A pet’s death can hurt more than losing a fellow human

Social norms are wrecking your grief experience.
beagle lying on carpet
Deposit Photos

The perfect coffin for a gerbil is a Celestial Seasonings tea box. With the tea bags removed, the white wax-paper bag inside is the ideal size funeral shroud for a tiny body. This unfortunate factoid, like much of the information about how to dispose of a beloved pet’s body, comes from personal experience. I buried four gerbils in my backyard as a child, complete with incense on their graves and a few words.

As an adult with a puppy well on his way to being over 60 pounds, I hadn’t given much consideration to how I’d deal with other pet deaths until a friend asked me, “this is a terrible question, but what do you do when he dies?”

I dug into the question, and as I did I found that I wasn’t alone in wondering—but that there isn’t a great answer.

The experts I talked to emphasized that our relationship to pet loss has changed over the last century. “It’s not surprising to me that we feel such grief over the loss of a pet, because in this country at least they are increasingly considered family members,” says Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own a pet, an increase of twelve percent since surveys of pet ownership started in the 1988, when it was already booming. Losing a beloved animal friend is made harder by the relative novelty of the experience, often being a person’s first experience with a close death, and by it being one of the few times most people chose euthanasia to end a life. And depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publically grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.

We haven’t always felt this way, though. As a society, Irvine says, we’ve moved from thinking of pets as accessories or mindless pieces of furniture to thinking, feeling beings.

Pets become family members because they actively shape how we live. “A lot of people who have pets wake up at a certain time, not because of any alarm clock or any need of their own but because their dog needs a walk,” says Irvine. “Just as other humans participate in becoming family by doing these practices—getting up together, eating together, navigating the bathroom times, and all that—so do animals become part of the rituals that make family.”

And it isn’t just a daily ritual that makes pets familial. We form attachments to animals in the same way that we form attachments to people, says Cori Bussolari, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. She points to a study in Science from 2015 that found when people gazed into a dog’s eyes, both the person and the dog had increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, regulates social interactions. It’s released when humans stare into each other’s eyes, and when parents look at their newborn children. “I’m sure if you did the study with other animals it would be the same,” Bussolari says.

I already imagine losing my puppy will be harder than burying my gerbils, but I also didn’t stare into my gerbils’ eyes quite as much. No matter the species, our bonds with our pets are unlike our other relationships. For one, Bussolari says, they’re entirely dependent on us. For another, Irvine says, “we idealize animals, especially dogs. We create them as these almost angelic characters, so we have this idea of unconditional love for us.” When they die, she explains, it almost seems like a violation of this mythos we’ve built around them.

On a personal level, the death of a pet is often a person’s first exposure to the loss of a close relationship, says Thomas Wrobel, a psychologist at the University of Michigan-Flint. Human death has been relatively sanitized, he explains. We have an industry for funerals and cremations, and you don’t typically have to deal with a dead body yourself. “With pets it’s a lot more in your face,” says Wrobel. “Unless you do the cremation option, you’ve got this dead dog you have to deal with, which is a lot more intimate experience of the death.”

ajax puppy
The author’s dog, Ajax, pictured here snoozin’ Dyani Sabin

With pets, you also have to decide if you are going to euthanize, and when. In a study of 305 pet owners, Bussolari found that almost seventy percent chose to euthanize their pet. It’s often medically necessary—the kindest thing to do for a dying animal—but the decision can wrack the owner with guilt. In 2005, Wrobel did a study of the relationship between symptoms of grief and attachment to pets. “In our results we saw that guilt was way up there [on the list of emotional responses], because a lot of people are carrying the animal to where it would be euthanized,” says Wrobel.Years ago, my cat, who I had rescued as a kitten, developed a urinary tract infection that lingered due to a weakened immune system from his feline HIV. I’d tried everything to help him get over it. One day, I came home and saw from his tepid movement that he was clearly in incredible pain—he was dying. Driving to the vet was excruciating, and my mom had to be the one in the room when he was euthanized because I was too upset.

“After the passing of a pet ninety-nine percent of people say to me in some shape or form, this was harder for me than the loss of my mom, or my grandma,” says Dani McVety, veterinarian and CEO of Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice network. She has found that the option to have in-home euthanasia and pet hospice makes death easier for families.

In-home euthanasia helps remove the negative experience of knowing that you’re driving your pet to their death in a place that you know causes them stress. In her practice, she sees the same kind of anxiety over deciding the right time for euthanasia at the end of a pet’s life. “I’ll tell them, I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but when this is done, you will feel relief,” McVety says. “And people do this thing after it’s done. . .they stand up and put their hands on their head and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel so relieved.’”

But despite the fact that 68 percent of Americans own a pet, and have grown to treasure them like members of the family, taking care of a dead animal’s body isn’t the same as dealing with a human corpse. In New York City, if you look up what to do with a deceased pet on the 311 page, you come to this statement:

If you think that’s appalling, you’re not alone.

“Wow. Wow, you end up just treating it like a raccoon. Wow, that’s crazy,” says McVety. The New York Department of Sanitation doesn’t keep data on how many pets are left on the curb so it’s unclear how often this happens. Other major cities, like Houston and Los Angeles, will pick up pets curbside, and in other cities you can call for pickup.

These guidelines are written so that the city has some response available, but they don’t take the emotional element into consideration, says Bonnie Beaver, professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M.

City services aren’t the only ones to fail to see how emotional a pet death can be.

“You feel often isolated, socially,” says Beaver, “because people don’t understand what you’re going through, because they might say, ‘get over it, it’s just a dog’—which is exactly the wrong thing to say.”

When you lose a person, there are rituals—the funeral, the memorial—and it’s acceptable to take time off work and talk about your loss. “What people grieving the loss of a pet don’t realize the first time they lose a pet is the strength of the grief and how long it lasts,” says Wendy Packman, a psychologist at Palo Alto University. “So it surprises the griever, and it really surprises the people who aren’t sympathetic to pet loss.” Although Packman has found that the depth and length of grief is similar to how we grieve people, this social stigma causes it to feel more painful.

“With disenfranchised grief is there is less support, and the grief can be even worse than for a person because there are no rituals,” says Packman, “and when people do go out and do a ritual, when they feel brave enough, they can be ostracized.”

As I was researching this story, friends told me about the lengths they went to in order to bury their pets properly, despite regulations about where and how you may dispose of animal remains. One snuck into their community garden at midnight to bury a pet rat under a rose bush. Another drove out in the middle of the night to bury their cat underneath a beautiful oak tree they pass on their daily commute. Even my gerbil burials, and the funeral I held for my cat were private affairs, in the backyard with my family—our secret, quiet grief shared together.

Packman believes this social acceptability of grieving for pets is changing, noting that she’s seen a rise in memorials for pets and pet cemeteries. But in the meantime, says Bussolari, we grieve our pets so deeply because we feel like we’re not supposed to. “We worry a lot about making people uncomfortable, because then they don’t want to be around us—and if they don’t want to be around us then we’re by ourselves,” she says. “But the reality is that the more we talk about grief, the more we normalize grief.”