The death of a cherished dog or cat can be just as devastating as the loss of a relative. Only pet lovers would understand, says Anna Moore.
Although Duffy was ‘just a dog’, and he died four years ago, recalling his last day still feels traumatic for his owner Charlotte. In fact, she says it was the worst day of her life.
‘He was 13 – quite old for a vizsla – and he’d had what we thought was a tummy bug,’ says Charlotte, 47, an interior designer. ‘He was losing weight but still seemed in reasonably good health. Antibiotics hadn’t helped so the vet did some blood tests. I was at a barbecue when he called to say Duffy’s liver was failing, and that he must be feeling very dizzy and weak. He said there was nothing he could do so we made an appointment to have him put to sleep later that day. I finished the call and burst into tears. ‘It was a huge shock.
I went home and Duffy came to say hello, a bit unsteady on his feet. Two hours later we were taking him to his death. I’d had him for 13 years and he trusted me implicitly so I felt like the biggest Judas. Even at the vet’s, who he knew, he wagged his tail.
‘The next few days, weeks and months were horrendous. I’m pretty resilient. I’d been through divorce, job loss, career change, and Duffy had been with me through all of it. Losing him left me utterly bereft. I kept replaying the moment he was put down. Should I have done it sooner, or not done it at all? My children were four and six – they’d grown up with Duffy – and they were devastated. He was central to our family life.
‘I felt a need to talk to friends about it – often bursting into tears – but you have to be careful,’ says Charlotte. ‘From the looks on their faces, I know that many of them were thinking, “Just get over it.” If you’ve suffered a human bereavement, I can see why it might seem self-indulgent to mourn a dog, so a lot of the time I buried my feelings.’
Anyone who has lost a beloved pet has probably experienced a similar ‘but it’s only an animal’ reaction. And yet, as a society, there’s a growing recognition of the grief people experience when a much loved pet dies.
There are helplines offering support and a listening ear. You can buy pet condolence cards, personalised with the name of the pet on the front. Pet funeral businesses are springing up: pet cemeteries with ‘farewell rooms’, bespoke caskets and special pet urns. You can have your pet’s ashes turned into beads, or mingled with ink and tattooed on to your body.
Some newspapers now have a pet obituary page where the bereaved can record their losses or mark the anniversary many years later. A recent one read: ‘My toy poodle Twinkle died in 2000. She had lived with me for 17 years, from when she was a puppy. Some people say toy poodles are mere lapdogs. Not Twinkle, she had a fantastic personality and after all this time I miss her as if she died yesterday.’
Research confirms that the loss of an animal – most often a dog or a cat – can feel as devastating as the loss of a person. One study by the Co-op found that more than a quarter of respondents had found their pet’s death as difficult as the death of a family member, and a third thought it was on a level with the loss of a friend. Nearly half of the bereaved owners were still mourning after two months, and 16 per cent were struggling a year later.
Psychologist John Archer, based at the University of Central Lancashire, questioned 88 people who had lost a cat or a dog in the past year and found the symptoms similar to that of human bereavement – numbness, anger, anxiety, difficulty eating and sleeping, avoidance of painful reminders and mistaking sounds and sights for the missing loved one.
And while all grief is painful, disenfranchised grief – grief that is dismissed by others – is more painful still. Dawn Murray founded the free support service Living with Pet Bereavement for exactly this reason. ‘My mother died, then five months later my dog died,’ she says. ‘There was plenty of support when I lost my mum, but very little for my dog. I quickly discovered that my circle of friends were not animal lovers. They could hardly comprehend why anyone would feel sad about the death of a pet, let alone grieve.’
For Dawn, the grief is easy to understand. ‘I didn’t live with my mum,’ she says. ‘She wasn’t there, part of my life, 24 hours a day like my dog was.’
Former MP Roy Hattersley expressed a similar sentiment after the death of his rescue dog. ‘Buster’s death was the most painful thing I had ever experienced; more painful than losing my mother,’ he said. ‘We were so close. I didn’t put out my mother’s breakfast in the morning or walk her in the evening. She didn’t sleep in a basket in my bedroom. In objective terms, I am sensible enough to put human life above dog life. But one’s affections aren’t objective.’
Likewise, celebrity milliner Philip Treacy understood the apparent absurdity to some of mourning his jack russell, Mr Pig (Grace Jones sang at his funeral), but explained: ‘I saw Mr Pig as my friend, not my dog. He was my everything; he was like my child. He was by my side, day and night, for 12 years. How many humans could you say that about?’
Adding to the sheer volume of time clocked up together is the fact that a pet’s entire life – and death – is down to you. Consequently, your role in it creates a layer of guilt and what-ifs that rarely figure in human bereavement. ‘My mum didn’t depend on me for her very existence,’ says Dawn. ‘But my dog needed me for shelter, food, comfort – for everything. You feel totally responsible for them.
