Gone too soon: Coping with the loss of a young pet

When a young pet joins your family, it is always a time of excitement and happiness (with some possible training stress thrown into the mix for those of you with dogs, cats, or rabbits!)

You think about the years of fun, love, and companionship ahead of you. This is true whether your young pet is a tiny hamster, a quirky axolotl, a snake, a guinea pig, a playful kitten, or a giant breed of dog (and every shape, size, or species in between).

As you plan for the future that includes your young pet, their death is probably the farthest thing from your mind.

Sadly, though, many people within The Ralph Site community find themselves having to cope with the loss of a young pet. It could be what has brought you to this site.

Is there a way of ‘coming to terms’ with the premature death of a pet? How can you process your loss when your companion has quite simply gone before their time? Is it possible to find comfort when all you can think about is how horribly unfair life is to rob your pet of their future when there was still so much of it in front of them?

Death is never easy

We know that death is never easy but when a young pet dies, it can throw everything you know into doubt. People talk about the ‘natural order’ of things and the cycle of life and death but reconciling that with a young animal can feel impossible.

All that potential. All those experiences that you hoped to share. Surely, to lose those before they had a chance to happen goes against the ‘natural order’ of life?

We’ve talked before on The Ralph Site about coping with sudden and unexpected pet loss. Perhaps, in pet loss terms, nothing is more sudden and unexpected than when a young animal dies.

It can be incredibly hard to process.

In the face of such a bereavement, people report a wide range of emotions. Bewilderment is common – surely this cannot be real? Anger too – it is so desperately unfair. You might feel anxious and unsafe because it seems like nothing has happened as it should. And let us not forget the guilt that is so deeply tied to pet loss. Guardians of young pets often experience a significant amount of guilt because they feel they should have been able to guarantee their companion a long life. 

Whatever you are feeling, there are no right or wrong emotions. Grief is different for everyone and it is important to experience your feelings as they happen instead of bottling things up inside.

It is unfair and heart-breaking and so very wrong that your young pet has died. No wonder you feel all these emotions and more.

Unhelpful things other people say

Pet loss is a type of disenfranchised grief that is not recognised by everyone in our wider society. You may find that some of your friends and family just do not know what to say to support you. This could be because they do not understand the depth of your loss or because they do not want to say the wrong thing.

When a young animal dies, it is very common to be told, “Everything happens for a reason”, “He’s in a better place” or “It just goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen, which is why we need to live each day like it’s our last” (and other varieties of things people say when they are trying to give a bereaved person comfort).

These expressions can be hurtful. Your pet was in the best place with your family – a place where they were loved, and they mattered. What kind of reason can there be for a young animal to die? 

Even sentiments like “we have to live like there’s no tomorrow” can be tough to take. After all, youth is so often about creating the foundations for the future. It is natural to want to make plans with your pet. The fact that you can’t can leave you feeling cheated.

People mean well when they say these things, but the truth is that sometimes the best thing anyone can do is sit in silence with you or tell you that they care, and they are sorry for your loss.

If you don’t have anyone who can say this to you face-to-face right now, The Ralph Site Facebook group is full of people who have experienced losses of their own and will metaphorically sit by your side in support at this tough time.

Coping with your grief

Is there a way to ‘get over’ grief? This is a question that many bereaved people ask.

The truth is that grief never truly goes away. However, it does change its nature with time – or maybe it is more accurate to say that we learn to live with it as part of us. It becomes part of our new ‘normal’. Check out some of the grief analogies that explain this perfectly. 

If you are struggling after losing a young pet, the following may help you:

  • Allow yourself time to feel the truth of your loss

When a death is unexpected, it is common to feel shocked, confused, numb and full of disbelief. Surely, someone has made a mistake?

In many ways, death rites in our society create space for these early feelings. They give you practical tasks to focus on when you are reeling from shock. They also help you to feel that you are accompanying your deceased loved one on a passage from life into death, which can be hugely comforting.

But, of course, these rites are not automatically part of pet loss, a fact that can leave you lost in terms of how to react to your bereavement.

You may find it helpful to arrange a memorial service for your pet or arrange a cremation or burial. The act of doing this can give you time to feel the truth of your loss.

Remember too that you will continue to need time.

