The Animal Connection

A new perspective on what makes us human.

Why Does It Hurt so Much to Lose a Pet?

Are pets "just a pet" or are they much much more?

One of my two cats, Jennifer, died about a month ago.  I am still grieving.  She was not elderly but oldish and a rather sensitive, insecure cat.  We don’t even really know what happened, but a catsitter inadvertently locked her in a room with no food, water, or litter box for hours.  When we got home, she was screaming at the top of her lungs – and this is a cat who hardly ever voiced anything. She was an expert at The Look, which was perfectly effective at getting my husband and me to do whatever she wanted and much less effort than vocalizing.

She was so stressed at being locked in and abandoned that she lost about 1/3 of her body fur.  Her nose and chin were rubbed raw from pushing on the door and she had practically ripped her claws out trying to pry the door open.  From being an absolute beauty, she went to looking like the most pathetic feral animal you’ve ever seen. After 10 days of veterinary treatment, many unhelpful tests, a biopsy, and drugs that made her incontinent, she was even worse and more distressed.  She lost nearly half her body weight despite eating voraciously. She would still purr when stroked gently but we couldn’t do anything to make her feel better. Was it ‘only” stress?  Had she contracted an infection, a disease, or were her organ systems breaking down?  Neither we nor the vet could figure it out. Finally we decided it was torture to keep her alive when she felt so bad and had her put to sleep. It seemed the kindest thing we could do.

It was a horrible death for a beloved and very spoiled cat, whose life we had tried to make perfect My husband and I have just stopped listening for her footfall or looking for her, but we still have bad dreams and pain in our hearts. I am working hard at forgetting how she suffered those last few weeks & focusing on remembering her funny and playful ways. It brings tears to my eyes to write about her.

One way of coping with her loss is to wonder why it hurts so much.  She was a companion, a personality, a being with a mind and opinions of her own. She was a member of our family and a part of the glue of emotions and interactions that hold us together.  Not only do many pet owners view their pets as family, I actually think they are family, if family is the group you live with on a daily basis, interact with, take into consideration in making decisions, compromise for, share with, and love. I can think of no better word to describe the intricate, deep bond we have with our pets than love. 

And now I have leftover love with no target to direct it to.  There is no question I still love my husband and our other cat, who has always favored me over my husband as Jennifer favored him. But I have more love to give and no one to give it to.  I miss the complexity, the amusement, the joy, and even the occasional nuisance that Jennifer was. Yes, when she’d wake me up in the middle of the night to come check her food dish (which was invariably NOT empty), I thought she was a nuisance.  But I’d sacrifice a little sleep to have her back, no question.  I know another cat could never replace her, would be a different character with different likes & dislikes, but I still ponder if that would be the right thing to do.

What it comes down to is that humans have a need to love. The pets/companions/furry family members that once helped us survive by protecting us, helping us hunt, or killing rodents that threated our food stores now help us survive by broadening our awareness of the rest of the world, by cohabiting with us, by receiving and giving love.

Maybe we literally need someone to love.  Maybe accepting and returning that love is the greatest gift.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

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