When Ava Myjak's nine-year-old wheaten terrier Mimi developed bone cancer, her pet's playful gait slowly lost its lightness. The heartbreaking sight of Mimi having trouble walking signalled to Myjak that it was time to do what she feared most.
After Mimi was put down a year ago last January, coming home to no wagging tail was the worst part of Myjak's day.
"There would be no more doggie to greet me and no Mimi to hug," she says between hushed sobs. "It's the best greeting you can get. No human can give you this."
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Sandra Barker, director for the Center of Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it's taken a while for employers to recognize the grief experienced by people who lose a pet. But Barker says she's excited to hear about companies shifting their policies to accommodate grieving pet owners.
Shoppers Drug Mart is one of the Canadian companies offering flexibility to employees who are dealing with a death in the family. A spokesperson said the company's idea of family includes pets.
'Like losing a child'
They're not focused. They're just not fully there and need the time to grieve in order to be their best self again. - Corrinne Allyson, Victoria-based counsellor and therapist
Under the Canada Labour Code, bereavement leave entitlement applies when a member of an employee's immediate family dies. The employee is permitted to leave on any normal working day within the three-day period following the death.
Dr. Lianna Titcombe, director for the Pet Loss Support Group of Ottawa, says it's important for companies to introduce standing policies for bereavement time off for the death of a pet. "Many people who come through the door of the support group see the loss of their pet as significant as the loss of a spouse and many relate it to like losing a child, especially the ones who do not have human children," she says.
While employers are not expected to, it's not uncommon for many to quietly grant bereaved pet owners time off on a case-by-case basis under other paid-time or sick leave policies.
"In many cases, an employee can't perform their best after a loss of a pet. They're not focused. They're just not fully there and need the time to grieve in order to be their best self again," says Victoria-based counsellor and therapist Corrinne Allyson.
That was the case for Katie Coombes, a sales associate at Fido, who took four days off work to cope with the loss of her dog. She says her store manager was kind and understanding. Coombes says she had her cockapoo, Maggie, since she was six years old and spent more years of her life with her companion than without.
When Coombes came back to work, her co-workers greeted her with raised eyebrows and thought her sadness was "overdramatic" and "ridiculous," she says.
"I've lost people in my life. I've lost my pet. And it has felt the same," she says. Her grandfather died a month after Maggie was put down. "I've been totally devastated on both occasions because they were both my family."
'Pet bereavement days'
Research shows that Coombes isn't the only one to feel like this. A study Barker co-authored called, "The Human-Canine Bond: Closer than family ties?" found no significant difference in emotional closeness between people and their pet dogs, versus people and their closest family members.
"The pets have been constant in [pet owners'] lives," Barker says. "When a pet dies there's a tremendous sense of loss and people are not only grieving the loss of the animal but all those things that the animal symbolized, all those unique aspects of their life that they shared."
The push in Canada for paid time off following the death of a pet comes as some U.S. companies have started offering "pet bereavement days."
Kimpton, a San Francisco-based restaurant and hotel group, made Fortune's "Best companies for dog and cat lovers" list for giving its pet-loving employees perks like pet insurance, bereavement leave, and on-site amenities like water bowls, treats, beds and toys.
Not 'just a pet'
Suzi Beber, founder of The Smiling Blue Skies, a pet support group that offers a free pet-loss hotline, says she has seen the strong connection between people and their pets on many occasions.
"Losing that pet is huge but people who they work with might think it's crazy because it's 'just a pet.'"
Experts have called this a "disenfranchised grief" because it's a grief that's not always supported or understood by society.
"Grief is not something you can just pack away in a box and put up in the closet. It's something you take out from time to time and revisit," says Beber. "Sometimes I find that grief just flows over you like a wave and it comes when you least expect it."