Grief is not linear, and it does not come with an expiry date. It takes a long time to become part of the fabric of who you are, and it is threaded with many emotions. Be kind to yourself and sit with whatever you are feeling instead of trying to push your thoughts and feelings away. 

  • Think about the quality of your pet’s life, not the quantity

It is natural to be preoccupied with the fact that your pet has died and the circumstances surrounding their death. Most people respond to bereavement in this way.

Your brain will be doing everything in its power to make sense of what has happened, even if there really is no explanation to be found.

The downside of this need for sense is that you can get stuck on the events surrounding your pet’s death rather than celebrating their life. It is important to make their story about more than how they died. 

How would you describe your pet to someone who did not know them? What were their unique quirks? What happy memories did you share together? How did it make you feel to hold them or spend time with them? 

It can be helpful to remind yourself of all the ways your pet had a great quality of life, even if they were robbed of quantity. 

  • Recognise that your pet’s death was beyond your control

When we experience pet loss, especially when we are mourning a young and previously healthy pet, we often look for someone to blame. It could be that you are blaming yourself, a family member or even a stranger who was somehow involved in your pet’s death, e.g., a driver or your vet.

Again, blame is a common response to loss, especially as we strive to make sense of what happened. However, it can cause you to become consumed with anger and is generally a futile use of your energy. After all, even if someone is directly to blame, it cannot change what has happened.

A helpful tactic here is to think about the circumstances and intentions surrounding your pet’s death. 

Did you or anyone else intend to cause harm to your pet? 

If you or anyone else could have known what would happen, would they have done things differently?

Could you or anyone else have known what would happen?

The chances are that there was no intention of harm or malice towards your pet. As unfair as it is, accidents happen, and illnesses occur. If only they did not. 

Please think about your own intentions towards your pet and recognise that you only ever wanted good things for them. Their death does not change the truth of that.

  • Honour your pet’s life

The founder of the worldwide Scout movement, Robert Baden Powell, said that we should each “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it”.

In fact, many people believe that this is the very definition of a life well lived – to make our own little corners of the world better for having existed in them.

Well, your pet achieved that. They made the world better by existing and the memories they have given you ensure that this gift will always stay with you. 

Is there anything you can do to continue this legacy? Is there goodness that you can put into the world to honour your pet?

Perhaps you could support an animal charity, foster or adopt another animal when you feel ready or raise awareness about an issue that affected your pet, such as road safety or a rare health condition.

Even creating a memorial or writing a letter to your pet about the life you had hoped they would live can help to provide comfort.

  • Talk about your loss

It is important to be able to talk about your loss if you need to. Ideally, support will come from your friends and family but sometimes it helps to speak to other bereaved pet carers who understand the array of emotions you are experiencing. The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group is there for you.

You might also find it beneficial to talk to a pet bereavement counsellor. Many people find this instrumental to processing their grief. The Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service is an excellent starting point.

Just know that, although your loss is yours alone and no-one can truly know how you are feeling, you are not alone in your grief. The Ralph Site is here for you.

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

9 thoughts on “Gone too soon: Coping with the loss of a young pet

  1. Kyle

    Thank you so much. I’m only 12 and my cat Max was 2 years old and died of a bite that caused an infection. He was one of my closest friends and I don’t know how to believe that he’s actually gone. I was the first face he ever saw. I didn’t know the seriousness of the situation until my dad tells me and my family to sit at the table and tells us what happened. We have another cat too who has been looking for his little brother and this is not his first experience of losing a fellow cat. Max is my third cat to die and I miss him so much. Thank you.

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    1. Kathy

      My baby Violet had to be pts yesterday, she was a 16 months old English bull terrier and I am hurting beyond beliefs.
      Absolutely everything in the house reminds of her or some mischief she had done…. I’m not coping very well at all.
      She suddenly lost the ability to walk and was given a steroid injection for spinal trauma, but even if at first she looked more like herself, her situation did not improve. Yesterday was the 5th day and she was in a great deal of pain and I had to make the call I did not want to make.
      I can’t see past what happened, I am in physical pain, I have this horrible metallic taste in my mouth. I’m going over and over it wondering if I should have done.
      I just want her back, it was too short, I will never get this relationship back, I will never get to hug her, see her silly face or call her nane again 💔💔

