Why Losing a Pet Hurts So Much

Woman with Older Dog
Photo: LM Photo/Getty Images

Calling a dog "man's best friend" hardly seems to cover the relationship between dogs and people. They are loyal, kind, and offer nearly unconditional love, endless joy and enthusiasm, and occasionally too much affection. They are always happy to see you, never tire of your presence, and never mind if you make a fool of yourself. They are some of the greatest creatures on this planet, truly wonderful companions who feel like members of the family, and the only animals that specifically evolved to be friends with humans.

And it seems pretty clear that they love us back. While every pet owner has personal anecdotes, and the internet offers plenty of videos of dogs reuniting with owners, and as author Kinky Friedman said, "Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love can make him wag his tail." There's plenty of science to back it up, too. Researchers gave pups fMRI scans which look at what changes in the activity of regions of the brain when certain events occur. They then offered the dogs treats (they were all very good dogs, apparently) and then had the owners praise the pups. They found that the dogs' brains showed a similar response to praise from their owners as to being offered food. Some dogs, praise from their owners is even more effective an incentive than food. So, dogs love their human companions and when that love is gone, it can be incredibly hard to move past. It goes both ways, too: Just looking at dogs can make people smile. It's no wonder dog owners miss them so much when they're gone. As many of us know, unfortunately, humans tend to outlive dogs, so as A Dog's Purpose author, W. Bruce Cameron, wrote, "When you adopt a dog, you have a lot of very good days and one very bad day."

When a beloved pup passes away, the loss can feel unbearable. In fact, sometimes that loss can feel as bad—or even worse—than the loss of a human friend or relative. That's not just anecdotal, either: Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is comparable to the loss of a human loved one, in almost every way. According to Scientific American, "symptoms of acute grief after the loss of a pet can last from one to two months, with symptoms of grief persisting up to a full year (on average)."

Why do humans feel such a deep loss for their pups? Because dogs are so much more than pets. As psychologist Julie Axelrod writes in a blog post, the loss of a dog is so painful because people are losing a little life that we were responsible for as well as a source of unconditional love and companionship. There's a reason that most emotional support animals are dogs.

Axelrod also notes that for many people, dogs serve as a primary companion who provides security and comfort. Research has shown that dogs help people get out of their homes, serve as catalysts for "cohesiveness and trust; the reciprocal exchange of favors between neighbors; and increased participation in civic events and social issues." Science has credited pets with serving as a "social lubricant, which promotes interaction and conversation between strangers. Losing a dog means losing that motivation to leave the house for a walk in the park, losing the reason to chat with a stranger on a street, and losing that easy conversation starter, too.

Also, losing a dog usually means losing someone who totally gets you. Or gets you enough that they don't mind whatever it is you're doing and can comfort you when you need it. Research shows that dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from their facial expression alone. Scientific studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, try to help their owners and learn to avoid people who don't cooperate treat their owners well or help them in their time of need. Basically, when you lose your dog, you lose your back up, too.

While losing a pet is painful and overwhelming, unfortunately, it can also be a very lonely process, as many people don't understand the feeling of loss and don't recognize that the grieving process for a pet can be as long as that for a human. Because of that, the community support typically associated with death is absent when a pet dies. Typically, friends aren't dropping off hot dishes or sending bereavement cards. To make matters worse, grieving owners may feel embarrassed over the extent of their own heartbreak and feel ashamed to reach out to friends for comfort.

If you have lost a pet, take time to grieve. Find a support group locally or check out these websites: the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement and the Pet Loss Grief Support website. If a friend has lost a pet, take the loss seriously. Consider sending a sympathy card or bringing them some food as you would for someone who has lost a human friend or family member—even if you don't fully understand their grief. This is about your friend's loss, not your feelings about pets, after all. While there's no easy way to help alleviate someone else's overwhelming grief, at least we can make every effort not to make things worse by telling someone it was "only a dog." As any pet owner will tell you, there's no such thing.

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