The loss of a dog can bring on feelings of grief just as much as the loss of a person.1 People who experience the loss of their dog may experience increased instances of crying, loss of interest in activities, loneliness, and stress.2 Helpful strategies to deal with that grief can include support groups, therapy, memorialization, expression of feelings, and self-care.
Grieving the Loss of a Dog
Grieving the loss of a pet can be a heartbreaking process that often affects the way a person thinks, acts, and feels.3 Much like when a loved one passes away, the loss of a pet can bring about feelings of depression, and potentially exacerbate someone’s mental health struggles. There is no one singular way to grieve; people may feel a variety of emotions at different stages of the process, across different times.
What to Expect From the Grief Process
The grieving process is as unique as a fingerprint, but there are commonly reported symptoms experienced by many, such as feelings of sadness, emptiness, anger, and disbelief. While the five stages and seven stages of grief models can be helpful, it is important to be aware that people can delay their grief and experience one, multiple, or all stages simultaneously, or in mixed-up order. People can experience a flood of difficult emotions when grieving, known as grief brain, which affects mood, behaviors, and cognition.
There can be an ebb and flow to grief as well, so do not be tough on yourself if grief resurfaces after a period of seemingly being “gone.” Like many things, grief is not linear, and it is important to acknowledge that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to experience the stages of grief after pet loss.
Why Dog Loss Is Like Losing a Friend or Relative
Some people consider their dog to be a part of their family, and may grow attachments to their pets the way they would human family members, so it makes sense that the grieving process could be similar.4 Dogs are also often referred to as true companions, as they can provide support, emotional connection, and unconditional love.5
Dogs can even decrease a person’s stress by being a source of calm.6 When a dog helps a person emotionally through petting, hugging, etc. we refer to it as Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), and DPT can bring about calmness for the person. Dogs can provide mental and physical health benefits, as well as unconditional companionship, so it stands to reason that losing them is like losing a close friend or relative.
The Stigma From Grieving a Dog
After the death of a dog, some people report not getting sufficient sympathy from others about what they are going through, as not everyone agrees on how exactly the loss of an animal companion such as a dog should look like (and it might be different if you had to euthanize your pet).7 This can push a person to bottle up their feelings, which can be detrimental to the grieving process.8 If you find yourself crossing paths with people who are dismissive of the grief people experience after their dog’s death, remember that it is not your fault that others may lack the connection, understanding, and empathy towards the type of bond you experienced.
5 Tips for Coping With the Loss of a Dog
There are many ways to cope with your grief after losing your dog, all of which depend on how your grief expresses itself, your temperament, what you enjoy, and your overall situation. Remember to find a solution that works best for you.
Five things you can try to cope with the loss of your dog are:
1. Join a Pet Loss Support Group
Pet loss support groups can be a place to share, talk, and receive support from others who can relate to what you’re experiencing. This can help you feel understood and validated. Without support, a person might feel like they cannot open up and receive the empathy and help they need at this time, and a support group is an excellent way to prevent an unhealthy coping mechanism from developing.
Support groups can offer a forum to post on, a chat group, and even virtual support groups you can use based on your state or region.9 If you’re unsure about where to find one, ask your dog’s vet for resources, or if you have a counselor/therapist, you can ask them as well.
2. Memorialize Your Dog
After a loss, some cultures, families, or communities may participate in specific rituals or practices to help memorialize their loved one. If you have a ritual you’ve used before, it might be one of the ways you can memorialize your dog and participate in a bonding experience. If you can’t think of a ritual or activity right away, think of a new way you can honor and remember your dog. Some people may create art dedicated to their dog, while others may choose to volunteer at a shelter. Whatever you choose, it can be helpful to create your own special way of honoring their time with you.
3. Develop New or Existing Hobbies
Developing new hobbies–or diving deeper into existing ones–can help you redirect your focus to something that sparks joy. Grief is often associated with feelings of depression and lack of motivation, which can make it difficult to develop new hobbies or habits. However, activities such as painting, drawing, singing, dancing, or playing a sport each have their benefits, from providing new focus, to releasing helpful hormones, to connecting you with community members.
4. Express Your Feelings
It is important that you express your feelings of grief and loss, rather than bottle them up. Often, people may confuse the phrase “express your feelings” with “talk about your feelings,” but this may not necessarily be the case. This can be another opportunity to be creative and customize how you would like to express and release your feelings about the passing of your dog, and may even help you find positive coping mechanisms for future instances of grief.
Some things you can do to express your feelings after losing your dog include:
- Play an instrument
- Arts and crafts
- Play a sport
- Write a poem
- Share with someone you trust
Self-care is making sure you are looking out for yourself by doing things that are healthy and helpful for your whole self.10 A loss can make it difficult for even the healthiest, most well-adjusted person to take care of themselves like they were doing previously, but it is very important not to neglect yourself at this time.
Here are some self-care practices to consider trying:
- Stick to your routine
- Be kind and patient with yourself
- Do activities that bring you joy
- Connect with people and communities as you did before
When to Get Professional Help for Coping With the Loss of a Dog
It is never a bad idea to reach out to a professional after experiencing a personal loss, but it can be difficult to identify what the right time to do so is. While it may be helpful to reach out sooner rather than later, as therapists can help you navigate your feelings and create healthier coping mechanisms more effectively, it is never too late to reach out for professional support. If something is negatively affecting you, you can discuss with the provider what you both think is best for you.
If you tried to “stick it out” and are still experiencing persistent, sometimes physical symptoms of grief after a prolonged period of time, such as 12 months, or if you become concerned for your own safety, this could be a big sign that you need professional support.11 While any therapist should be equipped to help you tackle your grief, there are therapists that specifically provide grief counseling services. You can find help using an online therapist directory as well.
Helping Children Grieve the Loss of a Dog
For children, a dog can be an example of unconditional love, a true playmate, and friend.12 Explaining death to your child can seem overwhelming, but it is important to approach the situation with openness and honesty. Listening to your child about their concerns after the loss of their dog, letting them share their feelings with you, and addressing your child’s feelings and concerns all create great opportunities for your child to learn about loss, coping, and grief.13
Should You Get a New Dog to “Replace” a Lost One?
The National Institute of Health advises against making big changes too soon after a loss, which can include the loss of a dog.14 Those of you struggling with this loss know that getting a dog is a big decision that requires change and adjustment, so it is worth thinking about it for some time before moving forward, especially during a difficult time. You might want to give yourself time to grieve and process the loss of your dog first before committing to fully caring for and loving a new one.
The word “replace” is a tough one here too, as it implies that a new dog could take your deceased dog’s place, or that the new dog will inherently share some qualities with your previous pet. This may lead to some resentment if the new dog is not like the dog that passed away.15 It is important that you remember that any new pet will be its own independent being, and that placing expectations on them may cause more harm and disappointment than anything else. Ultimately, if you would like to get a new dog sooner than later, reflect on it, discuss it with someone you trust, and make the decision that feels best for you.
The loss of a dog can be a devastating, grief-inducing event that usually causes a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, such as depression, anger, and lack of impulse control. Through time, support, helpful coping strategies, and professional help, the grief will subside, and you can move forward in a direction that brings you joy and peace while keeping your dog’s memory alive.