The Pet Corner: Humans, animals both grieve

Grief is a complicated and often misunderstood emotion.

Everyone has experienced loss in their lives; some more than others.

Even if we recognize that we are grieving, we can’t control it and we don’t always realize which stage of grief we are in at any given time.

Everyone must go through all five stages of grief to heal and move on.

Each person will move through the stages of grief at a different pace. Some people will go through all five stages quickly whereas others may proceed slowly. Some people get “stuck” in one of the stages and cannot heal and move forward in their life.

Having practiced veterinary medicine for 28 years, it has become  clear to me people grieve over a loved pet in the same manner as grieving for another human being.

There are different degrees of attachment to pets, but pets are increasingly becoming family members. Regardless, you will go through the five stages of grief whether you are grieving a pet or another person.

The first stage of grief is denial when you don’t accept or even acknowledge the death as real. Many pet owners will initially say something like “No, not my baby!” People will often continue to set a place at the dinner table or look for the person in familiar places when they have lost a spouse. Fortunately, most people will not experience this stage for long.

The second stage is anger when someone is mad about losing a loved one. Often, the person grieving will blame someone for the death and sometimes will even blame the deceased for leaving them. It is not unusual for some people to remain in anger for a very long time.

It does not matter whether they have lost a pet or another family member, they may be angry for a variety of reasons. Again, you can’t heal until you move past anger and proceed through the rest of the grieving process.

The third stage is bargaining when we beg, wish and pray for the deceased to come back. Many people will bargain, or make a deal, with the deceased or with God to try to stop or change the loss. Most people will only experience bargaining for a  short period.

The fourth stage is depression which is the most noticeable and often the most difficult stage. It is the typical feeling of hopelessness and feeling lack of control.

Many people will lose hope for their future dreams and plans. Depression may last for a long time and may require medical treatment or emotional support to recover.

The last stage of grief is acceptance when we accept the fact our pet or loved one is gone forever. It is also when we find comfort and healing as well as find the good that can come out of the pain and loss.

It is not necessary to forget anything about your pet, but acceptance allows you to focus on the positive memories and to live without the previous emotional struggle.

That’s the process for people. What about when pets lose a loved one or another pet? How do pets grieve?

It is evident pets don’t have the intellectual ability to go through the stages of grief known to people. Make no mistake; pets often do grieve. Pets have been known to grieve over the loss of their owner or another pet in the household.

Over the years, I have seen lots of cases of pets grieving even to the point of becoming physically ill. If a pet happens to pass away at their veterinarian’s office, I recommend other pets living in the home be brought to see the animal that is not coming home.

A while ago, a patient of mine became distraught over the loss of their owner. Winston was a 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier who lost his male owner suddenly.

For the next two weeks, Winston started losing weight because he spent hours just sitting, watching and waiting for his owner to walk through the door. He was visibly depressed and no longer enjoyed his normal routine.

One thing to consider when your pet loses a loved one or another pet is to allow your pet to visit and see the deceased. This allows your pet to accept the loss instead of wondering where they have gone and when they will return.

Sometimes we need to give pets more credit for being intelligent and include them in our emotional issues.

Your veterinarian can help with information about grieving support groups and literature which may be useful during this difficult time.

If your pet suffers from any grieving process, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.