How to cope with losing a dog

Dog being stroked by owner

For many of us, losing our dog can be absolutely devastating. They showered us with affection and love, were constantly by our side (as well as under our feet or on our laps) and were a much-loved family member, so it’s natural for you to feel that their death has left an empty hole in your life. Grieving for your dog is tough, but it’s important that you take the time to understand how you feel and find ways to cope with these difficult emotions.

Is it ok to mourn the loss of a pet?

Absolutely. It’s perfectly natural to be overcome by grief and sadness when you lose a dog. Your dog loved you and you loved them back. Their big personality was an enormous part of your life and your routine, so of course you’re going to mourn them.

Many of us are often surprised by just how much we’re affected by the death of our dog. Sadly, as a society, our mourning process for a pet is often seen quite differently from when we lose a human friend or family member. Many of the support mechanisms that usually help us to cope with the passing of a loved one just aren’t there when we lose our dog. We tend not to take time off work to grieve, our feelings may be unintentionally belittled (“It was only a dog” or “Are you going to get a new one”?) and we might even feel embarrassed or ashamed about how much we’re hurting. But the relationship you had with your dog was a big part of your life, and may even have been a big part of your identity. Losing that relationship and routine is bound to hurt. No matter what others may think, it’s ok to feel the way you do.

Why do I feel the way I feel?

The relationship you had with your dog is unique to you, so how you feel is a testament to the special bond that you both shared. The connection we have with our dogs is often simpler than the ones we have with other people. Dogs are always there for us, are usually the first to greet us at the door, often with a frantic wag of the tail, and many of us spend more time with our dog than we do with our other family members. Because of this bond, many people find the death of their dog to be a difficult time; but it can be a confusing time too. Coping with losing a best friend and a member of the family is hard, but sometimes losing a dog is more than that.

Having a dog can create a sense of purpose and can give your day structure. Fixed feeding times, regularly taking your dog out for a walk and being woken up early all become part of your daily routine. After a dog dies, many people find this abrupt change to their life is difficult to cope with and many feel lost without it. Losing a dog is not just losing a dear friend or family member, but it can also be a loss of a way of life too.

The grieving process

Everyone grieves in different ways and each person that deals with loss needs something different to support them. How you grieve for your dog is unique to you; there is no right or wrong way to feel. Some people may find their grief changes and flows through different stages, while others may find that their feelings come in waves or cycles. Feeling sad, shocked, numb, angry, empty, guilty or lonely are all normal reactions to losing your dog. Feeling upset by the passing of your dog isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a completely normal reaction to loss.

If you feel like you’re really struggling with your mental health, share how you feel with your family, friends or GP, or speak to someone on a mental health or depression helpline. You’re not alone in how you feel and there are lots of people who can help you cope with these feelings.

How long does grief last after losing a pet?

Sadly, there isn’t a timetable for when things will begin to feel easier. It would be nice to know how long you’re going to feel like this, but grief is a gradual process and it’s important to try to be patient with how you feel. Grief isn’t always straightforward. Some days will be easier than others, but, in general, your feelings should become less intense as time goes on. Some people feel better in weeks, while for others it may be months or even longer.

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How to cope with your grief

The death of a dog can be painful and upsetting, but it’s a natural response to death and loss. There is no right or wrong way to process how you feel, but there are a few things you can do that may help you understand and cope with your grief:

  • Take time to grieve - Your pet may have been part of your life for a long time, which means that getting used to not having them around might take some time too. How we grieve can’t be hurried along or forced, but it’s a process that we go through at our own pace. Try not to compare yourself to how others are feeling. We all cope with loss in our own way. You feel what you feel and you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed of that
  • Be good to yourself - Dealing with your feelings after losing your dog can be emotionally and physically draining. Make sure you take care of yourself so that you can process your loss. Try to keep up with your everyday essentials, like eating well, getting enough sleep, socialising and exercising. If you’re able to, and need to, try taking some time off work. Carry on with your normal hobbies or maybe start a new one to help keep you busy
  • Talking - Talking about how you feel and what you’re going through can be a helpful way to process your loss. It may be difficult for some people to appreciate the connection you had with your dog and to understand how you feel. If your usual circle of friends or family doesn’t understand what you’re going through, try talking to other pet owners who do. There’s nothing quite like talking to someone face-to-face, but chatting to people on social media or on online message boards can help too. There are also several pet bereavement helplines that your veterinary practice may be able to point you towards, e.g. The Blue Cross also offers a free pet bereavement service for anyone who has lost a pet 
  • Put your feelings on paper - Some people find that writing down memories or expressing how they feel can help them manage their grief. Some people may paint or draw, or create a journal with photos of things they experienced with their dog. Others find it helpful to write a letter to their dog telling them how they feel and what they will miss
  • Find new routines - Having a dog can give you a sense of purpose and a routine. If these are suddenly taken away from you, it can feel quite disorientating and may make you feel a little lost. Taking your dog out for a walk was great for them, but also gave you exercise and a chance to say “hi” to other owners. It’s important that you still exercise and get out. You could carry on with your daily walks, or you could find other hobbies that get you out and about and socialising again
  • Remove items at your own pace - Some people prefer to tidy their dog’s things away quickly, while others take comfort from them and prefer to clear them out gradually while they process their loss. Make sure you do things at your own pace and sort out your dog’s things when you feel you’re ready to deal with them
  • Have a memorial - Holding your own ceremony to scattering your dog’s ashes, or bury them in your garden, can help you process your loss. This can give you and your family a chance to express how they feel or share their favourite memories. Having a grave marker or something to remember your dog can help you feel close to them and give you a place to go when you miss them. Other ways to help remember your dog are by planting a tree, putting up photos or creating a memory box that holds some of the things that remind you of your dog
  • Dealing with signs of depression - The shock and emotional devastation of losing a dog can trigger mental health problems. Negative feelings are natural while your grieving, but if you feel that these emotions are out of control, or if you’re concerned that you may be depressed, then talk to your family, friends and your GP

Dealing with feelings of guilt after euthanasia

Making the decision to have your dog put to sleep is one of the hardest choices any owner has to make. It’s normal and common for owners to feel guilty about having their dog put to sleep and many owners ask themselves if they made the right choice. If you blame yourself, remember that you made an impossible decision out of love and because they weren’t going to get better. Choosing to say goodbye to your dog is never easy, but remember that it was the best decision for your dog and it was a tough choice that you made because you cared for them.

