Death of a pet
©Dr Joël Dehasse, DVM, Beh. vet.
Speech given at the SAVAB-Flanders meeting, Antwerpen, 20-21 May, 2000.
Bereavement is divided in grief and mourning. Bereavement happens in humans and also in pets. Veterinarians can help people go through this phase by announcing what may happen, and by offering respect and empathy. After a pet dies or disappears, people often acquire a new pet. If they are still in their grieving phase, it may facilitate the development of anxiety in the replacement pet. Veterinarians can also help animals going through bereavement.
The death of a pet will cause a bereavement reaction in the owners or in other pets that used to live with him. What is the bereavement reaction and how can a veterinarian prevent that it becomes complicated or pathological is one subject of this article. The other is to discuss what may happen to a pet that is chosen to replace the former one.
After the loss of a loved one, somebody one is attached to (an attachment individual), everybody goes through a normal bereavement phase. This phase is divided in three sections:
The bereavement phase may be quite similar for the loss of an object or a concept, … for the loss of everything one is attached to. As stated by Quackenbush (1985) the reaction can be divided in:
qGrief: psychological personal reaction
qMourning: social reaction
The grieving individual goes successively through several emotional and mood changes:
q(Hysterical) denial of the loss;
qInteriority phase (sadness);
qIdentification with the lost one / object;
qCulpability phase, guilt of being angry with the loved one or not to have done everything it was possible to do;
qAnger and redirected anger towards the ones who could not save the lost one / object;
qResolution and detachment.
Mourning is the public set of behaviours the people go through for different reasons:
qTo show respect to the lost one / object
qTo follow cultural rituals
qTo facilitate the grief resolution through burial or cremation rituals
qTo smooth the progress of coping
These phases are similar in quality but may differ in intensity for the death or loss of a human parent, for the loss of a pet, for the loss of an object, etc.
Problem bereavements are divided in
The complicated bereavement is a long duration depression disorder (several months to one year) with psychosomatic reactions and suicide attempts. They are accompanied by turbulence in work patterns, social activities and family interactions.
Pathological bereavement leads to long lasting (at least 2 years) mental disorders such as major depressive disorder, bipolar I disorder (hypomanic or manic episode), conversion disorder, etc.
Bereavement has much to do with coping. Coping depends on:
qControl: the way one may be able to control the event that causes stress (stressor).
qFeedback: the way one is informed about the evolution of the stressor, when it is about to begin and end, for example.
qPrediction: an anticipated stressor seems to induce less stress than an un-anticipated one. But anxious individuals may suffer from this anticipation process too. So prediction may induce more or less stress depending on the individual.
qPersonality: a normal, adaptive individual will cope more easily than a dysthymic, anxious or other type of personality disorder.
The coping process may be decisive for the occurrence of normal and complicated (or pathological) bereavement.
Coping reactions may differ depending on the suddenness of the loss.
A sudden loss (detachment) may cause
qDistress (and incapacity to take any decision)
qAcute stress disorder (in case of a traumatic death)
qDenial of the death
qHysterical behavioural reactions
qIdealisation of the dead individual ("dead young princess" syndrome?)
A slow/painful death may set off:
qExhaustion in the surviving individuals
qAnger toward the not yet dead individual and culpability after his death
qRelief (if there is exhaustion in the survivor)
qFacilitation of bereavement (by facilitation of detachment)
qAnticipation and sensitisation in anxious individuals
These reactions are all coping processes that will modify the intensity, duration and outcome of the bereavement process.
We may hypothesise that bereavement reactions will be proportional to attachment and that hyperattachment (dependence) will probably lead to complicated or pathological bereavement.
Attachment is difficult to define. The level of distress reaction one has to suffer when the attachment individual is away has often defined it.
With these definitions in mind, one can understand easily why I hypothesise that:
qThe loss of a primary attachment is worse than the loss of a secondary attachment;
qThe loss of hyperattachment is worse than the loss of attachment.
