Grieving a therapy or assistance animal

As part of our series of blogs looking at pet bereavement issues related to therapy animals and assistance pets, this week we’re exploring the impact of grieving for a therapy pet.

What are therapy or assistance pets?

Therapy and assistance/service pets are animals that have been specially trained or chosen for their ability to provide either emotional or practical support to humans.

Assistance or service pets will usually live at home with the person they help, whereas animals that are part of an Animal-Assisted Therapy service will live with the therapist but may go out to care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, etc. and interact with many different people to support their mental health and wellbeing.

In either scenario, the death of one of these special companions can be absolutely devastating.

The role of assistance animals

There are many different schools of thought about bereavement. One is that our feelings of pet loss grief are heavily influenced by three key factors:

  • The role the pet played in our lives
  • How they died
  • What else is happening or has happened in your life, particularly in terms of other losses both human and animal

With therapy pets, the role they play in our lives is extremely significant.

To any pet lover, animals are companions, protectors, assistants, and a bridge that connects us to other people. They can even fulfil the role of a family member or significant other.

But these roles are potentially more pronounced for people with assistance or therapy animals who may rely on their animal companion to get through every day.

And, equally, Individuals who work with therapy animals build their personal and professional lives around their animal companions, which can challenge their whole way of life – and career – if their companion passes away suddenly.

A life-changing, sometimes life-saving relationship

Some assistance pets are quite literally life savers – for example, a ‘seizure dog’ may be able to tell when someone with epilepsy is about to have a seizure and get them to safety before it happens or they may be able to raise an alarm during the seizure or protect their handler from injury.

Some seizure dogs are trained to safeguard children with epilepsy by alerting the parents to an oncoming seizure. The peace of mind that comes with sharing your life with an animal like this is incredible.

Assistance and therapy pets give people independence, a better quality of life, and improved mental health. They’ve been shown to transform the lives of some of society’s most marginalised groups – people with disabilities, looked after children, individuals with psychiatric problems, and prisoners.

Dogs, in particular, tend to give their handlers more opportunities for social interactions, which can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.

And the joy of all animals is that they’re completely non-judgemental – they don’t care if you have seizures, use a wheelchair, have panic attacks, etc. They just accept you as you are – if only more humans could do the same!

Studies have even found that assistance or therapy pets of all shapes and sizes give their carers a greater chance of surviving a heart attack or living with cardiovascular disease. We’re not just talking about dogs here and handlers who might be fitter because of daily walks – any species can make their human’s heart healthier!

These special animals are truly life changing.

And that, of course, makes saying goodbye so much harder.

Filling the void

The loss of a therapy pet can be particularly confusing and hard to process. Many pet carers struggle with whether or not they should get – or, indeed, whether they’re ready for – a new pet. But for someone who is supported by an assistance animal, the issue may be a lot more pressing.

Whether they’re emotionally ready or not, the person may need another animal companion to maintain their quality of life. This can lead to feelings of guilt and worry that they’re treating their old pet as dispensable and interchangeable with the new one.

And, of course, suitable therapy pets don’t appear from thin air. An animal with a suitable temperament, etc. needs to be found and trained before he/she an do everything the previous service animal could do. This can cause feelings of frustration, anger, loss of confidence, anxiety, regret and more.

People who work with therapy pets may have to deal with their clients’ grief at the bereavement as well as their own, which can be challenging.

Many veterinary colleges now have counselling and bereavement services because they recognise the impact on staff and students of dealing with animal loss and the grief of each animal’s human carers. However, as animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new field, many therapists aren’t able to tap into this kind of support through their own employer or network. This can throw life and work up into the air.

Sources of support

Thankfully, in many cases, this situation doesn’t occur. In our most recent blog, we looked at the process of retiring a therapy dog and training a new companion during a kind of ‘crossover’ period so that you’re not suddenly left with a void to fill that threatens your independence.

Equally, many animal-assisted therapists work with a number of animals or begin training a younger pet while still working with their older companion.

Sadly though, there are times when therapy pets pass away naturally without warning or because of a tragic accident. Or, with smaller emotional therapy pets, because they simply reach the end of their too-short lifespans.

If you have been affected by the sudden loss of a therapy pet, you may feel that your friends and family don’t fully understand the depth of your grief, especially if your pet helped with emotional support rather than practical tasks that others could see and appreciate.

It’s important that you reach out for support if you need it, be it on an emotional or practical level. If you had a service pet through a particular organisation, they might be the first people to contact about what to do next.

We’d also urge you to talk to friends or family members who will listen to your feelings of grief, even if they don’t understand them fully.

The Ralph Site pet loss support group is full of non-judgemental animal lovers who are dealing with pet loss in all kinds of circumstances – you’ll always find a listening ear in there.

Organisations such as The Blue Cross have a dedicated pet bereavement service you can talk to about your feelings.

Please know that you’re not alone.

Until next time,

Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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