Dog Lifestyle, Pets and Family, Senior Dogs

What is Pet Anticipatory Grief and How to Manage It

If you are a senior dog owner like me you may have experienced anticipatory grief with your senior dog.  I wake each morning and see her lying calming but still wonder how many days, and weeks, I will have with her (after I ensure she is breathing!)  An aging dog can be a stressful time and your feelings may be anticipatory grief over what you believe is the impending loss of your pet. 

Woman in blue shirt and jeans holding brown dog from above.

First, know that you are not alone.  Anticipatory grief for pets is extremely common.   Let’s learn more about anticipatory grief and how you can manage it so that all of your years with your pet are the best ever.   

What is Anticipatory Grief for a Pet?

Dr. Katie Lawler is a clinical psychologist specializing in the human-animal bond of grief and loss and currently serves as the director of the veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which offers free clinical services to veterinarians and vet techs.  

According to Dr. Lawler anticipatory grief is the cognitive, emotional, cultural, and social reactions to getting a terminal or very grave diagnosis that causes a pet lover to experience all those things just like they would when their pet passes, but we’d start experiencing them before in anticipation, thus, anticipatory grief. 

man looking out the window and holding small black and white dog

Many, including Dr. Lawler, actually think anticipatory grief is more difficult than grief following the death of our pet because our pets are here (and they need us!) So we want to be with them all the time and we want to do everything in our power to try to protect them and care for them.  The constant concern can be very difficult to manage for pet lovers since they are actually living with that fear every single day.  

For many senior dog pet lovers, anticipatory grief or any tendency to have anticipatory grief  is compounded and some pet lovers, like myself, may disagree with this definition of anticipatory grief.  

The definition of pet anticipatory grief includes a grave diagnosis of your pet, however, many pet lovers like me have anticipatory feelings of grief for their pet even when their pet does not have a terminal diagnosis and may just be reaching the life expectancy for their breed or size.  

Ultimately it is not so much fitting in the definition of pet anticipatory grief as it is understanding that it is a real thing that may be affecting your relationship with your pet and your own wellbeing and finding ways to manage it.  

Why Anticipatory Grief is an Issue for Pet Lovers

Anticipatory grief not only causes pet lovers stress and anxiousness but in fact, it can disrupt your enjoyment of the last years with your pet.  

As a pet lover of a 16-year-old rescue, Zooey,  it is something I have to be really cognizant of because my fear initiates a spiral of worry when the fact is that she is actually fine and right here right now with me, which should be the focus. However, at the same time I know this can be a worry which is why I have to actually be very intentional about shifting my thoughts.

Older brown and white dog lying with a n older grey haired woman in the grass.
Recognizing anticipatory grief can be very helpful

Dr. Lawlor notes that thoughts like that are classic cognitive distortions, our mind goes to the worst-case scenario and this very twisted way of trying to protect ourselves and get us ready for when the worse happens. But the thing is that often what comes up in our imagination, or when we’re thinking this through is not reality-based. It’s the absolute worst. It’s the stuff of, our nightmares. 

This is why recognizing that you’re experiencing anticipatory grief over pet loss can be incredibly helpful. Dr. Lawlor notes that is exactly why she believes anticipatory grief is sometimes much harder than actual grief.

The Signs of Anticipatory Grief Over Pet Loss

There are several consistent signs of anticipatory grief over pet loss that are great to be aware of.  If you note them, you know it is anticipatory grief and you can use certain tools to manage it.  

  • Focus more on your pet’s passing when they’re still right here with you and not engaging with them as you otherwise would. 
  • Being overly protective and watchful of your dog
  • Being constantly concerned over your dog’s wellbeing

It is important to note that anticipatory grief is different than managing your pet’s health and wellness, which is natural and can also be a little intense as your pet ages.  It is more than being prepared and ensuring your pet is comfortable happy and safe, which, of course, you should always be.

How to Manage Pet Anticipatory Grief

Regardless of the source of your anticipatory pet grief in order to make the most of the years with your pet there are certain strategies to manage pet anticipatory grief may be helpful.  

Be in the moment. 

Be in the moment as much as you can and make every moment the best moment that you can, that you can. 

Care for your dog’s needs.  

Care for your dog’s needs and ensure that you are doing a good job as his caretaker and be confident in that without worry or concern. 

Recognize the feelings of anticipatory grief.  

Understand and identify feelings of anticipatory grief and change your mindset by trying to be grateful, for the love of your pet and the experiences you have had together.

Enjoy the present with your dog

Engage with the present.  

Enjoy special times you have with your pet now and plan special things to celebrate your pets like getting a treat and tools to care for your dog like in the (Celebrate Senior Dog Box), scheduling a professional photo session, or take that road trip together (check out our bucket list items for you and your dog!)

Spread the joy.  

Spread joy and fun on social media.  Let others share in the fun of having a senior dog with a senior dog Instagram account to capture your fun or share your senior pet with us for our Old Faithful Gallery.  Spreading the word on how much love senior pets have to give us is important for all senior pets.

Have a Good Relationship With Your Vet.  

Dr, Lawler also notes that one excellent way to manage anticipatory grief is to have a good relationship with your vet to ask questions about your pet’s health and longevity and even plan for their passing as far in advance, as you can. Of course, no one ever wants to think about that day. But “knowing what to expect about the medications or the euthanasia process can help relieve uncertainties and anxiety and really can decrease the anxiety and fear that we feel” says Dr. Lawler. 

We know that dealing with any pet grief is difficult let alone anticipatory grief since the love that we have for our pets is so strong and we really come to count on that unconditional love and joy and that source of support that they bring us every single day, even on our worst days.  With these strategies and knowledge that you are not alone we hope that you will further enjoy life with your pet during all years.

Learn more about memorializing your pet in our Pet Memorial Month Resources and Tips for Memorializing Your Pet.

Anticipatory Pet Grief FAQs

How do you deal with anticipatory grief of a pet?

Anticipatory grief can be difficult but it is important to first recognize it, understand your pet is living and celebrate moments today with your pets by being in the moment. Have fun and enjoy your pet with games, photo sessions, lots of treats or spoiling your dog with a massage or pedicure.

What is an example of anticipatory grief of your pet?

An example of anticipatory grief would be constantly worrying or fear that your pet is going to pass. The issue is that you miss the time you do have with your pet with all of your worrying.

Is anticipatory grief worse than real grief?

Some experts suggest that anticipatory grief is worse than real grief as your pet is still alive and they need you. As a result of your grief you may miss some important time with your pet.

Find more dog advice and fun stories in our popular book called Motherpuppin’ Adorable: What to do when your dog is better than everyone else’s the perfect companion for navigating the best life with your dog. Learn more about this loved book.