Support for Bereaved Owners of Pets

By Clements, Paul T.; Benasutti, Kathleen M. et al. | Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, April-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Support for Bereaved Owners of Pets


Clements, Paul T., Benasutti, Kathleen M., Carmone, Andy, Perspectives in Psychiatric Care


TOPIC. The bond that exists between people and their pets and its impact on physical and mental health.

PURPOSE. To review the current literature and explore the clinical implications of bereavement related to pets.

SOURCES. A comprehensive review of the bereavement, veterinarian, and agricultural literature related to attitudes and response patterns to pet and animal death.

CONCLUSIONS. The death or loss of a beloved pet can be a life-changing event.

Search terms: Bereavement and pet owners

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It is important to provide an environment of acceptance and understanding for bereaved pet owners to enhance efforts toward adaptive grief and bereavement and promote adaptive coping and reinvestment in life.

The bond that exists between people and their pets can have subsequent impact on physical and mental health (Jaroleman, 1998; Kellehear, 1997; Quackenbush, 1985; Stallones, 1994; Stephens & Hill, 1993). The loss or death of a cherished pet creates a grief reaction that is in many ways comparable to that of the loss of a family member. The need for attachment is common to both humans and animals. It is a multifaceted drive that begins with infant bonding and becomes more diversified and generalized throughout the lifespan. It has become clear that humans and their pets are significant attachment figures for each other (Cowles, 1980; Jaroleman; Meyers, 2000; Rynearson, 1978). Professionally, however, this fact has yet to be integrated into protocols for grief and bereavement.

The 1990s reflected a significant increase in pets as "dependents of choice," with more than 60% of homes in the United States reporting animal companions (Jasper & Nelkin, 1992); families spent more than $8.5 billion annually on pet food (Mogelonsky, 1995) and more than $5 billion a year on veterinary services (Crispell, 1991). Additionally, family pets take on a role and personality of their own within the family structure and are sorely missed and grieved when they go missing or their life otherwise ends. Companion animals provide support, love, and loyalty, which may be beyond empirical measure.

Because of these immense contributions, the death, loss, or theft of a beloved animal results in the end of a special relationship and can be one of the most difficult times in a person's life (Stephens & Hill, 1993; Tufts University, 2002; University of California, Davis, 2002). The contemporary era has seen an increase in families who choose not to have children, and in individuals who reject conventional intimacy but embrace deep relationships with the animals they care for. Frequently, the "dependents" in these family units are dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals.

Unfortunately, the loss of a pet is not recognized consistently by friends, acquaintances, or colleagues as a significant or authentic occasion for bereavement. Despite the critical role that pets represent in the lives of so many, few studies have examined the impact of the bereavement process on the life of the owner of a pet that is missing or found dead.

This article examines the current literature surrounding the concept of bereavement related to pets that are missing or found dead, explores the clinical implications of such bereavement, and suggests therapeutic strategies for providing support and assistance to the bereaved.

Case Study

Rick, a 40-year-old male, arrived home after a grueling day at work. As he walked into the house, his sixth sense told him something was wrong. However, looking around the house, he could not seem to grasp what was amiss. As his dog, Bo, greeted him with an unusual whimper, Rick realized that Bo should not be greeting him at the door at all because he and Annie, the other dog in the family, were kept behind a gate in the kitchen, which was their "house" during the day.

Rick suddenly realized that Annie, the usual jumper and tail-wagger, was not greeting him. …

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