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Coping with the Loss of a Therapy Animal

Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L
Image of a double rainbow through glass with raindrops on it. Photo by Isabelle Taylor from Pexels
Image of a double rainbow through glass with raindrops on it. Photo by Isabelle Taylor from Pexels

A dog runs along a beach with beautiful clouds above.

Holding the title of therapy animal handler is an honor unlike any other. As a handler, you are able to build a profound bond with your therapy animal, as well as spread the joy of that bond to others in your community. The depth of this bond is what makes the work of animal-assisted interventions so extraordinary—but it’s also what makes letting go of therapy animals so difficult.

Animals have an amazing ability to touch lives in their short time with us. Research has found that grieving the loss of a companion animal is very similar to grieving the loss of a human family member or friend. While coping with the loss of a companion is never easy, we hope to provide you with some ways to assist you in your journey toward healing.

A Formula for Healing

T.R.E.A.S.U.R.E. A formula for healing card.

Often the process of grieving a therapy animal is overlooked by those who don’t understand the magnitude of the human-animal bond. Many of the support systems that are widely available when a human loved one dies are not put in place when a furry or feathered friend passes away. The T.R.E.A.S.U.R.E. formula can be a guide to help in allowing yourself to heal from the loss of your pet, while honoring the memory of your therapy animal.

  • Take time to care for yourself. Do what you need to help yourself on your journey of healing.
  • Reflect. Take time to reflect upon the loss and the significance of your animal. You might consider writing your memories out, completing a memory scrapbook, drawing. or using creative arts to express your sentiments.
  • Exercise. Walk, bike, hike—revitalize your body and soul. This is especially important if exercising with your animal was a normal part of your daily routine. Continue engaging in exercises you loved with your animal in their memory.
  • Accept. You may find yourself going through many emotional stages of loss. It is an emotional journey whose endpoint is acceptance.
  • Support. Find a source of support. You may find comfort in talking with other therapy animal handlers and friends who have experienced l loss. Finding a support group on pet loss is another healthy option.
  • Uplift. Find ways that help you uplift and “feed your soul.” The process may begin with opening up about your feelings of loss.
  • Reminisce. Reminiscing with others can be very comforting. Healing includes remembering good times and putting into perspective the importance of your animal’s l life.
  • Express. The key ingredient to healing is to be able to express yourself.
    You need to give yourself permission to share your emotions.

Helping Clients Cope

While it is crucial that you practice self-care and respect your own grieving process, it’s also important to consider others who might be affected by the loss of your therapy animal. Your animal had a natural gift that allowed them to connect with others and bring joy through the human-animal bond. Clients who bonded with your animal may be grieving the loss as well.

Each client will respond differently to the passing of a therapy animal. Some may have a harder time with mourning than others, and we as handlers owe it to our clients to gracefully and respectfully explain the loss and allow them a forum to express their feelings. Some clients will benefit from expressing themselves verbally and may find it reassuring to talk about memories of moments with your therapy animal. For others, writing can be a strong therapeutic alternative. Making cards or drawing sketches are also ways to grieve that preserve positive memories of times with your partner. Regardless of the way in which your clients say goodbye, it’s important to allow them the opportunity to grieve and find closure with the loss.

Moving Forward

Dr. Aubrey Fine, Past Chair of Pet Partners’ Human-Animal Bond Advisory Board and current Pet Partners Board Member, states, “[w]e are often told that time heals the soul, and the pain from loss eventually subsides. Although that may be true, it doesn’t make it any easier in the moment.” Whether this is your first time experiencing the loss of a therapy animal, or you are familiar with the grieving process, we understand that losing a therapy animal is truly like losing a family member. We are committed to the health and well-being of not only our therapy animals, but our handlers as well, and have provided some resources that may support you in mourning your therapy animal (and other pets as well). In due time, we hope that you and others are able to move forward and celebrate the life led by your amazing therapy animal.

Grief Support Resources

A heart drawn in sand.

Pet Partners is honored to recognize our registered therapy animals who have passed away. We also appreciate the opportunity to share tributes to therapy animals who have left us. Contact us to share a story about how your therapy animal had an impact on you and your community.