We can divide the reactions in time: just after the loss and much later. We can also analyse the reaction in adult people and children.
Just after the death of the animal, people are in distress. Their conditionings and habits will not disappear directly and they may
qHear specific noises of the (dead) animal;
qAnticipate to see him;
qBe disorientated at specific times when they were feeding the pet, or walking him;
qHave sudden accesses of tears when thinking about him, or seeing pictures, or the food bowl, or when finding a specific toy under a sofa, …
There are several affective, cognitive and behavioural long-time reactions that may affect bereavement:
qMinimisation of grief by the survivor because "it’s only an animal" . This cognitive reaction may not be congruent with the affective reaction and the affective reaction could be misunderstood and bound to something else. This may not be a problem for veterinarians.
qMinimisation of someone's grief by his or her entourage may facilitate redirected anger toward the present and unconcerned individual (the veterinarian) who tries to do his (her) best to explain things.
qDifficulties in the mourning process because of the lack of ritualised mourning (leaving the pets with the veterinarian, no burial, no incineration, …) .
One may think that a family’s grieving may be easier than a single individual grieving. In fact this may not be an important factor. What matters is the specific attachment that tied the human and the animal. The spontaneous solutions found by the family members may worsen the bereavement of the (hyper) attached individual because of
qlack of recognition of the grieving process.
The death of a pet is not the death of any animal.
Everything may be linked to people's representation process. And in this area, people may lie to themselves and say something they do not really believe. And a veterinarian may gather objective information on the cognitive representation by listening to what people say. If they talk about their pet as "my boy", "my girl", or about themselves as "daddy" or if a child is speaking about his parents as the pet’s "pappy" or "mammy", it may signify they consider the animal as a human-substitute or full-time family member. Pictures of the animal may also help to gather evidence of a human-substitute animal.
If the veterinarian is able to understand the special role this animal has played in the family as a human substitute, he has to accept and be very tolerant about it, even if it is against his (her) own beliefs, representations or ethics. This is an obligation of respect toward the grieving people. It is too late at this moment to change their representation. It would have to be done a long time before the death, in particular through a therapy process.
For a child, a pet can be considered as a transitional object. This is a specific object that has symbolic attachment value and helps the child to go through the transition from attachment to the mother and father to attachment to the rest of the world.
The pet can be the child's best friend and a process of identification may take place.
Grieving for the lost pet becomes a grieving for part of himself that died with the pet.
This is quite perturbing when the pet has been euthanised for behavioural problems, for soiling, for aggression, etc.
The grieving process can be aggravated because of the representation the child is making for the cause of the euthanasia. It is important for the parents to try to get this information out of the child and not to believe that the reason they have given the child was the reason he has understood and believed. The child may possibly make identification with the cause of death and fear death for himself if he shows one day one or several of the behaviours the pet has been euthanised for, for example soiling or aggression.
What can you as a veterinarian do to alleviate the bereavement process in people?
These are just a few examples. I have to remind the reader that it is not the job of a veterinarian to help people go through the bereavement process, but he (she) will not want to appear rude or un-empathetic. Even if only focusing on the subject of the animal, a veterinarian may be helpful because he (she) is in the first line of interaction with the grieving people.
One may ask oneself if animals may suffer from grief and bereavement. Animals do endure loss. One example is the loss of the primary attachment to the mother or foster figure. It causes distress and even anxiety.
Detachment is a normal process in the growing animal.
Do animals have transitional objects?
Everybody has seen dogs or cats walking around or sleeping with special toys, which seem to have appeasing effects. This could be an example of a transitional object. But the best transitional object is the environment in the whole. Attachment to the environment, the house, the special room in which the animal is staying, has an appeasing effect. This is particularly true for the cat who needs a specific organisation of the space and who is quite easily distressed by the smallest change in its surroundings. This space disorganisation may cause as much distress reaction for a cat as the loss of an attachment individual for a dog or for people.
