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Animals, varying in breeds, have been shown to be effective in helping a multitude of differing mental health problems, including trauma (Hunt & Chizkov, 2014), autism (Berry, Borgi, Francia, Alleva, & Cirulli, 2013), anxiety (Cortes, 2018), depression (Souter & Miller, 2007), chronic pain (Bradley & Bennett, 2015), and aphasia (Macauley, 2006). While many people may think of dogs when discussing animals being utilized as support, other types of animals have been documented as helpful aids, such as dolphins (Dashnaw Stiles, 2001), horses (Gibbons & Poelker, 2015), cats, and birds (Dimitrijević, 2009). Pets are often considered family members and humanized, which strengthens an attachment between pets and pet owners (Zottarelli, 2010). Whether the animal is a dog or a peacock, research shows that the human-animal bond is one that affects humans emotionally and mentally (Friedmann & Son, 2009).

Though discussion of the benefits of pet companionship is widely discussed, there is less information regarding pet loss, specifically traumatic pet loss. Traumatic grief is distinct in that the presentation of a person who experiences loss is met with significant separation distress as a result of the death of a loved one (Jacobs, Mazure, & Prigerson, 2000). The definition of trauma is not concrete and does not describe one type of event; trauma is subjective and is variably based on each individuals’ experience to an event. A traumatic event, such as physical abuse or natural disaster, does not always result in someone developing posttraumatic stress disorder, instead, a person’s emotional experience of the trauma determines the long-term effects (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2014). Therefore, the loss of a pet can be interpreted by an individual as traumatic, similar to the loss of a family member, and breaking the human-animal bond.

What is Traumatic Pet Loss?

Traumatic pet loss, like trauma itself, does not have a widely-agreed upon meaning and can be interpreted differently by each person. Traumatic pet loss examples include unexpected death of a pet, forced abandonment of a pet, loss of a long-term companion pet. The examples of traumatic pet loss are not limited to the ones described, and vary based on the perception of the pet loss by each individual. While people respond to loss differently, the level of grief an individual experiences will depend on characteristics such as age and personality, the age of the pet, and the circumstances of their death.

A well-known type of traumatic pet loss is the loss of a pet during a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. During natural disasters, many pet owners are forced to abandon their pets in order to escape the oncoming catastrophe or lose their pets in the evacuation process. Research has shown that pet loss during Hurricane Katrina was associated with an increase in psychopathology, even when the trauma of being displaced from their homes was considered (Hunt, Al-Awadi, & Johnson, 2008). Another factor considered in traumatic pet loss during Hurricane Katrine was forced abandonment. One study showed that forced abandonment of a pet during evacuation intensifies the existing trauma, which increases the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (Hunt et al., 2008). Throughout the grief process, especially when associated with having to make an unexpected decision (euthanasia, accident, or abandonment), grieving pet owners place massive amounts of guilt upon themselves.

Pet owners who experience traumatic pet loss can experience significant difficulties with guilt and marginalization (Russell, 2015). According to Adrian and Stitt (2017), individuals who viewed their pets with higher empathy are those most at risk of developing complicated grief. The emotional distress from traumatic pet loss can result in depressive symptoms, interference with day-to-day activities, etc., which can increase the chances of the grief evolving into complicated bereavement (Zottarelli, 2010). According to Zottarelli (2010), the population most likely at risk for complicated bereavement as the result of a pet loss are White middle-aged women with a lack of social resources.

The traumatic loss of a pet results in a broken attachment. Humans exhibit attachment behaviors in order to “initiate and maintain proximity to affectional figures for protection and survival,” (Sable, 2013, p. 95).  Dogs also exhibit these attachment behaviors, such as greeting humans upon arrival home, wanting to play fetch, etc., which reinforces a pet owner’s feeling of being needed and wanting to take care of a pet (Sable, 2013).

Animals are helpful in repairing disrupted attachments, one advantage of animal assisted therapy (Sable, 2013). Unfortunately,  the loss of a pet can cause the attachment between a pet owner and their animal to become disrupted and cause suffering (Brown & Symons, 2016). Treatment for traumatic pet loss may need the integration of attachment theory in order to help people repair what has been broken.

