Pet Loss Support Hotline Closes After 20 Years of Service

Pet owners, take note: The groundbreaking Pet Loss Support Hotline, overseen by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has been discontinued.

Pet owners, take note: The groundbreaking Pet Loss Support Hotline, overseen by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has been discontinued.

The Pet Loss Support Hotline was shut down on June 27 as a result of the scarcity of private donors needed to fund the program, said N.C. Pedersen, Ph.D., director for the Center for Companion Animal Health.

“We attempted to identify donors for the program, but were unable to do so,” he said.

“In light of the great economic problems of the school, we had to make decisions on programs to keep. Programs which were actively succeeding in generating a significant part of their budget were the programs that were retained,” Pedersen continued.

The hotline was founded in 1989 as part of the Veterinary Extension Program. It provided counseling and support for people who had experienced the death of a pet, or who felt that a pet’s death was imminent.

“People are on a continuum of how distraught they are,” said Bonnie Mader, coordinator of the hotline. “They’ll say, ‘I think there’s something wrong with me, I’m really upset about my animal.'”

Mader said that owners sometimes felt the need for reassurance that their sadness was normal.

“You educate the person and let them know that their emotional response is very normal and to be expected when they’re facing the loss of a very beloved animal,” she said.

Mader became interested in providing a pet loss hotline after noticing the popularity of local support groups for people who had experienced the loss of a pet.

The Veterinary School accepted her proposal and set up the service as a privately-funded, voluntary program.

The service was an immediate hit, attracting the attention of local and national media.

“Within a week, we were in a national magazine called USA Weekend,” Mader said. “From that point on, I did at least two interviews a day for two years.”

Other veterinary schools, including Cornell, the University of Florida, and Michigan State University, learned of the phenomenal success of UC Davis’ hotline and created their own.

The hotline was also a hit with veterinary students, who staffed the phone lines as part of an elective class.

Mader estimates the hotline received about 15 calls a week from distraught pet owners of all ages and backgrounds. Throughout their 20-year history, more than 15,000 calls were received.

Mader said she feels that the hotline should have a strong mental health focus.

“I am very pleased that faculty in the veterinary school are acknowledging that the Pet Loss Support Hotline operated fundamentally as a mental health crisis service,” she said. “If it once again becomes operational, it is critical that the person who is in charge … be a properly qualified mental health professional.”

It is not uncommon for pet owners to feel extreme grief just before or after the death of a pet, said Dr. Lynette Hart, professor in the department of population health and reproduction in the school of veterinary medicine.

“The animal fits into the family, for many, in the role of a child. It is not surprising that the loss of the animal is profound and compelling for many people,” Hart said.

The human need to nurture and socialize increases the ability of people to closely bond with their pets, said Dr. Anita Oberbauer, professor and vice chair of the department of animal science.

“Companion animals fill both of these innate needs,” she said. “On top of it, companion animals are viewed as non-judgmental and their role is often one as a close confident, a dear friend. The loss of a close dear friend invokes intense grief.”

The grieving process can take months or even years to resolve.

“For those who were seriously grieving and called the hotline, it was 18 months before half of them had gotten over it,'” Hart said.

The Pet Loss Support Hotline provided an important service to people from all over the United States, especially to people who felt alone in their grief.

“When the loss is felt greatly, and a person does not have someone to whom they can express their grief, the Pet Loss Support Hotline offered an outlet for expression of that grief,” said Oberbauer.

After receiving help from the hotline, callers were eager to show their appreciation.

“We had binders full of thank-you notes that people would send,” Mader said.

Everyone involved in the Pet Loss Support Hotline is hopeful that someday it will be brought back should a permanent funding source be established, Pederson said.

“The hotline was a source of pride to our school,” he said. “[It] is definitely something we would consider reinstating.”

For pet loss resources, including other hotlines, visit

vetmed.ucdavis.edu/CCAH/petloss.cfm.

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.