After the loss of an attachment figure (or environment), dogs and cats may go through a phase of
q(catatonic) inhibition (acute stress disorder) and sideration
Distress is a normal, short time reaction characterised by:
qa frantic search for the missing attachment individual
qpanic-attack-like reactions with a preponderance of autonomous signs
qfear- or anxiety-like reactions with a preponderance of behavioural signs (inhibition, escape, aggression, displacement activities)
The slight depression is characterised by objective signs most of the day, nearly every day:
qObservation of an irritable mood or of a depressed mood (low posture, lack of enjoyment,…).
qDiminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities.
qDecrease or increase in appetite, or weight.
qInsomnia or hypersomnia.
qPsychomotor agitation or retardation (inhibition).
qDiminished learning or obedience ability, indecisiveness.
The inhibition reaction is characterised by objective signs most of the day, nearly every day of hypothymia:
qLack of emotional responsiveness, detachment; lack of interest for environmental stimulation and habitual activities.
qHypovigilance, reduction of awareness of his (her) surrounding.
qDecreased appetite or weight loss.
qHypersomnia or lying-down.
qPsychomotor agitation or retardation (inhibition), inhibition of scanning behaviour.
qDiminished response to learning incentives or habitual orders.
This is similar to what Pageat (1997, 1999) described in what he named acute reactive depression.
The same way as pets are socialised to people, people get socialised to animals. These companion animals become a "structural" part of their personal well being. One may say that people are imprinted with their pets. And this picture may really be true.
For such people, replacing a deceased pet is unavoidable. They will have to do it sooner or later.
And the veterinarian may face three situations:
The owner creates a new relationship with the new pet. This is new in all the different registers of communication (behaviour, emotion, cognition). He may be compared to the lost pet (owners do learn from their experience), but it does not affect the emotional relationship. It may affect the teaching competence of the owners and their social organisation. But even if the pet is considered a member of the family, he is not associated to the lost pet in the owner’s affects and cognitions.
When the owner purchases a new pet during the bereavement period, he (she) may transfer part of the lost attachment to the new pet that acquires several identification elements from the lost pet. This new pet plays the role of a transitional object. As all transitional objects he may be discarded or kept after the detachment has occurred and the new attachment has taken place. Often, it is kept as the new attachment figure. The new pet can help speed up the process of bereavement. That is why he is called a repairing or therapeutic entity.
When the owner purchases a new pet during problem bereavement, he (she) may transfer part or all of the lost attachment to the new pet that acquires several identification elements from the lost pet. The new pet is compared to the lost one. In the owner's representation, the dead pet has lost all of his defects and has kept only qualities; he is worshipped. It is quite impossible for the new pet to get level with the dead one. The new dog (a real dog is no competition for a worshipped dead animal) is faced with love and rejection messages. Therefore, the replacement pet is submitted to incongruent messages from his owner(s). This has been named the "double bind" by the Palo Alto school of systemic (family) therapy .
The replacement pet disorder is characterised by the following:
qSigns of anxiety.
qAn acquisition to replace a lost or dead dog who is overvalued and for whom the bereavement has not been completed .
qThe dog is attached to his owner(s) and submitted to a double bind.
qAccessory symptoms: high frequency of active or passive submissive postures and behaviours shown by the dog to the owner; high frequency of autonomous signs or organic disorders.
The replacement dog is often named after the lost dog.
The disorder may remain unchanged or may lead to chronic psychosomatic disturbances. The dog may improve
qwhen the owner’s mourning is improved or completed,
qif the foster family has many members.
The treatment strategy keeps two facts in mind:
qalleviating the animal's anxiety disorder;
qre-establishing congruent communications between the owner and pet.
This is more easily said than done.
The medication for a dog with such a disorder will depend on the symptoms, not on the diagnosis. Drugs like selegiline, sertraline, fluvoxamine, etc. could all be effective depending on the symptoms.
