Pets can actually make us healthier people. Those who have pets tend to have lower rates of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Some studies have found that they are also less likely to experience loneliness or depression, and more likely to say they are satisfied with their life. So it may be no surprise that when we lose this relationship, our health is affected in a negative way.
Pet Loss and Mental Health
Research shows that when we experience grief, our brains undergo physical changes. These changes can affect our thought processes and emotions. For many people, grief results in feelings of sadness, depression, guilt, anger, anxiety, relief, loneliness, or feeling irritable. Some people experience mental symptoms of grief, which may include confusion, trouble focusing, constant dwelling on your pet, or thinking you see or hear your pet. Loss of an animal companion can also lead to anxiety and depression for some people.
Pet Loss and Physical Health
Grief from pet loss may also lead to physical symptoms, such as fatigue, insomnia, a hollow feeling in the stomach, tightness in the chest, dry mouth, and aches and pains.
Sometimes, our reactions to grief can be severe. One woman reportedly experienced “broken heart syndrome” after losing her dog. This condition occurs when one chamber of the heart suddenly weakens in response to an emotional or physical stress. Its symptoms are similar to heart attack symptoms. While this condition is rare, it highlights the large effect that grief can have on the body.
Why Losing a Pet is Especially Difficult
It’s common to think that people don’t get that sad after loss of a pet. But research tells us that often, the grief that people feel following loss of an animal companion feels the same as grief following loss of a human companion. In some cases, people report even more intense feelings. This may be because of the special type of relationship we feel with our pets. Often, it feels like a parent-child relationship, and is associated with unconditional love and acceptance, which we don’t always get in our human relationships. Feeling these especially strong feelings after pet loss may take some people by surprise and lead to feeling shame or guilt.
There are many reasons why grieving a pet can be just as or even more difficult than grieving a human:
- While everyone can understand and empathize with loss of a person, not everyone can grasp how devastating pet loss can be. Some people may make insensitive comments, such as “you can just get another pet,” which adds to the sense that other people don’t understand what we’re going through.
- We don’t tend to have the same rituals surrounding pet loss as we do with the loss of our fellow humans. This may include not getting as much social support from others. This may lead to feeling like our emotions aren’t valid, and feeling even more isolated.
- Because some people don’t understand pet loss, we often don’t have as much space to process emotions. For example, pet loss is often not considered a valid reason for taking time off of work. People who have just lost a companion may find it extremely difficult to keep up with normal responsibilities, even though they are expected to keep performing as normal.
- Because of stigma surrounding grieving during pet loss, some people may find it hard to talk openly about what they are struggling with. Often, people who have lost a pet feel embarrassed or ashamed at the depth of their emotion.
Being hesitant to acknowledge or talk about these strong emotions is common. Not having solid support systems surrounding pet loss can sometimes make processing it more difficult. This may mean that the pet grieving process is more complex and it can take longer for us to move on.
Another difficulty surrounding pet loss that is often unacknowledged is that it leads to changes in a person’s routine. Perhaps a person got used to being woken up in the morning by their hungry cat, or getting exercise through walking their dog. When that pet is gone, a person’s whole daily routine may be thrown off, leaving a person feeling even more lost. Small hassles and disruptions to a person’s routine can easily add up to be just as stressful and harmful to health than bigger events.
Coping and Self-Care Following Pet Loss