Depressed mood during pet bereavement is common, but clinical depression isn’t usually part of the package. Support from loved ones, honoring memories, and allowing the grieving process can help you cope during this time.

Animal companionship is valued in cultures around the world. In the United States alone, 44.6% of households own at least one dog, and 26% own at least one cat.

Collectively, millions of pets are a part of families around the world, and many people who share their lives with animal companions value them as much as other human family members.

It’s natural and OK to feel intense sadness, shock, and even anger after the loss of a pet. Grief is different for everyone. When negative thoughts and emotions persist all day, almost every day, however, grief may be blending with symptoms of depression.

A temporary depressed mood after the loss of a pet is common, but clinical depression, known formally as major depressive disorder (MDD), is a mental health condition that’s not considered a natural part of the grieving process.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), grief can be intense and even impairing, but it does not usually lead to MDD. When it does, it tends to occur among people already predisposed to other depressive disorders.

Despite the fact that MDD is not an expected experience during pet bereavement, it does happen.

Older research still cited in current literature suggests people recently experiencing the loss of a pet are three times more likely to report depressive symptoms compared to the general population.

While MDD isn’t expected in typical grief, that doesn’t mean you’re not feeling depressed. When you lose a pet, it’s possible to experience depressive symptoms without meeting the criteria for an MDD diagnosis.

These feelings should be taken seriously, and you may benefit from talking with a therapist or counselor about your grief.

The difference between grief and depression

Grief itself is not a constant state of being. It can be intense, especially in the first few days after loss, but within those periods of sadness, there’s still room for happy memories and joy as you think back on your time with your pet.

Once the shock of your loss improves, you’re still able to function during the day, even though you might be overcome by moments of grief. As time goes on, grief typically gets better.

MDD is a mental health disorder. It features persistent low mood all day, almost every day, along with symptoms such as a loss of self-motivated activity, inappropriate feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, sleep disturbances, and low energy — among many others.

Unlike regular grief, recovery from MDD may require psychotherapy interventions and the support of medications, like antidepressants.

Is it depression or prolonged grief disorder?

Grief that’s unrelenting, impairing, and long lasting may fall under the category of prolonged grief disorder (PGD), also known as complicated grief. This mental health condition can resemble MDD, but symptoms are directly related to the recent loss and include:

  • persistent grief symptoms that aren’t improving
  • feelings of identity loss since the death
  • sense of disbelief about the loss
  • avoidance of reminders of the loved one
  • intense emotional pain
  • emotional numbness
  • thinking life has no meaning because of the loss
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • intense feelings of loneliness from the loved one’s absence
  • significant impairment in important areas of daily function

PGD can affect pet owners. It’s not reserved for human-only losses. Unlike PGD, MDD has a broader spectrum of symptoms and occurs across a variety of circumstances that aren’t solely related to loss.

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Losing a pet can be traumatic. For many people, pet loss is identical to experiencing the loss of a human loved one.

Although there can be negative aspects to pet ownership, the human-animal bond is considered a positive force for mental well-being. Pets can provide unconditional companionship, support, and affection. They’re a source of nonjudgmental comfort.

Many people also feel a sense of pride in pet ownership, and pets provide a reason to get out of bed in the morning and start the day. A loss of routine, along with your pet, can be highly disregulating on a practical and emotional level.

Losing a pet can be traumatic because they’re often considered part of your family. Sometimes, they’re seen as more supportive and caring than human loved ones. They can be a very important part of your support system, so it’s natural that this loss can be traumatic.

How long does it take to grieve a pet?

There’s no time limit on grief — it’s different for everyone. There’s also no difference in the time it takes to grieve a pet versus the grieving period for a person. In fact, some research notes grief over a pet may last longer.

Older research from 2012 notes pet grief typically starts to improve around 2 months after loss, with PGD persisting 6 months or longer.

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Allow yourself to go through a bereavement period after the loss of a pet. Letting grief take its natural course can help you recover faster than you would if you bottle up or belittle your thoughts and emotions.

In addition to accepting the experience, coping strategies can help you get through the intense emotional and physical symptoms that can come with pet loss.

Lean on loved ones

You don’t have to go through the loss of a pet alone.

Not only can loved ones be there to share happy memories and conversations about your pet, but they can also help you navigate everyday tasks that may suddenly feel daunting during your bereavement period.

Honor your pet

Honoring the memory of a pet can help you focus on all the joyful times you shared and provides a way to express your appreciation for the contribution a pet made in your life. Photo tributes, poems, and even a letter to your pet can help you feel a sense of closure.

Journal

Not everyone has loved ones to lean on after losing a pet. If you don’t have someone to talk to (and even if you do), journaling about what you’re feeling can be a way to safely express yourself without fear of judgment.

Practice self-care

Make sure that you’re making time to rest and get good sleep during the grief period. Allow yourself space to feel sad without cutting yourself off from the things you enjoy. Getting good nutrition, fresh air, and movement is also important when grieving.

Speak with a mental health professional

Therapists and counselors can help you work through your grieving process and can offer insight into other symptoms that might indicate a mental health condition like MDD or PGD.

Learn more about how to find the right therapist for you in this article.

When you’re ready, the shelters will be there

It’s usually not advisable to rush into a major life decision like pet adoption when you’re grieving. Give yourself time to honor your deceased pet and process any intense feelings or anxiety.

Once you feel you’ve recovered, even though there still may be some sadness around the memory, take stock of where your life is now. You may have different priorities or be in a different situation from the last time you adopted a pet.

If there’s still a furry (or scaly!) pet-shaped hole in your life, there are likely many shelters in your area that would love to introduce you to your new best friend.

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Grief after the loss of a pet can be intense and impairing, and often features emotions like sadness and loneliness. While experiences of grief can involve depressed mood and depressive symptoms, major depressive disorder is not considered a natural part of the grieving process.

Support from loved ones and allowing yourself to grieve can help during this difficult time.

If grief isn’t improving, or if grief is paired with broader, pervasive thoughts of worthlessness, low mood, and lack of motivation, a mental health professional can determine if MDD or PGD is present.