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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).

Conclusion

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.

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Cite This Article

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

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