Why Losing a Pet Can Be Like Losing Family

Posted on August 11, 2016 by Susan Otten, ABC, SCMP, MBA

Updated June 18, 2020

Bubbles-in-hospitalRecently, our 3.2 pound teeny tiny Toy Poodle, Bubbles, had to be rushed to the Vet ER. In a panic, I left work with visions of making the tough decision to put her to sleep. Our family pet, or as my daughter likes to call her, our smallest family member, has been a precious addition to our home for over  11 years, providing more joy and laughter and companionship than any of us could have imagined.

This made me think about the impact her inevitable passing will have on our family. And then I wondered, is my dread “normal?” Certainly others in our same situation also worry. How can we help ease the real pain of a pet’s passing?

Who would you save?

Consider this hypothetical: a bus is about to hit another person and your dog. You can only save one of the two. Which one will it be? This question was asked by Topolski and company in their study, Choosing between the Emotional Dog and the Rational Pal. The answers given by those surveyed depended on the nature of the relationship to the person:

  • Foreign tourist – 40% chance dog would be saved
  • Hometown strangers a little better – 35% chance dog would win
  • Distant cousin – 24% chance dog would be saved
  • Grandparents & siblings – only 3% would lose out to the dog

For these groups, I don’t know if those losing out to the dog is a commentary on the people or the dog! These are the results of the final decision made by respondents; I suspect a number of those choosing to save the humans had to think about it for more than a moment. They probably wished the bus was traveling slowly on a crowded city street!

The relationship we have with our pets can be incredibly strong and their loss can feel devastating.

Alvin Chang writes of his experience losing his dog in an article for VOX.  His loss affected him more than he thought it would, and like so many others’ who commented on their own pets, Chang came to feel like he lost a family member. Being curious about this, he turned to the research. Chang cites the history of our relationship with dogs, starting with humans cooperating with wolves in big game hunting 33,000 years ago, through the evolving symbiotic relationships as working animals to modern day pets. Today 6 in 10 Americans own a pet and many find them to be more supportive than humans.


You’ll be happy to know Bubbles has recovered, is doing nicely on new meds and we’re hoping to have many more happy years with her. For those suffering the loss, or the impending loss of a pet – or for the curious, the following websites offer great information and support:

We Can Help

If you or a family member finds themselves dealing with grief, we can help by connecting you to a counselor who understands your situation and provide support. To access your EAP resources, contact us at 800.383.1908 or through the VITAL WorkLife App

Source: Topolski, R., Nicole Weaver, J., Martin, Z., & McCoy, J. (2013). Choosing between the emotional dog and the rational pal: A moral dilemma with a tail. Anthrozoos, 26(2), 253-263. DOI: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175303713X13636846944321

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