Monday, July 7, 2014

Supporting older owners through bereavement following pet loss

Pets with older people need support, and may need even more support when it comes to pet loss.
Older people with pets need support.

One of the most common and tragic reasons that older people decide not to get a pet is that the grief of losing a pet can be overwhelming. Sometimes when people lose a pet they say to me “I will never get another animal, it’s too heartbreaking”. That breaks my heart because usually these people are the most caring, wonderful owners – but I do understand that losing an animal can be extremely painful.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to meet Adele Mapperson, the chaplain at the Lort Smith Animal Hospital (you can read about her services here). Adele is an incredible person, her role is a very important acknowledgement by the Lort Smith of how important support is around animal loss. The support is offered to everyone and is not denominational.

I met Adele briefly and interviewed her for The Veterinarian Magazine, after which I started researching the topic in more depth. Veterinarians witness a lot of grief, but it may only be the tip of the iceberg.

A US study involving 177 clients across 14 practices found that 30 per cent of pet owners experienced severe grief around the loss of their pet, with reactions characterised by insomnia, loss of appetite and “feeling like something died within them” (Adams et al 2000). That grief remained fairly consistent for around 6 weeks after the death of a pet.

Another study of 106 owners from a single veterinary clinic found that subclinical levels of grief and sadness lasted for six months or more in 30 per cent of people following the loss of a pet (Adrian et al 2009).

For older people the feelings may hit harder for a number of reasons, including loss of companionship and a percieved loss of social support around pet care (for example, the people you meet when you walk your dog, the groomers and vets you may chat to).

Veterinarian, lecturer, intern mentor-scheme director and pet bereavement counsellor David Foote will be giving a lecture on “Supporting older pet owners through pet bereavement” on 5 November 2014 at the ACT Legislative Assembly. The session will be hosted by the Patron of Pets and Positive Aging Inc, Mary Porter AM MLA.

The session will run from 10am to 1pm at the Reception Room of the Legislative Assembly Building in the Civic Square in Canberra. Please RSVP by 30 October 2014 to

There will be plenty of opportunity for questions and answers as well as an introduction and closing session by the wonderful Jan Phillips, President of Pets and Positive Aging Inc. In the meantime, its a good reminder to offer support to anyone you know who has lost a pet. A thoughtful card, a cup of tea, a call to check in - something to acknowledge their loss and let them know you are there can make a lot of difference.

PS you can read about the great work done by Di Johnstone here and Jan Phillips here.


Adams CL, Bonnett BN & Meek AH (2000) Predictors of owner response to companion animal death in 177 clients from 14 practices in Ontario. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217(9):1303-1309.

Adrian JAL, Deliramich AN & Fruch BC (2009) Complicated grief and posttraumatic stress disorder in humans’ response to the death of pets/animals. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 73(3):176-187).