Re-establishing congruent communications is another matter entirely. This is human psychotherapy. It is not easy to change people's beliefs and representations during bereavement, especially during problem bereavement. One way to do it is to make people recognize and dissociate the three registers of communication: behaviour, emotion, and cognition. They cannot change anything about the emotions and representations about the dead pet. However, they can do something about the communication (behaviour) with the new pet. For example:
q"you have the right to be distressed and sad about the loss of your pet, and you are right to grieve for him. Not to grieve for him would be un-respectful towards him. But here you have a new dog (cat) that does not have anything to do with your lost beloved pet. Both animals need your respect and your love, this one needs also to be cared for."
q"This pet is not as pretty as the lost one. And he will never be. You will never forget your lost pet. Don’t even think you can forget him. No way. This pet is not as intelligent. That’s right. But all he wants is to get some of your attention, of your care and your love. Even if you like him, you’ll never forget your loving deceased pet."
This is a systemic intercession.
The systemic paradigm theorises that communication does not take place in an action-reaction dyadic mode but in a circular mode. Any intervention is not focused on a specific individual but on the interactions inside a group.
In the replacement pet syndrome, the owner, the new pet and the lost pet constitute the group. This is a way to implement a triadic relationship. It recognizes the (affective) existence of the lost pet and the reality of the new pet. They are not superimposed anymore, but differentiate. The owner is not denied his current affective relation with the lost pet. And saying it loudly – writing it down - gives it a reality. The owner does not have to conceal his (hidden) feelings anymore. He can still love the lost pet and begin to like (or love) the new animal, as a different individual.
The easiest way for a veterinarian to do a systemic intercession is to write down or prescribe what the owner is already doing but reframing it in a prescriptive way or as a requirement. For example:
q"I am a veterinarian and I am not a psychologist. But I think that you are still grieving X (the lost pet) and only time will help you go through it"
q"you have to continue to love and cherish the lost pet and think about him at least several times a day; when you remember him, please do think only about him and nothing else"
q"you have to walk the new pet and think only about him at that moment; if your mind is wandering elsewhere or on other subjects, please make only short walks"
Insist on the characterisation of the differences between both animals without a qualitative comparison or a judging assessment. One is not better, quieter, taller, … than the other. The lost pet was quiet, the new one is active. The lost pet was 5 years old, the new pet is 5 months old. The lost pet was eating carefully, the new pet is eating ravenously. For example:
q"when you feed the new pet, try to observe how he eats, and to figure out what are the differences between him and the lost pet"
q"This is a sheet of paper divided in two columns. In the left one, you write what the new pet is doing. In the right one, write what X (the lost pet) was doing in the same circumstances. Then, on reading the left column, determine what you like and you do not like. We will work to improve which behaviour you do not like"
The techniques described here are widespread in several human psychotherapies. The specificity of the systemic intervention is the focus on the system.
There are different levels of intervention for a veterinarian confronted with the psychological disturbances caused by the death or the loss of a cherished pet.
qUnderstanding the psychological forces behind the owners' behaviours
qAnnouncing bereavement following a pet loss
qShowing empathy with the people having suffered a loss
qPrevent the replacement pet disorder by counselling the owner when he (she) wants to replace the lost pet, by speaking about the repairing and the replacement pet
qSymptomatically treat the replacement pet disorder
qMake a systemic intercession to try to help the system in which appeared the replacement pet disorder
Beata C., 1995. The replacement dog syndrome. FECAVA, Brussels, 28 Oct., pp. 225-226.
Dehasse J. 1996. Chiens hors du commun. Le Jour, éditeur, Montréal.
Dehasse J. 1998. L’éducation du chien. Le Jour, éditeur, Montréal.
Larousse. 1999. Grand dictionnaire de la psychologie. Larousse-Bordas. P. 264.
Quackenbush J. 1985. The death of a pet. Symposium on human-companion animal bond. The Veterinary Clinics of North America, 15 (2) 395-402.
Attachment, bereavement, coping, detachment, grief, hyperattachment, mourning, replacement pet.