Purdue University Graduate School

Family Communication About Companion Animal Death and Dying: A Systems Approach

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posted on 2022-07-29, 03:17 authored by Sara KaufmanSara Kaufman

Humans and domesticated animals have lived alongside one another for thousands of years, yet scholars have only recently begun to examine how companion animals, or pets, influence human lives (Knight, 2005). Today, 67 percent of United States households contain companion animals (APPA, 2019-2020) and many people consider their pets as family (Irvine & Cilia, 2017; McConnell et al., 2019). Given this, the death and dying period for pets can bring about distinctive concerns and difficulties within the family system, yet little is known about how individuals navigate the pet end-of-life period within the family, and how family communication manifests in this context. This study aimed to understand the interactional challenges for families communicating about the end-of-life period for their pets. Guided by family systems theory (FST) as an analytic framework, the goal was to better understand these dynamics using qualitative methods to address two main research questions. First, what are the challenges families face during the companion animal death and dying period? And second, how do families respond communicatively to these challenges? This qualitative study used a grounded theory approach to analyze 27 in-depth interviews with individuals who had experienced a death of their pet in the prior year and centered on how families described the place of their pets within the system. Of those participants, 14 individuals consisted of family dyads (51%) in various subgroups of partners, parent-child and siblings. Analysis affirmed some of what is known from the literature (such as feelings of guilt and financial worries associated with pet end-of-life) but also extended what is known by documenting family decision-making dilemmas, such as the dialectic tension between holding on and letting go, as well as noting the reverberations through the family of avoiding talk about death and disruptions to family communication after death. This manifested in primarily a decrease in talk about the pet or talk with family members (both in-person and mediated channels) or an increase in talk following the death. These findings suggest that pet death has the potential to disrupt a family's regular communication patterns.

These findings affirmed that supportive communication after a death loss is important to individuals and particularly helpful from others with prior pet loss experience. Along with social support, participants indicated that the artifacts left behind after the death of their pet provided comfort and were also elements of tension and cohesion within the system. As scholars suggest, companion animals are liminal creatures, existing as kin and "other" within the family (Irvine & Cilia, 2017; Sayers et al. 2022). Indeed, participants described their pets as existing in a space at the edge of true family member whose fate was exclusively in the hands of the family, particularly in the context of euthanasia, which contributed to some of the communicative challenges identified. 

Given limitations of a mostly regional and homogenous sample and the conceptual limitation of extrapolating from two individuals in a family to the whole system, this study was still able to take the next step needed for understanding the communicative challenges faced by families in confronting pet death. Findings extend the concept of pet-as-family, in that pets were found to be an element of the "family tapestry" serving the role of both emotional support and kin for some family members. In that manner, they were also discovered as integral to the family timeline, a catalyst for connection between family members, and thus worthy of further study from a communication and family system perspective.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Communication

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Felicia Roberts

Additional Committee Member 2

Ralph Webb

Additional Committee Member 3

Emily Buehler

Additional Committee Member 4

Heather Servaty-Seib

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