog Cassius
Courtesy Kate Cole

But after Cassius suffered two days of seizures, Cole, her husband and their two children had to say goodbye to him.

“It was heartbreaking and felt like the biggest hole ever,” says Cole, 53, who lives in Waverly, Pennsylvania. “And I still feel that void all the time.”

Many U.S. households can relate. Seventy percent of them, or about 90.5 million families, own a pet, according to a 2021–2022 survey by the American Pet Products Association. And at some point, those pets come to the end of their lives.

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Furry friends are often considered members of the family and may be an older adult’s sole companion. Those losses can be emotionally devastating, says Sarah Bowen, author of Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Healing the Planet.

“Losing a cat or dog [or other loved pet] can be devastating because of the strength of a human-animal bond,” says Bowen. “Animals are enmeshed in our lives, so when they are absent, the silence in our home is startling.”

Marking a pet’s death

Research into pet loss shows that humans can be deeply affected, Bowen says. A 2021 literature review of pet bereavement and coping mechanisms published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that pet owners are likely to experience feelings of loneliness and embarrassment over the level of grief they experience when a pet dies.

“That’s why when someone loses a dog companion and we approach it as, ‘Eh. It was just a dog. Go get another one,’ we are not attending to the experience that person is having — an experience of entangled grief,” Bowen says.

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The death of a pet can also trigger emotions related to other deaths — animals or people, she says. “When we have a loss, all the other losses we’ve had come up at the same time,” Bowen says.

Jeffrey Holsopple, 54, of Greenville, South Carolina, felt scared, then angry, then guilty after his 18-month-old indoor calico cat, Bella, made her way outdoors and was hit by a car and killed. Holsopple buried Bella in a backyard garden, underneath a pine tree. He marked the spot with a decorative rock.

“Then it was just this deep sense of loss,” he says. “My mom had passed away from cancer a year before, and it brought up a lot of feelings that were hard to deal with.”

Pet owners often find creative ways to memorialize their animals and those methods may make them feel better, says E.B. Bartels, author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter.

For her book, Bartels interviewed pet owners and researched different cultures to learn about the ways people mourn and memorialize their animals. Some pet owners have gotten tattoos, had their pet’s fur or cremated remains spun into colorful glass beads, or crafted photo albums and scrapbooks. Pet cemeteries are not uncommon.

“If you want to taxidermy your dog, you should do that. If you want to knit a scarf out of your kitten’s fur, you should do that,” Bartels says. “Because there are no societal standards for when a pet dies, it’s actually very liberating to get to do whatever feels most appropriate to honor that relationship.”

Bartels was surprised by the number of people who felt caught off guard by their distress after a pet died and says she understands the impact a pet can have on feeling accepted in the world.

“You can be your purest self with them, often in a way you can’t be with other people, and so when your pet dies,” she says, “you kind of lose part of yourself too.”

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Work through grief when a pet dies

Accepting the reality of the situation requires people to recognize what they are feeling and experiencing when they lose a beloved pet.

It’s important to eliminate any unhelpful self-talk (“I should have,” “I could have,” “I wish I would have”) that can provide a blockage to coping. Going back into the past and revisiting decisions won’t change the reality of the situation. “Instead, focus your emotional energy on truthfulness: ‘I don’t like that Fido is gone. I am sad and angry and hurting,’ ” Bowen says.

Talk about your pet’s death and seek out social support. Find a list of grief hotlines and support groups at

“Sharing your grief with others who have been through similar situations can really make you feel less alone,” says Bartels.

It can also prevent health problems from setting in, notes Bowen. Unprocessed grief can lead to physical issues, including trouble sleeping, body aches and headaches, she says. Someone mourning a pet may also experience a decrease in energy and lack of interest in activities. Take things one day — or hour or minute — at a time and provide time to adjust both to the loss and to altered daily patterns.

“Rather than thinking we need to move on or get past the pain or stop feeling the grief, we may just need to find a place to put the love we once showered on a pet when they were alive,” she recommends.

Some of Bowen’s clients crochet blankets for sick animals and donate pet toys and other supplies to local animal shelters. (Those who want to donate their own pet’s toys might keep one or two for sentimental reasons.) If that’s too difficult, Bowen suggests spreading love in general by making extra phone calls to children or grandchildren, or becoming involved in community service.

Should you get another pet?

Several people Bartels interviewed rushed in to getting a new pet so they wouldn’t have to think about how upset they were about their loss. She doesn’t recommend that.

“You can end up resenting the new pet because you’re constantly comparing them to the previous pet,” she says, adding that there is no official, perfect amount of time between the death of a pet and getting a new pet. “Some people take a week, a month, five years, or even over a decade. You have to listen to yourself and what you need, which is different for everyone.”

Cole still keeps the ashes of Cassius on a living room bookcase in a pretty wooden box — what was meant to be a temporary site before moving his remains to a more permanent resting place in the backyard. But she doesn’t feel ready for that transition.

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