Psychotherapy and Traumatic Pet Loss

Pet loss treatment research is in its early stages and little research on intervention effectiveness for traumatic pet loss has been conducted (Russell, 2015). However, psychotherapy recommendations for traumatic pet loss include complicated grief therapy and a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy. Complicated grief therapy, while not evidence based for traumatic pet loss, may be a viable option for treatment. This approach integrates attachment theory and has roots in both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) (Wetherell, 2012). The combination of IPT and CBT allows for CBT to manage the maladaptive cognitions and for IPT to pay attention to the grief as it is one of the four interpersonal areas of focus. There is a need for further research on traumatic pet loss and therapeutic intervention. In addition to therapeutic interventions, positive social support can aid in facilitating positive outcomes after grief, including posttraumatic growth. By providing an outlet for disclosure of trauma related memories, thoughts, and emotions the interactions open the door for support and feedback from others and stimulates dialectical thinking about the meaning of one’s experiences (What’s Your Grief, 2017).

Experiencing Posttraumatic Growth from Pet Loss

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is described as the positive emotional and behavioral changes following a traumatic experience (Packman, Bussolari, Katz, Carmack, & Field, 2017). Growth through suffering and trauma is not a new concept. Early Christians, Greeks, poets, as well as teachings from Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism promote the idea that loss and suffering contain elements of eventual transformation (Neimeyer & Young-Eisendrath, 2019). Through coping with death of a loved one, individuals learn lessons about themselves, the world, and others.  By facing the reality of loss, a person may discover flaws in their previous assumptions and thus determine the need to refine their beliefs and understanding accordingly. Many individuals who have grieved for their pets have reported changes in their fundamental world views about compassion, personal strength, appreciation for life, and spiritual growth (Colleir, 2016).


There is an abundance of research on the physical and mental benefits of having a pet and/or utilizing an animal in therapy. However, the loss of that companion can be devastating and traumatic. Humans develop a lasting attachment with their pets, which breaks at the loss of the pet. Regardless of the manner of death, a pet owner may perceive the death as traumatic and experience distress or exhibit posttraumatic stress symptoms. Seeking psychotherapy for pet loss can help to alleviate the distress and process the complicated grief. Growth following a trauma allows individuals to find new understanding about themselves and the world. The loss of a beloved pet cannot be replaced, but rather humans can develop undiscovered meaning in light of a tragedy.

Kourtney Schroeder received her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Nova Southeastern University. She graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a minor in Women’s Studies. Kourtney completed her pre-doctoral internship at Community Healthlink Youth and Family Services. Kourtney is currently a Behavioral Health Fellow at Ascension St. Vincent’s Family Medicine Center Residency Program. She is the Internet Editor (2020-2022) for APA’s Division 29 (Psychotherapy) website. She was previously the Associate Editor of Website Content (2017-2020).

Cite This Article

Schroeder, K. L. & Clark, S. W. (2019, December). Traumatic pet loss. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/traumatic-pet-loss/


Adrian, J. A. L., & Stitt, A. (2017). Pet loss, complicated grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder in Hawaii. Anthrozoös, 30(1), 123-133. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.1080/08927936.2017.1270598

Berry, A., Borgi, M., Francia, N., Alleva, E., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review of the current evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine19(2), 73-80.

Bradley, L., & Bennett, P. C. (2015). Companion-animals’ effectiveness in managing chronic pain in adult community members. Anthrozoös28(4), 635-647.

Brown, O. K., & Symons, D. K. (2016). “My pet has passed”: Relations of adult attachment styles and current feelings of grief and trauma after the event. Death Studies, 40(4), 247-255. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.1080/07481187.2015.1128499

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2014). Chapter 3, understanding the impact of trauma. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, 57th edition, Centre for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US), Rockville, MD.

Collier, L. (2016). Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.aspx

Cortes, E. C. (2018). Animal-assisted activity in the workplace: An experimental examination of the effectiveness of therapy dog presence as a way to decrease the stress levels of employees in Mexico. Elide.

Dashnaw Stiles, L. A. (2001). Animal-assisted therapy with children and the elderly: A critical review (Order No. AAI3014937). Available from PsycINFO. (619713344; 2001-95022-145). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/docview/619713344?accountid=6579

Dimitrijević, I. (2009). Animal-Assisted Therapy–A new trend in the treatment of children and adults. Psychiatria Danubina21(2), 236-241.

Friedmann, E., & Son, H. (2009). The human-companion animal bond: How humans benefit. The Veterinary Clinics of North America Small Animal Practice, 39(2), 293-326. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.10.015

Gibbons, J. L., & Poelker, K. E. (2015). “I wish people had ears like horses”: Horses as therapists. PsycCRITIQUES, 60(44) doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.1037/a0039868

Hunt, M., Al-Awadi, H., & Johnson, M. (2008). Psychological sequelae of pet loss following Hurricane Katrina. Anthrozoös, 21(2), 109-121. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.2752/175303708X305765

Hunt, M. G., & Chizkov, R. R. (2014). Are therapy dogs like Xanax? Does animal-assisted therapy impact processes relevant to cognitive behavioral psychotherapy?. Anthrozoös27(3), 457-469.

