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Bereavement & Grief

The Human/Animal Bond    •    Pet Loss Support Resources    •    Typical Lifespans    •    Life Support Decisions    •    Euthanasia    •    About the Remains    •    The Grieving Process    •    Plan Ahead for Your Animal’s Care    •    Bereavement & Grief Links


The Human/Animal Bond

Photo: Fred the cat sleeping next to his best buddy Roxie

The bond created when you open your heart and home to non-human animals is a complex one, and the strength of the emotional attachment can vary quite a bit from person to person. If illness, death, or loss by some other means severs that bond, most people find themselves somewhere on the bereavement roller coaster.

When a pet dies, you’ve lost an integral member of your household’s daily life. You may feel numb, sadness, grief, a sense of anger, betrayal, and all of the other feelings that accompany a great loss.

There are no right or wrong ways to grieve and the experience of grief is different for each individual.

It may comfort you to consider that maybe your pet left that huge whole in your heart so there will be plenty of room for the next furperson who needs you.

Talking about your feelings of loss with someone who values animals similarly, or with someone you trust can be helpful. If the person you talk with doesn’t understand, find someone else.

Grafix: Victorian girl holding a kitten Treasure

Pet Loss Support Resources

Photo: Gracie the cat

Some universities with a Veterinary Medicine College staff grief support hotlines:

•  Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine Pet Preparation and Loss Support (PALS): 865-755-8839

•  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine CARE Pet Loss Helpline: 877-394-CARE (2273)

You can also contact us for information about the grieving process, what happens when an animal dies, the euthanasia process, or what to do with your companion animal’s remains.

Typical Lifespans*

Mice—1.5 to 3 years

Hamsters—1.5 to 2 years

Gerbils—3 to 4 years

Rats—2.5 to 3.5 years

Guinea Pigs—4 to 5 years

House Rabbits—5 to 6 years

Ferrets—5 to 8 years

Photo: two of Barbara's orange kitties drinking from the dog dish
Photo: Angelica aka JellyFish up on the bookcase

Hedgehogs—6 to 10 years

Cats—13 to 17 years (cat ages in human years)

Dogs—11 to 13 years (dog ages in human years)

Pot-bellied Pigs—20 to 25 years

Horses—20 to 30 years

*taken from Goodbye, Friend by Gary Kowalski.

Life-support Decisions*

Our fears of the unknown cause an incredible amount of avoidable grief. There is much we can do proactively that will make our inevitable parting easier.

When our pets face life-threatening problems, we face four options:

•  do everything possible to treat the problem;

•  do everything possible up to a certain limit, then terminate treatment if the response doesn’t meet our needs or expectations;

•  focus any care on making the animal comfortable or ensuring her safety (and other’s safety too, if necessary) rather than treating the problem; or

•  euthanize the animal.

Photo: Atticus the grey, white, and peach cat
Photo: Dean the injured orange cat

Answers to the following ten questions will help you formulate advance directives for your pet. Putting your thoughts on paper while your pet is still alive will help you when the time comes that healthcare decisions need to be made about her future.

1. What do you believe your pet values the most about his life?

2. How do you feel about death and dying?

3. Do you believe you should do everything in your power to preserve your pet’s life as long as possible?

4. If you don’t believe in prolonging your pet’s life as long as possible, what physical, behavioral, or bond conditions would cause you to either initiate or to terminate treatment?

5. What conditions might cause you to at least temporarily treat the conditions listed in question 4?

6. How much pain and risk would you be willing to put yourself, your pet, and others through if recovery seemed likely?

7. What if the chance of recovery were poor?

8. Would your pet’s age affect your choice to treat or not treat her?

9. Would any religious or personal views affect your treatment of your pet if he developed serious problems?

10. Will financial considerations affect if and how you treat your pet?

*taken from Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet,” by Myrna Milani, DVM.

Photo: Forrest the cat at the Eastern Iowa Veterinary Specialty Center


Photo: Victor Hugo the kitten in the sun

When an animal has a health problem that seriously compromises his quality of life or has a significant behavior problem that cannot, after genuine effort, be overcome, euthanasia is often the most humane decision.

Some behavior problems can be resolved by a change in address, so there may be a chance your animal can be placed in another home that would better meet his needs.

For evaluation of health problems, rely on your veterinarian’s advice, but please don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion.

Many questions should be taken into consideration before acting, including:

•  What are the treatment options, their efficacy, and cost?

•  How would the animal die if she received no further treatment?

•  How much more pain or discomfort is the animal likely to experience?

What About the Remains?

You may need some time to decide what to do about your pet’s remains. You don’t have to rush into anything. If you have other companion animals, they may be comforted by the opportunity to sniff or touch the deceased’s body.

Until decisions can be made, find the coldest part of your dwelling (e.g., basement floor, garage floor, floor of enclosed porch) or in cold weather, the trunk of your car.

Lay a piece of plastic out first, then spread newspaper layers on top. You may lay your pet’s body directly on top of the newspapers and cover her with a towel or a sheet.

Your veterinary clinic may be able to store your pet’s body in their freezer until your decision has been made.

There are a number of options available for dealing with the remains, although the topic is a conversation taboo for many. Some people are very concerned about the body (i.e., it’s the only thing left of Gilbert), others view dead bodies as cast-off shells (i.e., this is no longer Gilbert).

