RESILIENCE: Pet Therapy – Healing Grief and Loss

Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.

George Eliot


Talking to animals and petting them has been proven to be therapeutic under normal circumstances, but during times of stress, pets are an invaluable asset in the recovery process. They offer unconditional love — and more. As you lean toward them, they move toward you, some more hesitant than others due to their experience with humans. They wag their tails as you tell them your tale of woe. They lick your hand as you pet them or scratch their fur, making eye contact as you both seek solace in each other’s presence. Those who already have a pet know this. Those who do not have a pet can still experience this feeling in variety of ways.

A pet can provide companionship for those living alone. Anyone who has a pet can provide testimony as to how they are comforted by their pet’s presence. Companion animals keep their owners company, give them a reason to live, and can even warn them of intruders.



Take a trip to your local animal shelter

Call your local animal shelter to ask about their needs, donate some items, OR you can volunteer your time to care for pets that need the support and caring that you also need. If you are a cat person, there are cats of all sizes that need comfort and caring, too.

After the loss of my husband, I went on my usual trip to the SPCA  and donated old towels, sheets, and newspapers. While there, I met Daisy, a lonely Shih Tzu sitting in her dark and secluded cage in the back area of the building. The only source of comfort for her was the small, old, tattered rag upon which she sat.

I talked to her: “How are you doing there? Are you as lonely and scared as I am?” Of course, I did not expect an answer. But it was good to give voice to my thoughts of grief, loss, and sadness that needed to have someone listen to them in silence, without telling me how I should feel and what I should do.

I felt good when I left. I hope Daisy felt some comfort from our visit, too. So, why didn’t I take Daisy home with me? I would have liked to, but it just was not the right time.


Adopt a pet

So why didn’t I adopt a pet at the beginning of my grieving process? A pet deserves much more than being just a Band-Aid for the emotional distress of grief and loss. I already had enough responsibility, distractions, and emotional chaos with all my energy focused on just getting through each day. If you are thinking of adoption, take a moment to evaluate your needs and choose a pet that connects with you and your needs. Some pet shelters offer the opportunity to take a dog you are interested in for a walk in a fenced-in area. When thinking of adoption, be sure this is right for you. You are making a long-term commitment when you choose to have a pet.



We finally adopted Diamond, a three-year-old Shih Tsu, four years later. She was grieving not only the loss of her owners but also the separation from her sister.

This is Diamond. We adopted her in 2018.


Visit a friend with a pet

I visited my friend Anne, who has both a cat and a dog. I took just one step into her home, and her pets immediately sought me out. They kept close by my side, in my lap, or nuzzling me the entire visit. I was a magnet of emotional negativity drawing the positivity of pet energy toward me — whoosh!

Yes, animals seem to sense what I now call “disturbances in the force” or human emotions: sad, lonely, angry, and so on. Dogs look you in the eye, wag their tails, and quiver with excitement when they see you. They offer themselves to you unconditionally. You cannot escape their undivided attention as their love and affection gushes forth. Cats will curl up in your lap or by your side and nestle in.

My response to them was similar — spontaneous and caring. I smiled back at them, even though I felt I had no reason to smile. I talked to them, even though my mind was still telling me to keep silent so I would not scream or hurt others with my words. And I shared my loving caresses, petting and hugging them, even when I thought I had no more love to give. This is pet therapy in action!


Offer to be a pet sitter or walk a neighbor’s dog

If you are unable to have a pet of your own, consider helping out a friend or neighbor by walking or watching their pet when they are in need.







Photos courtesy of Cheryl Barrett, Regina Robinson, and Kim Ross.




Cheryl A. Barrett, RN, MSN, NC-BC, is a retired nurse with 30-plus years in a variety of settings: clinical bedside in ICU, staff educator, academic instructor both didactic and clinical, supervisor, home care education, editorial director of a nursing magazine and is a board certified integrative nurse coach.





In 2018 she published Good Grief: Strategies for Building Resilience and Supporting Transformation, inspired by the death of her husband. She won the American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year, 2018 in the category of Palliative Care and Hospice for her book. She is currently creating a companion workbook for those experiencing grief and loss.




The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by our writers belong solely to them
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One Comments

  • Rosemary Brewer 30 / 05 / 2021 Reply

    This is one of my favorite articles yet that Cheryl has published! I live alone and being a pet owner to my precious Gracie, a multipoo, Cheryl is so “spot on.” After a 4 week bout with Covid, Gracie has been my support dog, friend and most cherished companion. Thank you Cheryl for your article!

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