Helping children cope with the death of a dog

Losing a dog can be a confusing and distressing time for any child. Whether this is their first experience of death, or something they’ve been through before, it’s an opportunity to help them understand and cope with their feelings of loss. How you help your child really depends on their age, but it’s important to be honest with them and explain what’s happened in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. 

Children learn how to behave by watching those around them, so how you react while you’re grieving can influence how they cope with the death of their dog. It’s important for you to talk to them about your emotions and how you feel and reassure them that it’s ok to feel sad. Your child will be grieving too and may feel a range of emotions that might be confusing to them. If they choose to talk about their feelings, make sure that they feel listened to by empathising with what they say. You may not feel as sad as your child, but you should ensure they have time to grieve and let them talk openly about how they feel.

As well as feeling sad, some children may feel angry, guilty or might blame others for the passing of their dog. For some children, it may make them scared that they’re going to lose other people or things that they love. Death can raise a lot of questions in a child’s mind, so it’s important to try to answer their questions to help them understand more about what’s happened and what it means to die. These questions can be incredibly tough and upsetting to answer, especially if you’re grieving too, but try to be as honest and sensitive as possible. You could try going to your local library to find books for children on coping with loss.

To help them manage their grief, let your child find a creative way to remember their pet. This could be decorating a framed photo that they put by their bed, a memory box, a drawing, a painting or they could write a letter to their dog. Holding a memorial service for your dog may also help them come to terms with their loss and might help them to talk about how they feel.

It’s important that your child is given time to grieve and process what their loss means to them. Getting another dog, or a replacement pet, could make them feel disloyal to the dog they have just lost. Buying a dog too quickly could also give them the wrong message and imply that their dog wasn’t important and can easily be replaced. It’s better to wait until the whole family has come to terms with the death of their dog and decide together when you’re all ready for another pet.

Helping seniors cope with the loss of a dog

Coping with the loss of a pet can be especially difficult for some older people, particularly if they live by themselves. Having the sole companionship of a dog gives their owner a routine, regular exercise and a great excuse to chat to people. After losing a dog, it’s very easy for their house to feel empty, quiet and lonely, and may bring back familiar feelings of loss that they’ve experienced throughout their life. Getting another dog may be a complicated decision to make, especially if there’s a chance that the new dog could outlive their owner.

If you live by yourself, try to keep busy and active. It’s very easy to stay at home, especially when grieving, but joining a new club, taking a new class or regularly meeting friends or neighbours might help you work through your grief.

Looking after other pets

When a dog dies, other dogs or pets may be confused as to where they are and may grieve as well. Your pets may whimper, go off their food, seem down or may come to you for reassurance. Make sure you give them plenty of positive attention and try to stick to their normal routine. Try playing games with them or taking them for more walks to help distract them. Focusing on your other pets can help make them feel better, but can help you deal with the death of your dog too.

Losing puppies during whelping

Sadly, it’s fairly common for breeders to lose puppies, either during pregnancy or whelping. Animals with a larger litter size sometimes have a puppy that is stillborn, or fades quickly. Although it’s a natural part of breeding, it doesn’t make it any easier to see. Breeders can take every step to make sure that the mother and father are a suitable match, with great health results and low inbreeding coefficients, and still lose puppies. Sometimes, a large number of puppies or an entire litter can be lost, and it can be devastating for a breeder. Their grief is often mixed with confusion over what happened and questions about if they did anything wrong. Unfortunately, these things sometimes happen and are usually completely unpredictable. Make sure you give yourself time to grieve and process these complicated feelings, and talk to your vet to help you try to understand what happened.

Should I get another dog?

After your dog has died, many owners are tempted to rush into getting a new pet to replace them, but this may not be a good idea. There are lots of reasons why having a dog in your life is wonderful, but charging into a big decision like this, especially while you’re still grieving could be a mistake. Having time to grieve and deal with your loss can help you build stronger and healthier relationships with any future dogs you may get. Getting another dog too soon might not be fair to the new dog, as you may have unrealistic expectations that they can replace the dog you recently lost. Each dog is different and a new dog may have a completely different personality to the dog you lost, even if they’re the same breed or from the same family.

Knowing when to get another dog is a very personal choice to make. You’ll know when the time is right for you, but always make sure that you get a new dog for the right reasons. Whenever you’re thinking of getting a new dog, always think about it carefully and ask yourself whether it’s the right thing to do, how it might affect you and your life and whether it would be right for the new dog too.

What to say when someone’s dog dies

Everyone copes with grief in different ways. How a person feels after their dog has died will depend on the relationship they had with their dog. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are. For many people, the loss of a dog is painful and devastating, but talking about how they feel can help them process their grief. Losing a dog is not just about losing their best friend, or even a family member, but it’s a loss to their normal routine as well. Taking a dog out for a walk several times a day can be stress relieving and a great way to exercise and meet other dog walkers. No longer having those routines can often make people feel lost and unsettled.

If someone you know has lost a dog, make sure to check in on them. Ask if there is anything that you can do, offer to keep them company or ask if they want to go for a walk. Always try to empathise with the way they feel and let them grieve in their own time.