Heartbreak and grief over the loss of a treasured family pet has become the subject of scientific research by mental health and veterinary experts trying to determine how long it lasts and how best to alleviate it.
With smaller families and modern pet owners forming significant attachment to their animals, pet death can be hard-felt, with severe grief and sadness being experienced by a third of owners, according to a Canadian Ontario Veterinary College study.
The University of Hawaii department of animal science reported grieving could last six months or more for about 30 per cent of those affected.
For grief reactions, the most prominent risk factors found by Japan's Hokkaido University were the age of the owner, other stressful life events, family size, the age of the deceased animal, rearing place and preliminary veterinary consultation.
Children too young to remember life without the dog or cat can be hardest hit, with the US-based department of psychiatry and neurology at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey warning parents not to trivialise the death of the pet, and to attempt to assist children in expressing their feelings through speech, drawing or writing.
Several WA pet funeral service companies now refer distressed clients to grief counsellors and the City of Stirling's website on animal services acknowledges the need for grief support when "saying goodbye to a pet" and advises those having difficulty coming to terms with their loss to seek professional counselling from organisations such as Lifeline on its 24/7 telephone crisis support service on 13 11 14.
Perth-based Gerry Smith, of Grief Management Educational Services, has been working in pet loss for 16 years. Those he helps are mainly retirees but he has also been called on to aid young married couples without children, and family groups.
Modern grief reactions to pet loss were influenced by the smaller size of families, he said, as well as whether owners had been looking to pets for qualities lacking in other relationships. The animal might also have come to act as a substitute for loved ones who had moved elsewhere or passed away or for busy parents spending a great deal of time away from home working long hours to pay the mortgage.
He explained that pet owners were left feeling lost and powerless because their best friend, which had always been around to comfort them, was suddenly gone.
"People have told me that they have found it much more difficult losing a pet than losing a family member who had a prolonged illness or had a good life, or perhaps they did not have such a good relationship with," Mr Smith said.
"But with a pet, once you get attached, it is something very, very special. It is very difficult to put it in words."
Mr Smith become involved in pet loss when he was invited to speak at a WA Veterinary Nurses Association conference on grief and recovery and then when called on to train staff at Lawnswood Pet Cremation and Cemetery.
"Then the penny dropped and I realised how much a service like this was needed," he said.
"And I started to get more and more inquiries once people were aware there was someone there to help them."
A pet lover himself, with a 10-year-old dog named Shiraz, Mr Smith said he knew there were upsetting times ahead for him.
"I too may be confronted by all of this myself shortly," he said."I have a beautiful Cavalier King Charles ... and each day is a bonus with her because she has serious heart problems."
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