Including Pet Loss in Your Grief Counseling Practice

Pets are an important part of people’s lives, yet many in the counseling field do not include pet loss in their practices. Those who rely on animals for support and unconditional love form close bonds. Many people verbalize they feel closer to their pets than their own family members. It is not surprising that when a pet dies, people can experience considerable grief reactions. For some clients, the loss of a pet can be traumatic. What increases a person’s suffering is the fact that this type of grief is not recognized or valued in society. Without a supportive environment to grieve in, clients’ feelings become invalidated and ignored.

As a counselor, you will not find a specific mention of pet grief in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. When you review the scholarly scientific research on the topic of pet loss, you will find the majority of studies are written for veterinary professionals. This does not mean there isn’t something for counselors to learn, teach, and model. The authors Resibig et al., 2017 reported in Companion Animal Death: A Qualitative Analysis of Relationship Quality, Loss, and Coping, Omega Journal of Death & Dying: “Veterinary and other helping professionals need basic information about the experience of companion animal loss in order to help support and normalize the experiences of grieving companion animal owners.”

Even though awareness and consideration have increased towards pet death sensitivity, there are many societal and cultural factors that do not support this type of grief. As a counselor, you need to be aware of this fact and offer supportive empathic counseling which helps your clients heal.

Pet Death: A Disenfranchised Type of Grief

Pet loss is considered a disenfranchised type of grief. This means, in our society, it is not recognized as an important death.

This was corroborated by a 2021 published study from Park et al. (A Literature Review: Pet Bereavement and Coping Mechanisms): “This review was able to identify a consensus among the literature that bereaved pet owners are likely to experience disenfranchisement surrounding their loss.”

As a society, most of us offer support and give comfort during the grieving process for a person’s death. People often receive bereavement leave from their place of employment and colleagues understand if it takes a little time to get back into the swing of things again. It is not the same when a person loses a pet.

In response to pet grief, some friends and coworkers do not have empathy for this type of loss. They may encourage a person to get another pet soon after the loss or invalidate the grief by saying, “It’s only a pet.”

Even some counselors can add to this disenfranchised grief from pet loss when they are not sensitive to it. This is why counselors need to be aware of their own biases and countertransference, in order to do no harm to clients. If you feel as a counselor, you do not have the competency to include pet loss in your practice, refer your client to another counselor or a pet loss support group.

The Stronger the Attachment, The More Intense the Grief Will Be

Pets are an important part of their owners’ lives and offer what many humans cannot: unconditional love. This is why the attachment to a pet, in many instances, is stronger for some people than their own romantic and family relationships.

In order to deliver effective treatments for pet loss assessments, the degree of attachment and grief responses must be noted. As a part of this type of grief work, it is important to examine the client’s meaning following the death.

The Types of Pet Loss

There are several types of pet loss and each one can affect the client in different ways. Pet loss can occur through natural causes, euthanasia, giving up a pet, or a pet becoming lost or killed.

Natural Causes

Even though a pet has died from natural causes, it does not shield an owner from feeling a profound loss. A client can plan for a pet’s death following a long-term illness yet other deaths come on suddenly, such as a heart attack. Whether your client knows of an upcoming death or not, there is no preparation for the feelings he or she can experience after a pet’s death. This is similar to when a person dies.

Euthanasia

Owners can choose to end a pet’s life due to a lack of finances for health procedures or make a decision to end an animal’s suffering. Even when an animal’s quality of life has greatly deteriorated, it is not uncommon for clients to experience guilt and ambivalence after pet death. There is no ideal time for the procedure to occur and this can leave a client feeling unsettled.

Giving up a Pet (Relinquishment)

Some clients need to make a difficult choice between keeping their pet or giving it up. Many older adults relinquish pets in order to live in a nursing home or senior housing. For them, this is one more loss after experiencing multiple losses with their own family, friends, and health.

Others simply cannot afford to keep a pet and must hand their animal over to a shelter or to someone who can take care of the pet properly. There can be a lot of shame in this kind of loss. Often people judge others who make this decision, which creates more isolation for the person grieving.

A Lost or Missing Pet

Clients who experience a lost or missing pet can experience guilt, depression, and anxiety. They often feel a missed opportunity to protect or prevent the loss of their pet. Lost or missing pet grief is known as an ambiguous loss because the client doesn’t know if the animal is alive or not, leaving them with no closure.

A Killed Animal

What can prolong grief is having an animal who has been killed by accident or on purpose. This type of sudden death is especially difficult and a client can experience denial, shock, sadness, anger, and guilt. If the death was traumatic, a client may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If your client has experienced other losses which are unresolved or has had mental health issues with anxiety or depression, they may experience a complicated grief.

Ways to Assist Your Client’s Pet Grief Experience

1. Help your client establish rituals. Grief creates a lot of energy in the body which needs other outlets to access, express and release it. As well as helping clients talk about their thoughts and feelings, it is important for clients to take action and do something.

Rituals and creative processes help clients process the experience on a deeper level when they cannot find the right words or feelings, while acknowledging the life and times shared with their pet. In addition to remembering, rituals create a continuing bond of connection to a deceased pet’s spirit which offers comfort and healing.

Some examples of rituals are lighting a candle, saying a prayer, or acknowledging the anniversary of an animal’s death. This can also become a part of the therapy work with your client. You can ask a client to bring in a picture or toy from the deceased pet and have the client tell a story about the pet’s life through expressive art or narrative therapies.

2. Offer empathic counseling. Remember grief is a normal response to a pet’s death. Normalize this experience for your clients. Express your heartfelt sympathy and hold the space for your clients as they express all of their feelings and thoughts, without judgment. Use empathic responses to convey that you are with them in their time of sorrow and grief.

3. Utilize grief counseling techniques. If the loss was traumatic, assess for acute stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief and offer treatment. The authors Messam & Hart 2019, wrote in their book, Clinician Guide to Treating Companion Animal Issues:Addressing Human-Animal Interactions, “After the animal’s death, despite their efforts to cope, some people experience continuing bonds with the animal and some suffer long-term grieving; they may benefit from or require targeted special counseling.”

4. Refer the client to a pet loss support group. Group work can offer the bereaved support, when society cannot. Most likely, your client will need to be referred to an online group, unless there is a specific pet loss grief support group available in the area. Referring a client to a regular grief support group may not be helpful, as the other members of the group could invalidate a pet loss as less important than a human loss. It is important for your client to be with others who understand their loss. In a group, the client has a place to tell his or her grief story and be accepted.

There are many ways that people grieve pet loss. Work with your client and find what works best for him or her. What is most important is you value your client and validate their grief, helping them find others who will do the same.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 18 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.