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      1. Jemma

        Hi Kathy. We put our 3 yr and 10 month old baby boy shih-poo to sleep yesterday. The pain is totally unimaginable It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I can’t see us ever getting through this. I’m here with you virtually holding your hand 🙏🙏🙏

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      2. Dan

        Hi Kathy, I too lost my baby dog, at only 15 months old, months on from when I lost her I’m still in complete shock, walking through the door expecting her to greet me, she was a spaniel so you can imagine how crazy she was! I’ve tried over and over and still can’t fathom how she was took from me, or why. I pray one day we will meet again.
        The only thing I can take from this whole experience is how much of a positive effect she left on the world, and especially on my family.without her my world would not be the same, and I am forever grateful for her to have been in my life.

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  2. Ruth

    My best friend and 3 year old husky, Zeus passed away this morning after experiencing a Spontaneous pneumothorax. He awoke us on the morning of Sept. 13th in pain and struggling to breathe. There was no apparent cause and everything happened so suddenly – I don’t understand. He was my best friend and my greatest joy. The day before this happened he was his usual happy, healthy, goofy self – giving lots of kisses, talking in his husky way, and playing. I had wanted a husky since I was little and finally got one as an adult and he was everything I ever dreamed of. I am so sad and so lost without my buddy. In my darkest moments he would give me light and now I have no fluffy friend to hold and make it better. My whole body hurts, I feel nauseous, unable to stop crying. My mind is flooded with amazing memories and crippling guilt – I wish so badly he was still here and this was all a dream. I was so lucky to have him. I am estranged from my family and he is the only being in my life I could trust to love me – the only friend in my life that made me feel truly loved. I miss you Zeus. I wish we had more time.

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  3. Heather

    Thank you for posting this. We just had to put down our beloved family cat, Melvin, yesterday. He was not quite 8 years old. Unfortunately, he grew ill in his last year of life and his health deteriorated. Vets were unable to pinpoint the cause of his illness as most symptoms resembled some sort of allergy. The last two vets that saw him suspected cancer after he failed to respond to steroids. This is the hardest pet death I’ve ever experienced and it’s not even close to fair that this happened to him.

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  4. Vinny

    I lost my dear working dog Mia. She had just turned 5. She was waiting patiently behind me while we were at work and helped retrieve the neighbour’s stray lamb off the road. She was only 1 metre behind me. As I shut the gate and turned around my co worker was speeding up the road and did not see us. He was not looking at the road and had his body turned the opposite direction looking at my qaud bike with the other dogs on it. Mia was not on the road but was dangerously close so I called her in panic. Which went against me as she ended up looking his way and walked backwards out of panic and met him exactly as he past. I watched her be run over right in front of me. It was the most heart breaking and traumatic experience I’ve ever faced. She was my best dog, my best friend and I loved her very much. The pain of this loss so sudden and out of my control is herendous to work through, I imagined her growing old with me. Never imagined losing her this way so unfairly

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  5. Nicole

    We had a cat that gave birth on our attic one day and brought them food frequently. We noticed on of the kittens was very ill and tried caring for them there. We found it lying there one day not moving and brought it into our home. It had grown stronger as days went by, until it didn’t. We took it to a vet one day because its eyes were bad and they gave us antibiotical eye caps and eye gel. We continued that way, and noticed the kitten was very bloated. Soon, it started crying on the toilet, then stopped going as frequently, started crying even when lying down, especially when we touched its belly, stopped eating as much, stopped going potty entirely. We took it to the vet as soon as we could, but even they told us that they had low hopes. They instructed us to do an enema at home. When we did, the kitten passed. I will forever remember the cries as we massaged its belly, and the praise I gave when she finally seemed to poop. The praise she no longer heard. Be it my fault for deciding to do the enema, my companion who did the enema and massaged the kitten, or the vet for telling us to do it, deep down I know none of us is to blame, but it can’t be helped. The what-ifs are still in my brain and my mind keeps repeating the last minutes of its life. Would it be alive if we didn’t perform the enema? Or would it just pass at a later time? Would it be okay afterwards? Or would we just be prolonging its suffering?
    It was only two months old, but the memories of it climbing our legs to lie on our laps, how it skidaddled to the food when it was still strong and not having such problems, when it pooped after each meal… They turned painful after it’s death.
    It was only two months old…

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