When Someone Loses a Pet

This was published in a shorter version in Northern Virginia Today – it did not make it to the paper’s website so I am blogging it.  The loss of a beloved pet is never easy.  However, what you do as a friend or relative of someone who has makes a huge difference.  What should you do when someone loses a pet?  Note, though I discuss mainly dogs, the information goes for all animals.

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D’Argo, (c) West Wind Dog Training

After the loss of a pet it is not uncommon for people to weigh in with what they think you should do. You may get advice on when to get another pet. You may be grilled on where you should get your pet. You may get “guilt-trip” messages on social media about pets needing homes and you needing a pet.  You will undoubtedly be told what you should have done differently, especially if the euthanasia was done for serious and dangerous behavioral reasons. If you have lost a pet take this to heart.

Only you know what is best for you.  You need to make that choice, no one else.

For those who may do the pushing, please take this to heart and read on as the rest is for you.

You may mean well but your actions, may make things worse.  Keep your thoughts to yourself.

It is not fair to push someone to “replace” a lost pet when they are not ready. Your social media posts to that person and comments “Look who needs a home” may push the person who suffered the loss into adopting a pet they are not prepared for. People who are grieving may not always think with their heads.  The hole in their heart may speak louder.  Well that may not be a good thing.  What if that critter(s) you keep pushing on them have medical or behavioral concerns that have not shown up or you are not aware of?  It is fair to push an animal on someone who may not be in a position for whatever reason own one?  Imagine the trauma of putting a pet down, especially for behavioral reasons, and the fears of “Will this new pet have the same problems?” What if the pet does have concerns? Is it fair to the person who suffered the loss to endure the same stress because you pushed them into a pet? You mean well. You want that animal to have a home. You know your friend is hurting, but is pushing and posting and “suggesting” the best thing to do?  No. Only the person can decide when the time is right.

The reasons not to get another pet will vary. There may be financial concerns.  Some may not want to suffer the emotional toll of another loss.  Pets can be a huge time commitment.  The person may need some freedom.  The choice of timing is personal.  Your job as a friend is to support the choice even if it would not work for you.  What do I mean by this?

What if the person cannot live with the hole in their lives and the next day is searching for another pet?  Just because you think the person did not mourn long enough please do not accuse them of replacing a pet as they would a pair of shoes.  It is not disrespectful to the departed pet.  It is what the person needs.  Hold your opinions about when the person decides to bring in another pet.   I am more concerned that the person is choosing a good match for him/her instead of how fast they are “replacing” the lost pet.  For example, a laid back, not active person recently lost a small, low-key dog. They adopt a larger, high energy dog in their grief. If they know what they are getting and what the dog needs and will they be able to sanely own the dog? It is not my decision to make nor my place to judge.  My job is to support them when they decide to bring in a new pet.

What if the person decides not to bring in a new pet?  That is fine!  It is the person’s choice, not yours!  I have spoken to people whose friends were very upset because they made the decision not to bring in a new pet after suffering a loss. Yes they were lonely and missed a companion but the people were making the best decision for them.  They did not like people pushing them to get a new pet. The pressure others put on them to replace the lost pet was draining.  If you are doing this, even if you mean well, stop.  Just stop.  You may pressure someone into getting a pet they do not want at this time.  Yes, people will give into pressure.  It takes a lot to tell someone to stop.  The person may not want to hurt your feelings or affect your friendship therefore will not tell you to quit it.  However, in talking to people I have learned the pressure is painful and not respectful.

Do not judge the source of the new pet. Do not tell people choosing to adopt that these animals have too much baggage and are not good pets.  Do not tell people choosing to go to a breeder that they are condemning a shelter animal to death.  No matter how you feel about the source of the pet, it is not your decision.  Years ago I used to be very judgemental of where people went for pets.  However, over the years I have mellowed and gotten a different perspective.  This perspective came through years of experience and talking with people about the reasons behind the source of any pet. Though I may not agree with the source, the decision is not mine.  I should be more concerned about the ability of the owner to care for the critter as that is what really matters.  If I am asked my opinion of sources I will give the pros and cons of each.  Even at that the ultimate decision is not mine.

What about surprising the person with a pet? You may mean well by gifting a pet to fill that void, but is it a good idea? What if the timing is not right? What if the owner cannot keep the pet or afford the pet?  What if the animal is not what they want? It may make you feel really warm and fuzzy, but the recipient may not be ready.   It is really fair to the human or the animal to do this?

I had a client couple who lost a pet, their kids were all grown and the last one had moved, the two were recently retired.  Though they missed the pet and the kids, the couple was happy.  In fact they had made plans to travel in an RV all over the US.  The trip was going to last about six months or more. They had NO pressure for anything now.  Without asking, the kids surprised Mom and Dad with a puppy.  The parents were not happy at all.  Here they were having to change months of travel plans.  They could not rent an RV as planned because many do not allow pets, etc.  None of the kids were able to keep the puppy for the duration of the trip.  So here the couple was, with a puppy they did not want and having to give up a trip they had planned for months.  Luckily this worked out and they turned out to be great owners BUT it was FAR from what they wanted.   In other situations the gifted pet was not as lucky.

Lastly, please never say “It was just a pet”, “Not like you lost a relative” or “You can always get another.” Studies have shown the loss of a pet can hit people harder than the loss of a relative.  You may have an idea how important the animal was but you are not that person.  Though you may be trying to ease the pain or think you are putting things in perspective, pet owners who lost pets have told me these are some of the most upsetting comments people make.

Along this same line, do not tell people how relieved they must be or look at the freedom they have without a pet to care for.  Even if there was nothing the owner could do medically or behaviorally to save the pet, this is still a loss.  There will always be the thoughts of “Maybe one more medication” or “Should I have tried another trainer?” There is always some level of guilt, especially if the person does feel that weight being lifted. Do not add to it.

What should you do when someone loses a pet? A simple “I’m sorry” may mean a lot.  Take the person out for coffee, dinner, heck even a drink. Be a shoulder to cry on. Give a listening ear. That is often all someone who has lost a pet wants.  In simple terms: be a friend.

Karen Peak is owner of West Wind Dog Training in Northern Virginia and developer of the Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.

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