Rose the brindled calico cat in her coffin surrounded by flowers
Photo: a nice wooded area

Burial/Scattering Gardens

Most cities have an ordinance prohibiting the burial of animals in yards, however, enforcement does not seem to be a high priority.

Remember that burial should be deep enough to discourage predators. Don’t bury an animal sealed in a plastic container or bag.

There are special cemeteries/scattering gardens just for animals. Local services (caskets, urns, plots, grave markers, scattering gardens, rmembrance items, etc.) are available at:

•  Faithful Companions (reached through Lensing’s Oak Hill):  319-338-HUGS

•  Memory Gardens Pet Cemetery—Iowa City:  319-338-0231

•  Pet Funeral Home & Cemetery—Tipton:  1-877-822-7387 (toll free)



Crematoria burn bodies (individually or in groups) using high heat until what’s left turns to ash and bones (which are sometimes ground up). The resulting grit is referred to as “cremains.” In the case of individual cremation, the cremains can be returned for those who want a keepsake.

A number of companies offer urns, vases, or boxes specially designed for pet cremains. You may choose to scatter the cremains outside in an area that was familiar to your pet.

Local crematory services are available through or at:

•  Faithful Companions (reached through Lensing’s Oak Hill):  319-338-HUGS

•  Cedar Valley Humane Society:  319-356-8270

•  Kenwood Animal Clinic:  319-366-7146

 Vet Medical Center:  319-668-1111

Create a Diamond from Cremains

It is possible to create a diamond using the carbon from your companion’s cremains. The process takes about five months.

Diamonds can even be made from previous cremains already in your possession. The ashes not used in the diamond-making process can be returned to you.

The resulting gem can be put in a setting of your choice. Prices begin under $3,000. Google “cremation jewelry” for more information.

Grafic:  White dove.



Other Options for the Remains

Taxidermists skin bodies and stretch the hide over forms to resemble the original inhabitant. Animals can also be freeze dried in recumbent positions for display. Bodies left at most vet clinics are cremated in groups.

Grafix: kitten leaping after a butterfly

The Grieving Process

Photo:  Lisa-Marie the cat saying goodbye to her friends Lily and Basil who are in their coffins.

Many people use rituals to help with the grieving process. It can help to:

•  take some time off work—afterall, one of your best friends just died

•  light candles, burn incense

•  write a letter to your pet, keep a copy, and bury or cremate the original with him

•  set up a miniature shrine in your home in remembrance of your pet

•  organize a wake, funeral, religious death ceremony, or a memorial service (Pet Memorial Day is the second Sunday in September)

•  Consider an animal communication consultation.

We are fortunate that one of our members, Sondy Kaska, is an animal communicator. She can be reached by phone at: 319-354-7428.

To learn more about animal communication and how to schedule an appointment, download her brochure.

Sondy’s Brochure is a PDF file.
If you don’t already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, download it for free.
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Photo: Anabel the cat

•  make a list of all the things your pet did that made you smile or laugh

•  send a memorial donation to your state veterinary teaching hospital—most have a “companion animal fund” used to purchase new equipment—(it was this fund at Iowa State University that covered the cost to treat the three cats who survived the 1997 Noah’s Ark Cat Bludgeonings in Fairfield, Iowa.)

•  pick flowers and herbs and prepare your pet’s body at home for burial or cremation—a cardboard envelope box makes a good coffin for small animals

•  plant a special tree or an ornamental shrub in your yard

•  dedicate something you use or wear everyday to your pet’s name and memory

•  compile a scrapbook about your pet

•  consider establishing new daily routines

Plan Ahead for Your Animal’s Care

Far too many beloved companion animals become instantly homeless upon the death of their caregivers.

Please take time now to discuss options with your lawyer and make provisions for the care of your animals if you become unable to care for them or after you die.

Iowa Pet Trust

Iowa Code Chapter 633A §2101-2105  •  Honorary trusts—trusts for pets. This law allows for the creation of a trust for the contining care of any of your pets living at the time of your death.

This type of trust is valid for up to 21 years. It terminates when there are no longer any animals alive who were covered by its terms.

Photo: Basil, Roxie, and Lorenzo the cats



More to Come on Planning Ahead

Grief & Bereavement Links

Coping With Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet—Moira Anderson Allen

Pet Loss & Grief Resources—Best Friends

Pet Support Hotlines—many land grant institutions offer grief-support hotlines through their Colleges of Veterinary Medicine

Pet Loss Grief Support & Candle Ceremony—Personal support and thoughtful advice

Inky Paw Pet Sympathy Cards

Pet Cremation Urns

Helping Clients Heal after the Loss of a Beloved Animal

The Rainbow Bridge poem and Beyond the Bridge

Your Pet's Future without You

Photo: cats gathering around the coffin of a cat friend to say goodbye.
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JCHS Booklists

Pet Loss & Grief Recovery

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Last update: 08/21/0242am


Contact Us at

JCHS  •  P.O. BOX 2775  •  IOWA CITY, IA  52244-2775

NOTE that we are a small group of volunteers, most of whom work during the day. We will get back to you as soon as we can.



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