Life and Death

Coping with the love and loss of our pets

By Bonnie Evans
Posted 3/13/24

Two out of three American households have a cat or a dog, and pet ownership continues to increase. Our pets can also include fish, birds, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and more. Companionship is …

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Life and Death

Coping with the love and loss of our pets


Two out of three American households have a cat or a dog, and pet ownership continues to increase. Our pets can also include fish, birds, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and more. Companionship is often the primary reason for becoming a pet owner. Tied to that companionship is the sense of unconditional love. Pets do not judge us or hold a grudge. Coming home and opening the door to be greeted by our pets with nothing but sheer joy is priceless. May I add, especially when living with teenagers?

As a result, when a beloved pet dies it is often described as losing a member of the family. I would agree with this, having had seven dogs over the years and counting.

Dogs are often called “man’s best friend,” and studies have shown that people with pets tend to be less lonely. The nurturing relationship between a pet and its owner(s) can be mutually beneficial and provide a sense of intimacy, belonging, and purpose. Being responsible for a pet can be the motivation to get up and start the day, keep a routine, take a walk, or socialize with other pet owners. The positive health benefits of seeing, touching, and being with an animal have led to pet therapy programs for those coping with a range of physical and mental health conditions and social isolation.

As I write this, I even find the sound of my dog snoring at my feet comforting.

Anthropomorphism, or the tendency to humanize animals, is an illustration of the strong relationships people can have with their pets. On the positive side, it can enhance empathy and emotional bonds. However, care should be taken not to attribute human motivations or emotions to pet behaviors. Experts in the field warn that this can contribute to unrealistic expectations and overindulgence. It is important to continue to acknowledge and respect the animal nature of our pets and their distinct biological needs.

The ill pet

My father spent his childhood summers working on a farm, and when a dog or animal became ill it was respectfully “put down.” There really were no other options. Over time, veterinary care has evolved, and our pets look to us to make the best decisions for their welfare. As the number of pet owners has increased, there has also been a corresponding and dramatic growth in the pet industry and in pet related health care: veterinary care, diagnostics, trackers, pharmaceuticals, and insurance. All of which has helped to extend the lifespan of our pets.

These advancements can also complicate medical decision making and add to the stress and cost of caring for a sick animal. Would an available procedure cause more burden or benefit? Is there a daily struggle to administer medications? How do we know if and when euthanasia is the best option?

When confronted with treatment decisions, the website recommends staying focused on a pet’s quality of life. It lists six indicators to consider when a pet becomes ill. HURT – Is your pet in pain? HUNGER/HYDRATION – Is your pet eating/drinking enough? HYGIENE – Can your pet groom her/himself? HAPPINESS – Is your pet able to experience any joy or mental stimulation? MOBILITY- Is your pet able to move around on his/her own or with help in order to satisfy his/her desires? MORE BAD DAYS THAN GOOD – When bad days outnumber good days, your pet’s quality of life might be too compromised.

For the caregiving owner, there may be additional burdens, including affording the care, the ability to physically care for the pet, and the anxiety and sadness of watching a pet decline. Have conversations early on with a veterinarian about what to expect as a disease progresses rather than wait for a crisis. If euthanasia is the best option, then when it is time to say goodbye, think about who should be present and any preferences for the care of the body. Some veterinary services will come to the home.

In the end, the goal is to prevent or relieve any suffering. Euthanasia allows you to be present, to ease the pet’s anxiety and to love them to the end. Admittedly, it can still feel gut-wrenching and wrong. There is no perfect timing but, when possible, have a plan to say good-bye before an animal is in severe distress.

After the loss of a pet

If only our pets could live forever and not just in our hearts. Given the strength of the bonds we have with them and all the reasons we love them, it is important to acknowledge the impact that the death of a pet can have on ourselves and on other pet owners. Following the death, there may be a sense of relief from the worry and care, which is common and should not generate guilt. Take the time to pause and acknowledge the loss. Family members and even other pets in the home may need extra support. If there are no other pets in the home, you may need to adjust to losing the identity of being a pet owner. 

Disenfranchised grief is the result of a death that is not valued or recognized or that is not socially acceptable. Pet loss is often listed as an example of this type of grief and can result in an owner feeling isolated and misunderstood, which may delay healing. Find those people who “get it” and can be supportive and talk about what you are feeling. Pet sympathy cards and support groups for pet loss ( are examples that the death of a pet deserves attention.

There is even a course at the University of Vermont training doulas on companioning pets at the end of life. If it feels right, memorialize your pet with a favorite photo, a paw print, or a stone with their name in the garden. If needed, find helpful resources online that offer information, support, and ways to memorialize a pet. There are books such as Moira Anderson’s, titled “Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet.”

When our pets leave us, it hurts. Alongside our grief there will also be gratitude for the joy and affection they brought into our lives. In time, may that gratefulness overtake the sorrow.

Bonnie Evans, RN, MS, GNP-BC, GC-C, lives in Bristol and is a geriatric nurse practitioner, End of Life Doula, and certified grief counselor. She can be reached at

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