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Pet owners have to employ coping strategies to buffer them through the trauma of euthanizing their pets. A new study reveals—on a grand scale—how they seek comfort.
The tragic mismatch between the lifespans of animals and their people usually means that even the deepest bonds are inevitably broken by euthanasia. While human death is attended by many shared social rituals, from memorial services and bereavement leave to sympathy cards and casseroles, companion animal loss lacks such communal rituals.1
Grieving pet owners have a compromised support system if family and friends fail to understand the significance of their loss.2 These experiences tend to invalidate their grief and incite fear of being judged.3
Companion animal owners may opt to end a pet’s life because of painful and/or severe, untreatable conditions. While the usual method of euthanasia—barbiturate overdose—offers a quick and painless death,4 the decision to euthanize is one that can wreak guilt and complicate grieving.
Some bereaved owners have reported physical symptoms, including sleep disturbances, trembling, dizziness, and gastrointestinal distress,5 as well as psychological issues ranging from anxiety to depression.
Prior studies have shown that social support can come from key people in the owner’s life or from alternative lifelines, such as counseling, support groups, support hotlines, and veterinarians.1,6 But this research is hobbled by limited scope, incorporating mostly female recruits, single clinics, and narrow geographic ranges.
Utilizing Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk), a crowdsourcing marketplace offering the potential to recruit a socioeconomically and culturally diverse sample of companion animal owners with euthanasia experience, investigators at North Carolina State University’s Department of Clinical Sciences obtained a sample of 800 mTurk participants identifying as companion animal owners with a target margin of error within 3.5%. All participants were at least 18 years old and legal residents of the United States. Each received a nominal fee for completing an online survey.
The questionnaire began with a qualifying item: “Have you ever had to euthanize a pet?” Those who answered “no” were excluded from analysis. Those who responded “yes” were then asked, “How were you able to find comfort after your loss?” and prompted to select among listed strategies informed by research literature5:
About 93% of participants in the recently published study were white, some 70% were 21 to 40 years old, and the male:female ratio was 57%:43%.7
A total of 340 (42.5%) of the 800 participants reported having euthanized a companion animal. Of these, most (74.7%) said they had mourned privately. About 58% sought support from family and friends. One-third acquired a new pet. Much lesser numbers disclosed having turned to faith (12.4%) or support groups (0.9%).
Twenty-two (6.5%) respondents selected “other” among their coping strategies. Asked to specify, they gave the following answers: found no comfort, did not seek comfort, did not need comfort, alcohol, acceptance of death, distracting self, increased interactions with other family pets, volunteered at animal shelter, memorialized pet, cathartic crying, reflected on joy animal brought to household, reflected on animal’s relief from suffering, read book about pet loss.
No statistically significant response patterns based on demographic criteria were identified.
In this first study to estimate a national rate for companion animal euthanasia, 43% of pet owners reported experience with euthanizing a pet. With 68 million pet-owning households in the United States, this rate translates to many Americans being impacted by euthanasia.
Nearly 75% of participants said they mourned the experience privately; less than 60% of those surveyed sought support from family and friends. This mismatch tells a story of disenfranchised grief, consistent with smaller-scale findings that have demonstrated the tendency of bereaved companion animal owners to practice emotional distancing and social isolation.8
Social constraints could be a factor in the choice to mourn privately: Companion animal owners have previously expressed fear of sharing their grief with others who might not understand their pain.5 But the present findings are alarming because internalized grief by bereaved pet owners has been associated with depression, increased stress, and poor physical health.2
Fortunately, over half of those who have dealt with euthanasia worked through their grief with loved ones. This coping strategy is a strong predictor of positive psychosocial outcomes following loss.9
Almost one-third of participants noted that they had adopted a new pet following their loss. The study did not specify a time interval following the death, but doing so would likely change the numbers. An earlier study investigating coping strategies during the 2- to 3-week period following canine euthanasia found that only 14% had acquired a new companion animal.5 Certainly, grieving owners can find comfort in companionship and the act of caring for another pet.
Prayer and spirituality were not go-to indulgences for the study subjects, although they have played a more prominent role in previous studies looking at ways in which people cope with pet loss.10,11 The diminished rate of the present study—just over 1 in 10—likely reflects its younger demographics.
Support groups took a strong back seat, despite the fact that veterinarians commonly recommend them to owners putting down pets.10 This is something of a contradiction, given that bereaved pet owners report reluctance to share their grief for fear that others cannot empathize with them, yet rarely take advantage of forums in which to grieve with others who can relate to their loss.
The findings in this investigation are likely generalizable, given the ample size, representative gender split of subjects, and diverse blend of ages, socioeconomic groups, and geographic regions. Additionally, the time interval since euthanasia was open-ended, leading to responses that incorporate coping tools used throughout the different grief stages.
The study is, however, limited by subject selection bias. It also lacked racial/ethnic diversity. Finally, the investigators did not collect information regarding companion animal demographics and such euthanasia factors as reasoning, time elapsed since euthanasia, and person responsible for euthanasia decision. These data are needed to assess whether coping styles are linked to grief resulting from the euthanasia decision or from the loss itself.
Regardless, the results suggest that most people whose pets are euthanized mourn privately. When not combined with other coping mechanisms, this may foster a cycle of isolation at a time when social support is crucial. Future studies might explore the reasons why people are drawn to this and other coping styles.
The findings herein suggest that bereaved pet owners might benefit from additional social support, via support groups, counseling, and hotlines, and that veterinary practices might incorporate these tools into standard practice for euthanasia clients.
Joan Capuzzi, VMD, is a small animal veterinarian and journalist based in the Philadelphia area.
1. Erdman P, Ruby K. Grieving Pet Loss: The Unique Experience of Bereaved Pet Owners. In: Kogan L, Erman P, eds. Pet Loss, Grief, and Therapeutic Interventions: Practitioners Navigating the Human-Animal Bond. Routledge; 2019:267-280.
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11. Lee SA. Religion and pet loss: Afterlife beliefs, religious coping, prayer and their associations with sorrow. Br J Guid Couns. 2016;44:123-129. doi:10.1080/03069885.2015.1043236