When our cherished pet is no longer in our lives it can be devastating, whether you are coping with the loss of a cat, the loss of a dog, or indeed any other pet. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone.
The loss of a pet is an incredibly sad time for owners. Whether they pass away naturally or are put to sleep at the vets, it’s always a stressful and upsetting time. If your pet has been unwell, or is very old and naturally approaching the end of their life, you may already have plans in place for their eventual passing. However, even the best-laid plans can be disrupted by external factors or by grief. If you’re struggling with the loss of a dog or cat in the immediate aftermath, always ask for help from a friend, family member or veterinary professional.
What often adds to the trauma of the death of a pet is the uncertainty of how to handle their remains. Take some of the stress out of this period with this comprehensive guide on what to do when your pet dies and how to cope with the loss of a pet.
What happens when a pet dies naturally?
We usually associate the death of a pet with them being put to sleep at a veterinary surgery. But what happens when a pet dies naturally at home?
If your pet dies at home, it may be difficult to handle their remains. You may wish to call your vet or another professional service, such as a company that can assist with disposal. Remember that such services may not be available on weekends or during national holidays.
Following the death of a pet, their body may still show signs of what can look like life, such as the following:
- Twitching, as a result of natural nerve spasms after death.
- The release of air from the mouth when moved.
- The release of bodily fluids and gas.
These can all be quite upsetting for owners to witness, especially if they aren’t expecting them. They aren’t, sadly, signs that your pet is coming back to life. They are simply the natural bodily functions and what happens when a cat or dog dies naturally.
What to do when your cat or dog dies
When handling remains, always wear gloves and thoroughly clean any area that has been touched by the animal, as well as thoroughly cleaning any fluids that may have been spilt. It’s important to limit the spread of germs in the immediate aftermath.
You may wish to leave your pet at home for a few hours before organising a dead dog or cat disposal; in which case, ensure that the body is left in a cool room, for no longer than 24 hours. Be aware that rigor mortis—the stiffening of joints after death—will begin to set in after around three to four hours.
Dealing with a cat or dog death: the options
Your local vet will be well placed to deal with cat and dog death and handling their remains, and if you wish for it to be handled by them simply place a call as soon as possible. Your vet should then be able to organise the collection and subsequent burial or cremation, according to your preference.
Grieving a pet
What to do when your pet dies is just the beginning of a process that can be very difficult for pet owners. For many, the passing of a beloved pet is similar to the death of a friend or family member and you should always seek support if needed.
Grieving a pet is always difficult, but there are certain things you can do to help you and your family get through the loss of a cat or dog.
Create a memorial after the loss of a pet
You might find that creating a memorial for your pet helps, like holding a small remembrance service in your garden or planting a tree or plant, either where your pet is buried, or in a favourite spot. This can also help children cope with the loss of a pet, as they watch the tree grow and blossom and remember their pet.
When coping with the loss of a pet, try to acknowledge and explain your cat or dog’s death to children in age-appropriate terms, whilst avoiding confusing euphemisms or underplaying the gravity of the situation.
Most children appreciate honesty and will benefit in the long term from not being misled. Losing a pet can be a confusing time for children who are used to having their pet around them. In light of this, it’s always more constructive to avoid terms such as ‘gone away’ or ‘sleeping’, in case they build false expectations rather than accept the reality of having to saying goodbye.
Share your feelings
Don’t be shy about sharing how you feel. Opening up to someone who has been through the same thing can be a great comfort after the death of a pet. If you’d rather not talk to someone you know, there are a number of grief support services available in NZ found here.
Grief Support Services, like the Grief Centre NZ are there to counsel and listen to those coping with a loss, such as that of a pet. There are also many resources on the internet that talk through how to cope with the loss of a pet.
Support when you need it
It’s perfectly normal to grieve and feel upset when coping with the loss of your pet. You have just had to say goodbye to a much-loved member of your family. If you feel very depressed, you should talk to people who understand what you’re going through. Contact your GP or phone Helpline (if you're based in NZ) on 0800 543 354 or send a text to HELP (4357) for free, 24/7, confidential support – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The most important thing to remember is that even though you’re going through a difficult time, things will get better – and you’ll be left with countless happy memories of the great times you shared with your pet. For more help on saying goodbye to your dog or handling the loss of your cat take a look at our Purina article hub.
When to get a new pet
There’s no need to rush into getting a new pet after your loss. It is natural when you are coping with the loss of your pet to want to fill that ‘empty’ space, but it might not help. In fact, it’s a better idea to give yourself time to fully recover and obtain some closure. If you still feel the loss of your previous pet it could detract from what should be the start of a beautiful new relationship, a time when you and your new friend should be having fun getting to know one another. Pet bereavement will overshadow the happiness of meeting a new puppy or dog, just as the loss of a cat makes it harder to immediately choose a new kitten or adopt a new cat.
All in all, just remember that it's normal to feel racked by grief after the loss of a pet but there is help and support available to you whenever you need it.