Pet Love, Pet Loss
A grief too often misunderstood.
Posted Jun 18, 2019
They were extraordinary kittens with a hardscrabble beginning. Stuffed into a cardboard box with their three siblings and thrown into a junkyard on a hot summer day, the three-week-old kittens were close to death when a mail carrier heard their faint cries, picked up the box and rushed to a local vet.
The vet spent a month nursing the kittens back to health before giving them away to carefully selected clients. She insisted that two of the kittens were so bonded that they needed to stay together.
So Timmy and Gus were the last kittens left the day I walked in to get medication for our dying 17-year-old cat. I was not wanting kittens just then, but I took one look at those two and knew immediately that we were meant to be together.
They turned out to be our best cats ever.
Timmy, a red tabby and Burmese mix, was unusually affectionate and outgoing, actually working with me occasionally in my practice when a client asked for animal-assisted therapy. Gus, a big, soft red tabby, was wonderfully sweet, a living lesson in unconditional love. My husband and I adored them. I even wrote a book about them, the now out-of-print Purr Therapy. Suffice it to say that every day we had together was joyous.
They are both gone now. Timmy died a month before his ninth birthday, a victim of melamine poisoning in the tainted cat food scandal of 2007. Gus lived to be 16, loving and nurturing us as well as embracing a new generation of adopted kittens before cancer took his life five years ago.
In the wake of our deep love and our crushing loss, we heard comments from others who were judgmental, minimizing or simply puzzled.
“I mean, he was just a cat,” one co-worker told me as I fought tears the day after Timmy’s unexpected death. “Are you turning into a crazy cat lady or what? It’s not like he was family.”
But he was.
Many others share the belief that their animal companions are, indeed, family. But often this love and the grief that follows when an animal companion’s life – always too short – comes to an end remains a secret, lest one get a reputation as a crazy cat person or as a pathetic soul who loves animals because close human relationships prove elusive.
Studies show that reality is quite different: people who form loving connections with animals demonstrate an enhanced capacity for love, empathy, and compassion. In one study, college students who had a high level of attachment to their dogs were also highly attached to their mothers, siblings, and best friends. They also had lower levels of anxiety.
The health benefits of having an animal companion are well documented across all generations – with children who grow up with pets showing greater empathy, self-esteem, and cognitive development, and with seniors who have pets experiencing fewer minor health problems, fewer doctor visits, more mobility and a greater sense of well-being.
The relationship with a treasured animal companion can be unique. One woman told researchers that her relationship with her dog “is the only uncomplicated relationship in my life.”
In one study comparing relationships with animals and with spouses, the animal companion bonds with their humans were found to be “more secure on every measure.”
And in a study of women under stress, five recently widowed women told amazingly similar stories about their wishes to spend more time alone with their dogs. They all explained that, while they appreciated the attention of family and friends, their dogs were a special comfort to them. After all, the bond with their dogs was something they had shared with their husbands and they all felt that they could be themselves – with no social pretensions or expectations to be brave and stoic – most readily with their animal companions.
So it’s not surprising that we grieve our special animals as deeply as we may mourn our human family members and friends – but often without the social support extended with human losses.
How does one deal with the pain of loss?
Grieve in your own unique ways. Cry when you need to. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up, whether anger or guilt or simply overwhelming sadness. Journal about your late pet or about your feelings of loss. Breathe deeply as you hold a favorite toy or possession of your beloved animal companion. One friend wore her cat's collar on her wrist for a time after his death. My husband and I consoled ourselves by making a photo collage of our years with Timmy and Gus shortly after we lost Gus.
Do whatever brings you comfort. Don’t let your grieving process be derailed or dictated by those who minimize your loss or say you’re silly to cry. If you don’t get the support you need from those closest to you, seek it elsewhere. But don’t hide or deny your feelings of grief just because someone else thinks it’s silly to mourn a companion animal.
Realize that negative reactions to your feelings of loss may signal complicated issues in another. A family member may be jealous of the closeness you shared with this special animal or fearful that your loving commitment to him or her may be less intense. Others, who have never had the benefit of closeness with animals, may lack empathy and understanding. Some struggle with issues of mortality and find grief in another unsettling. And some people have internal stores of anger and judgment that have nothing to do with you or your late pet.
A neighbor of mine, tearful over the loss of her wonderful dog, was weeping quietly as she worked at gardening in her front yard. Another neighbor stopped and asked her what was wrong. When she told her, the woman snorted with disgust and disdain. “That’s what you get for not having children,” she said. “Dogs are no substitute. It’s pathetic to think otherwise.” This woman had three adult children but was estranged from all of them. She defended herself against her own grief with her hostility and righteous anger.
Seek support from those who understand instead of isolating yourself. This support may come from friends and family members who truly understand what it means to lose a beloved pet. Or it may come from a local pet loss support group or from an online service. Two resources to consider:
- Petloss.com, a website for pet lovers experiencing a loss or anticipatory grief with a terminally ill pet. This site offers a state-by-state guide to pet loss groups as well as chat rooms with supportive, online conversations about loss.
- ASPCA also offers a Pet Loss Hotline (877-GRIEF-10 ) where you can talk with someone about your grief or about making the painful decision to euthanize a beloved pet who is suffering.
Give yourself time to grieve. As you may know well from other losses, the grief process isn’t a straight and orderly path. You may veer between acceptance and renewed pain. Be gentle with yourself when you have a setback. And don’t rush into quick fixes. You may choose, in time, to get another companion animal. But one animal never truly replaces another. Trust your own sense of what is right for you when deciding whether or when to open your heart and your home to another animal companion.
Find comfort and healing in warm memories. There can be comfort and healing in remembering all that was wonderful, all that you loved about your lost pet. Maybe you'll choose to memorialize your beloved pet with a poem or a photo collage or a contribution to an animal charity. Perhaps you find comfort most days in simply remembering your life together. Sometimes these memories will bring tears. But, as time goes by, the memories also can be a source of joy and immense gratitude as you remind yourself that you had the good fortune to know and to love a very special animal.
Walsh, Froma, Human-Animal Bonds: The relational significance of companion animals. Family Process, Vol. 48, December 2009, pp. 462-480.
Beck, L and Madresh, E.D. Romantic partners and four-legged friends: An extension of attachment theory to relationships with pets. Anthrozoos, 2008, 21(1), pp. 43-56
Kurdek, L. (2008). Pet dogs as attachment figures. Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 25(2), pp. 247-266.
Allen, K.M. (1995). Coping with life changes and transitions: the role of pets. Interaction, 13(3), pp. 5-8.
Melson, G.F. (2003). Child development and the human-companion animal bond. Animal Behavioral Scientist, 47 (1); pp. 31-39.