Jacobs, S., Mazure, C., Prigerson, H. (2000). Diagnostic criteria for traumatic grief. Death Studies24(3), 185-199.

Macauley, B. L. (2006). Animal-assisted therapy for persons with aphasia: A pilot study. Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development43(3), 357.

Neimeyer, R. A., & Young-Eisendrath, P. (2015). Assessing a Buddhist treatment for bereavement and loss: The Mustard Seed Project. Death Studies39(5), 263-273.

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Russell, V. (2015). Complicated grief therapy in pet loss: A clinical case study (Order No. 10001960). Available from ProQuest One Academic. (1758624224). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/docview/1758624224?accountid=6579

Sable, P. (2013). The pet connection: An attachment perspective. Clinical Social Work Journal, 41(1), 93-99. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxylocal.library.nova.edu/10.1007/s10615-012-0405-2

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  1. Grecia

    I’m so grateful for this article, thank you. I lost my little man of 15 years unexpectedly to cancer about a month ago and it seems to get harder every day. Some days it feels like I’m losing my mind, this is helpful.

    • Debra

      I also lost my little girl of 15 years just before Xmas and I feel the same. It’s very difficult. I empathise with you. It’s so hard on the emotional system when you cry every day for months. I’m on some sort of emotional roller coaster. I feel “mad with grief” and wonder if folks do literally insane with the loss and grief. I’ve found that asking a trip away is a good distraction for a time. Although when you arrive back home the grief hits hard again and then you look for another distraction. I’ve put my apartment on the market and involved in selling and moving to a completely different State to start over a new life. But I don’t think I will ever get over the loss but there is also a gratitude. A gratitude for the immeasurable gift she was in my life for all those years. One of the most important, dearest friends in my whole life. I am crying also from gratitude and the humility of being given such a precious gift in this life ✨💎🩵🙏🏽

  2. Toby Turner

    This was very helpful for encouraging resources. Combining CBT with PT seem appropriate for my needs Three months following the death of my little 7 year old wheaten terrier with euthanasia 3 weeks after its presentation and diagnosis by primary vet and specialists I am concerned this tragedy will create complicated grief. Already I am evidencing some PTSD. She was my life and so now life is missing for me. I need to find a path forward. This is my comment. I hope it is in some way useful to you and your research. Thank you for what you offer.

  3. Bob

    Thank-you for this. At this time I am going through a very difficult time. I lost my dog…my best friend.

  4. Amber

    I am devastating because of my cat death but your article help me to relax to some extent
    Thank you

  5. Stuart Armor

    Thank you. I am looking forward to a Tele health appointment next week. It’s 37 days since “Marie’s” passing and I am still in the “shock” phase. I am a disability recipient and was with Marie all of the time, the longest she was away from me was 9 hours in 13 magical years. I sleep with her box of ashes every night. I feel a strange sense of freedom which is disturbing because it sounds wrong. I feel I’m doing well and am not rushing the process. Thank you, be well, Stu and Marie ❤️

  6. Jill Goddard

    We want to adopt a kitten (we just lost our cat 2 mos ago of 13 yrs). The thought of losing another pet is so traumatic. How do we overcome the anxiety, nervousness and behind so scared of losing another pet?
    Thank you

  7. Debra Melillo

    My sister and brother in-law lost their beloved dog of 12 year’s and there cat the same day.The cat went up to the dog stif him and went in the kitchen and laid down and died.They are so hurt and so am I.Spanky was a great dog.And Samantha the cat was only a year old.

  8. Sherry

    Thank you for the article . I lost an 8 year old German Shepherd who was just the most wonderful dog and my companion due to blood cancer that attacked his heart . He was there , and then suddenly he was panting and seemed lethargic . The vet came in crying but only the radiologist could read the X-ray “officially”. That night we were told the results and we went to the ER where they said it would be cruel not to put him down . Then 4 months later my other good boy German Shepherd had to put down due to DM (like als for dogs) . Our entire family , grown kids , were so sad and I have not been able to bounce back . We have adopted another lovely dog and I am starting to feel some “relief “ but I think about them everyday. I am in therapy (cbt and talking to a psychiatrist for different views but I can’t imagine losing a human being . How do people cope ? I have been told a breath at a time which helped .


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