My Precious Pet Died. Should I Get a New One?
Many of us love our pets like they’re little children. For some people, our pets are our children in that we don’t have human children to care for.
Particularly when we can afford it, we buy our pets the best food, toys, leashes, and other necessities. We buy them identity tags, beds, treats, scarves, and even raincoats and winter wear. We give them necessary and preventative health care. We love and cuddle them, protecting them from every harm as much as we possibly can. So, when a pet dies, the loss leaves a hole in our hearts but also in our lives.
Undoubtedly, when a pet dies, we can experience grief much like the grief we feel when significant human family members and friends die. We miss the pet’s presence, seeing their empty dishes as a painful reminder that there’s no one there to feed. Their empty beds, cages, and crates tell us they’re gone. Even with additional pets in the home, the one pet’s death leaves us with reminders of loss. We miss kisses. We still hear the dog’s particular bark when other dogs are talking. We can fix the scratches on the door now, but who wants to?
Bereaved pet parents sometimes ask me whether they should get a new pet and, if so, when. Here are some thoughts to consider:
Your age and stage of life
If you’re young, are you also planning for human children? Which do you want to have first? It’s difficult to give what a new child needs when there’s also a new pet who needs to adjust to your home. If that pet is also a baby, the adjustment might be more challenging. If you’re rescuing or adopting a pet that needs a new home, that animal’s special needs should be considered, too. Is this a pet that can live with a young child or even an older one? Do you have the bandwidth for helping this pet heal its own wounds? Is it responsible to bring this animal into your home at this time?
Your middle age and retirement years matter, too. In middle age, workplace needs often ramp up as we advance in various business skills. In retirement, we may change our lifestyles entirely—maybe adding recreational travel or moving to a new geographic location or a smaller home.
Our pets age with us, and when they die, we’re much older than when we first fell in love with them. When deciding whether and when to get another pet, consider the lifestyle you currently have and what you want. Do you need to focus more on work for a time period? Would you like to travel now that you don’t have a pet to care for? Even a much beloved pet who can’t travel can be an encumbrance if you hate to use kennels or pet sitters. Think about what you want your life to be at this phase of life and decide what you need to do to make that happen.
Pet ownership is expensive. I’ve noticed that some people balk at having to pay additional money for their own health care—for example, for tests that insurance doesn’t cover—but they readily pull out the credit card when their pet needs medical testing and care. Most veterinarians won’t provide ongoing care without prompt payment at the time of treatment. While this decision to pay anything for a pet’s health care is admirable, it can lead to some mighty big bills.
Many of our pets die after an illness, traumatic accident, or old age. All of these typically mean that vet bills have been incurred. If credit card bills from paying for your pet’s needs have accumulated, would it be helpful to pay off those bills before accruing the new bills that inevitably come with new pets? Such expenses may include cost of purchase, vaccinations, new foods or medications, new training or maintenance tools, and the treats you want to lavish on these new family members. Finances play a part in these decisions.
Your pet grief
Grieving the death of a deeply loved pet who has been a family member even for a few short months is a painful experience. But it’s necessary to acknowledge the death and the many losses it entails. It’s necessary to mourn and feel the pain, to talk about the loss, and to remember and honor this animal’s special place in your life. Grief and mourning may take time to experience and process. You need time to integrate the death of a beloved pet into your new life without him or her.
Grief is an individual experience and no two people will experience the loss of a pet the same way. Moreover, no two pet deaths will affect you the same way. Other contexts change how you experience the pet’s loss, too. Sometimes a pet’s death coincides with a human death or the pain of the loss becomes entwined with past griefs from human and/or pet deaths. In other words, your pet’s death may raise issues of old pain, lack of confidence in your caregiving, or just the challenges of living without a beloved one.
When our youngest dog died last December at twelve and a half years old, my husband and I had parented six dogs total in 43 years of marriage. While we did our best for each, not all of their lives went the way we wanted. This last dog, a little Welsh Terrier named Dorie, was a sweetheart who was chronically ill with pancreatitis. Eventually, we euthanized her, letting her go because all our efforts weren’t enough to keep her well from one week to the next. After she died, we were brokenhearted. We needed time to mourn her and to decide whether we, in our mid-to-late sixties, wanted to have another dog. Her death was especially painful for me because it occurred on December 15, one day before the December 16 anniversary of my father’s death. So, her loss was entwined with my human family losses. We also wanted to save money for a while as paying for Dorie’s later years’ health care had been expensive.
We mourned a long time and were unsure about future pet ownership. But binge-watching an old TV show called Frasier opened a space for considering a new dog. In Frasier, the father, Martin, had a Jack Russel Terrier named Eddie. We began to look forward to watching Eddie do his smart and personality-filled terrier act. He amused us, which allowed us to begin talking about what having an Eddie would be like. Before we knew it, we were looking for terrier puppies and eventually found our new Wirehaired Fox Terrier “Lila” from a reputable breeder.
We have all the challenges of puppyhood, including house breaking and training. Lila is smart and sweet tempered. We hope she’ll become a good therapy dog for bereaved and lonely people to enjoy. But each day of training and teaching this new being about the world tells us that beyond the love we give each other, there’s also a lot of work to do to help Lila grow up healthy and happy.
Should you get a new pet? If so, when is the best time? There’s no one answer to these questions. The decision and timing have to work for you. But first of all, I urge you to give yourself the necessary time to feel the grief of your loss and to mourn the death of your precious pet as long as you need. Even with a new pet, know that you’ll always remember your previous ones. They blessed your life when they were alive; the memories they leave will bless your life now, too.