Dealing with grief

Sadly, all our beloved pets must pass away at some time. Whether it’s sudden and unexpected or after a period of illness, losing a pet is devastating.

The grief we all feel is a reflection of the strong bond between us and our pets. As we remember the fun and joy they brought us during their lifetime, it’s natural to experience a mixture of feelings.

Coping with the loss of a friend

Sometimes the passing of a pet can be very unexpected – a sudden illness or car accident. It can be devastating. It may not sink in for several days and may cause a fluctuating mix of emotions.

The way a pet has passed away may cause feelings of guilt or anger. These feelings are normal and will usually pass in a few days.

Children can be very upset by the sudden death of a pet. For them, the loss of a pet may mean they feel abandoned or worried about what will happen to their parents and other family members. Never lie to children or use terms they could misunderstand. It might seem kinder to say their beloved pet has ‘gone to sleep’ or has been ‘re-homed’ but this might make the child think their pet could come back or that it was their fault the pet went away.

If you have the opportunity to say goodbye, this can be very reassuring. Many people find that the sight of their pet, even though it may be unpleasant, helps them come to terms with their loss.

Our vets and vet nurses are especially sensitive to owners’ needs at times of loss. We know that it can be very hard to see a beloved pet suffer and to have to make a decision about it. We understand that considering euthanasia is one of the emotionally most difficult decisions an owner may ever have to make.

Euthanasia: making the decision

The word euthanasia comes from the Greek for "gentle death." It is a great gift to be able to avoid pain and suffering and to allow an animal to slip away swiftly and painlessly. It is a very emotional time for the owner and the vet. Taking the decision to let go of a treasured companion is never easy and your vet will guide you about when the time is right.

If you are considering euthanasia, you can ask yourself a number of questions.

Is your animal:

  • Suffering from pain, distress or serious discomfort which cannot be effectively controlled?
  • Having difficulty walking or balancing?
  • Finding it hard to eat and drink enough without vomiting to maintain good bodily condition?
  • Suffering from inoperable or untreatable tumours which cause pain or serious discomfort?
  • Having difficulty breathing?
  • Incontinent or having difficulty urinating or defecating?
  • Suffering from abnormal behaviour?
  • And is the owner unable to cope physically and emotionally with any nursing or medication that may be required?
  • If ‘yes’ is the answer to any of these questions, then euthanasia may be the best option for your pet.

What happens when an animal is euthanised?

A vet or a nurse will explain what will happen. Some people may be too upset at the time to discuss it, so don't be afraid to ask before you decide or afterwards if you have any questions. You may wish to arrange the appointment at a time when the practice is quiet.

You will be asked to sign a consent form giving the vet permission to put your pet to sleep. You may be asked if you want to stay with your pet. It is entirely your choice. Some people find it comforting, while others find it distressing. You should do what you feel most comfortable with.

Your pet will be given an injection, usually into a vein in the front leg, although some types of injection are given into a muscle. A nurse often helps the vet with this. The injection is similar to an anaesthetic and the animal usually falls asleep within seconds if it is given into the vein. Once your pet falls asleep, they will then stop breathing and the heart will stop. This usually takes about a minute but can take longer in pets with poor circulation. There may be a few muscle tremors or deep shallow breaths, but this is quite normal. The eyes normally stay open and sometimes the animal may lose control of its bladder. You will now be given a few moments with your pet if you want time to say goodbye.

After an animal is euthanised

Most people leave their pet with the vet who will arrange cremation. If you prefer to take your pet home for burial, please inform the vet or nurse beforehand.

PDSA sends all deceased pets for cremation. Pets are communally cremated and the ashes are then buried. If you prefer to have an individual cremation and want the ashes returned, PDSA staff will advise you on how to make these arrangements.

Coping with grief

We know that the death of a pet is very upsetting. So it’s important to allow yourself time to grieve. Take time to talk things over with friends and family. Tears are part of the healing process, so don't feel embarrassed – it helps when you release these intense emotions. Everyone reacts differently to grief but rest assured that these sad feelings will fade in time.

The grief process consists of a number of stages: disbelief, pain, anger, guilt and acceptance.

  • The first stage is disbelief and shock. It may be hard to accept that your pet is no longer with you – and your home may feel very empty.
  • The next stage is pain, anger and depression. This is the time you especially need the support of family and friends and a listening ear.
  • Many people will experience feelings of guilt: "Did I do the right thing?", "What could I have done to prevent it?" This is normal and understandable. It will ease in time.
  • Acceptance is the last stage. You have accepted the reality of the loss of your pet. Whilst you will always be sad, you can now look back and smile at the many memories of the happy time you shared together.

Your veterinary practice may have a bereavement counsellor or they may put you in touch with one if you need more help.

Ways to remember your pet

You can remember your pet by setting up a tribute in our online Book of Remembrance or with a plaque in our garden of remembrance. Find out more

Useful reading

Here is some further information which you may find useful in coping with the loss of a pet.

  • Download our leaflet on Dealing with grief
  • “Absent Friend: Coping with the loss of a treasured pet” by Laura and Martyn Lee, published by Henston Ltd. (ISBN 978-1850540892)
  • “Companion Animal Death” by Mary F Stewart, published by Butterworth-Heinemann (ISBN 978-0750640763)
  • “A Loving Farewell” by Davina Woodcock, published by DogSense Publications (ISBN 978-0954163600)
  • “Goodbye, Dear Friend” by Virginia Ironside, published by JR Books Ltd. (ISBN 978-1906217938)
  • Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) Freephone - 0800 096 6606 Email -
    pbssmail@bluecross.org.uk
  • PDSA National Collection of Pet Memories Freephone 0800 591248

For children:

  • “Missing my pet” by Alex Lambert, published by BGTF Ltd (ISBN 978-0955411816)