‘Very few pets die of natural causes,’ she continues. ‘Dogs, especially, we euthanise. Or they could be hit by a car, poisoned or have an accident. Every single person who calls my helpline has something troubling them. “I should have known the gate was open”; “If I’d given him different food, he wouldn’t have got cancer”; “I didn’t have the money for more treatment”; “I gave him too much treatment and it prolonged his suffering.”’
Chris Bishop, who runs the helpline for the Animal Samaritans, agrees that guilt is always the main issue. ‘I’ve had calls from every type of person,’ she says. ‘Elderly ladies who’ve lost their only companion; City bankers devastated by the death of a cat; doctors, lawyers, vets, dads who are trying to be the strong ones at home but feeling knocked for six. The first thing they all say is, “If only I’d…”’
According to psychologist Ingrid Collins, the bond between human and cherished pet is unique. ‘The pet can be like your child, but also your parent – where you go for support – as well as your companion. When he or she dies, you lose all three.’
And unlike messy human relationships, pets are simple beings. ‘They’re loyal, reliable, they don’t criticise or contradict or leave,’ says Ingrid. The relationship is also quite exclusive. ‘Everyone outside your family just sees a dog on a lead or a cat asleep on the chair,’ she says.
‘Only the owner understands their pet’s habits, quirks and body language. You can tell from one look what your dog is going to do next and your pet can sense when you’re upset. This lovely pure, open line between you creates an intense bond that is not explicable to anyone else.’
Tania, 37, and a mother of three, can relate to this. ‘My cat Sully died after 15 years with us and I missed him with every fibre of my being,’ she says. ‘He was very loving and sought our company – he wanted to be sitting on you. Every day, he gave me joy. Unlike my children, he didn’t argue or demand anything unreasonable or difficult. Unlike humans, he never let you down. I had maternal feelings towards him, but I also went to him for comfort. Every member of the family had their own special relationship with him.
‘Without him, the house felt flat and dead. I grieved so deeply, and why wouldn’t I? Pets give so much. It doesn’t matter that they don’t speak. I kept thinking I’d heard his paw at the door and remember looking for him in the garden and promising, if he just turned up, there would be no questions asked. Bring on the Faustian pact. It felt unbearable.’
For those lost in grief, the first important step is to understand that it’s normal, says Diane James from the Blue Cross, whose bereavement helpline receives 8,500 calls a year (mainly for dogs, cats and horses, but also guinea pigs, rabbits, even fish).
‘People can be concerned by the depth of their despair,’ she says. ‘The first thing we try to do is normalise it and let them know they’re not alone.’ Many express their fears on popular online forums. On Mumsnet, for example, a user whose dog had died writes: ‘I am truly scared of the grief I am going through… My life hasn’t been without loss – Mum died when I was 13, best friend died last year, others in between – but my dog dying has hit me like nothing ever before.’ Another bereaved dog owner writes that, six months on, she still feels a ‘deep, sudden pain’ most days.
Certain rituals can help, says Diane. ‘Memory boxes, scrapbooks, special areas of the garden, a place to keep the ashes can all become a physical link to the lost pet.’ (Comedian Julian Clary keeps Fanny the Wonder Dog’s ashes in the hall, in a wooden box with her picture above it so he can ‘see her every day when I come home’.)
While some bereaved callers have asked Dawn for advice on taxidermy or pet cloning, others do not know what to do with their pet’s belongings – the collar, bowl, basket or favourite toy. ‘I generally advise them to put them away in a cupboard until they can decide what they would like to keep as a physical reminder,’ she says. ‘Otherwise they might sweep them into a black bin bag and dump them as they are too upset to do anything else, but regret it later.’
For Dawn, the key is listening to someone talk about their pet and, eventually, hearing them laugh. ‘That’s when I know they’re back on track,’ she says. ‘That positive memory will get you through grieving. There will still be blips – you often see a dip at two or three months when the reality kicks in that the pet isn’t coming back. But, generally, after six months the memories aren’t as painful, you accept that life has changed and you can start moving forward.’
‘It leaves you slowly,’ Chris agrees. ‘At first, it’ll be on your mind all day. Then one day, you’ll realise that you haven’t thought about your pet for five minutes. Then it’s an hour, then it’s a day. That’s how it leaves you.’
And this could be the best time to get another one. In the immediate aftermath of Buster’s death, Roy Hattersley felt that ‘another dog waiting on the landing to welcome me home seemed like a betrayal’.
About two months on though, he began to change his mind as ‘not having a dog would have been a denial of all Buster provided. To be true to Buster I had to continue enjoying the dogginess, the canine qualities, the sheer joy of having a dog.’ Enter Jakie, a rescue English bull terrier.
Tania, too, replaced her cat Sully – with the same breed from the same breeder. ‘For a long time, I felt so wretched, the thought of going through a bereavement again was too much,’ she says. ‘But the house felt empty without a cat.
‘Having a pet is a risk – you always have the grief ahead. But that’s the flip side of love.’