Why Can the Death of a Pet Hurt Worse Than Losing a Relative?

7 minute read

Everybody loves their pet, but the sad reality of having one is that you have to accept the almost-inevitable fact that you will outlive them.

It would be fair to say that almost all of us have experienced the death of a beloved pet, whether they died from old age, accident, or had to be put to sleep. Regardless of the reason, the outcome is still very sad and truly heartbreaking.

While this is the case for many people, there are some that are not pet owners and have never had to experience this. In fact, they probably look at the dog or cat owner wondering why they are so upset, after all it’s “just a dog.”

For those who have had dogs or cats or birds or any pet, you know this is not the case. These animals are more than just dogs or cats; they are family and mean just as much to you as any human member of your family.

What the Research Shows

According to recent studies, in almost every way, losing a dog is comparable to the loss of a family member. Despite this, there is not much written in our social studies books about dealing with this grief; we don’t have rituals, religious services, and there is no obituary in the local newspaper.

Given the lack of social recognition for this particular grieving process, we often become embarrassed about displaying our true feelings over the loss.

| Related: Knitting, Crocheting, and Jam-Making Improve Mental Health, Study Finds |

If people were able to understand the intensity of the bond people develop with their pets, this grief would be more widely accepted and acknowledged. There needs to be a more universal understanding that pets become integral parts of a person’s life, and there is a deep bond of trust, affection, and loyalty developed.

A woman relaxing with her cat on her lap

Often, people find they can rely more on their pets than they can on people in their lives. If the world, specifically non-pet owners, were able to grasp this, then pet owners could easily integrate their loss into their lives in the same way we do for lost loved ones.

There’s something about dogs…

Despite the fact that individuals bond differently with different pets, there has always been some particularly strong connection between people and dogs. There seems to be an ancestral element to this, in that dogs have had to adapt to living with humans over the past 1,000 years.  

| Related: Turmeric Study Promises Relief for Depression Sufferers |

Dogs are the only animal to have evolved, via their own actions or through human domestication, specifically to become our friends and companions, and they did so very well. Once wild like their gray wolf ancestors, dogs have evolved into socially-skilled animals that interact with humans almost in the same way as humans interact with each other.

The number one reason reported when it comes to why dogs are preferred companions appears to be universal: Dogs provide unconditional love, constant support, and uncritical positive feedback.

We have all experienced the friend who is not really listening to our story or those moments when you feel like nobody cares, but these moments seem to disappear if your dog is in the room.  

Fido (or Spot, or Mr. Barks Fluffypups The Third) always listens and stays positive, and it is always about you with no judgement, no disappointment, and no betrayal. Basically, the best friend you could possibly have.

A woman giving a treat to her dog

Predisposed to Love

It turns out that dogs have been selectively bred to pay attention to humans over all these generations. MRI scans of dog brains shows that they respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food, and, in some cases, the response is even stronger for their owners.  

Dogs have the ability to recognize people and can learn to interpret the emotions of the people they spend time with, simply by looking at their facial expressions.  

| Related: Pets Help People Manage the Pain of Serious Mental Illness |

Studies even provide proof that dogs understand human intentions, will try to help their owners, and will avoid people that do not cooperate with their owners or those that treat them badly.  When you take all this into consideration, it is no wonder people want to have a dog around.

In fact, people scored higher on measures for well-being and happiness when they owned a dog.  Just looking at a dog seems to make people smile, even when they are not the owner.  

While pet owners of any animal record more happiness, the levels for dog owners is much greater than for cats or birds.

A cat and a dog playfully lying next to each other

A pet is a family affair

The concept of misnaming is something we are all familiar with, whether we realize it or not.  We have all accidentally called someone by the wrong name, like calling your friend by your sister’s name or your coworker by your child’s name.

Studies now show that your dog’s name gets thrown into this mix too and gets confused with the names of family members. Since your dog’s name is clearly stored in the same cognitive repositories as your family’s names, the dog is essentially a member of your family.

| Related:  The Miracle Mineral That Can Radically Reduce Anxiety |

The loss of a dog, or any pet, is devastating because of the deep bond created with them. Pet owners spend a great deal of time with their beloved animals, and so the loss can gravely disrupt their personal schedules more than even the loss of a friend or relative.  

The Bottom Line

Changes to your lifestyle are made once you have a pet and your daily routine and even vacations revolve around them. When this changes suddenly, you are likely to feel anxiety and uncertainty.

Often the loss of a pet devastates a person to the point where they often consider never having another pet again. Much like losing a friend or relative, you know they can never be replaced nor would you want to replace them.

There is, however, something that draws us to this animal companionship. At the end of the day, the happiness is worth the grief. Dogs, or the pet of your choice, bring you joy and love as well as support and security.

READ NEXT >>>  Harvard Study Reveals the Key To a Happy Life