“An old man can cry, too”: On companion animals and human grief

            During my senior year of high school, my family had to put our dog, Snickers, down via euthanasia. Snickers was a 7-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and our first family dog. My parents, not knowing much about dogs at the time, bought Snickers from what we would later come to realize was a backyard breeder,[1] and as a result, Snickers, while incredibly sweet, was inbred and had a slew of health issues. He was diagnosed with heart mitral valve disease (MVD), a leading cause of death in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.[2] I still remember the day he died – February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day (my sister, devastated over Snickers’ passing, wrote a tribute to him at school and say he had a “heart too big for Valentine’s Day”). Snickers was choking and coughing incessantly, and it was obvious he was struggling to breathe. It was apparent to all of us that his quality of life had plummeted, but even still it was a gut-wrenching decision to bring him to the emergency animal hospital and put him down. My parents, my siblings and I were all crying and my sister, once Snickers was put down, refused to leave the room for 10 minutes afterwards, sobbing into Snickers’ still body. We all woke up the next day exhausted, drained and sad. But there are no excused absences from school or work for the death of a pet, so off we went to school that morning, at least temporarily – both me and my sister had to leave early because we felt sick and were crying in class. Even though there wasn’t being a rule about leaving school for your dog dying, our teachers and administrators were incredibly sympathetic and assured my mom it wasn’t a problem. They understood the pain.

            Now imagine if I told that story and Snickers was a guinea pig. Would the teachers have still understood?

            When we think about traditional “pets,” such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and fish, there is an implied hierarchy to grief: fish are less important than guinea pigs, which are less important than dogs, and therefore, you should be the most sad about the dog and the least sad about the fish. However, what this does not account for is that grief is neither rational nor linear, and the relationship between a human and an animal is a unique, individualized relationship. This is why I prefer the term “companion animals” to “pets.” Not all humans can understand the loss of a pet, but most can understand the loss of a companion. And a companion animal can be a dog, guinea pig, fish, or any other animal. It is a term that reflects the many ways animals can provide humans with a sense of companionship.

            For example, it has been found that the presence of tropical fish in a room can have a profound impact on humans and blood pressure rates. The tropical fish lower blood pressure rates significantly more than the inanimate objects in the room, despite the fish being in a tank.[3] This means that when the fish are gone, the humans in the room will notice. They will not experience the same blood pressure drop and feeling of relaxation. In fact, the humans may even feel sad that the fish are not there anymore. And this, according to Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, is what truly defines a companion animal: “In the end, we know they are companion animals because when they die, we miss them, we grieve, and we notice they are gone.”[4]

            Despite the term “companion animals” being inclusive of all animals by name, dogs and cats are still the animals most associated with the term, and therefore, the animals with the most research on loss and grief. One study created a Mourning Dog Questionnaire to evaluate the process a human goes through when grieving the loss of a dog.[5] These researchers found that the 369 Italian dog owners surveyed perceived the loss of their dogs as similar to the loss of an immediate family member, as the owners viewed their dogs as part of the family. A second survey conducted at the University of Michigan-Flint found similar results when they surveyed 174 adult cat and dog owners using a different survey instrument.[6] They found that 85.7% of the owners surveyed experienced at least one symptom of grief upon the loss of their cat or dog, and that symptoms of grief lasted anywhere from six months to a year, with the average length of grieving being around 10 months.

            Although the abundance of research on the grief humans experience when their companion animal dies is focused on cats and dogs, when the studies expand to include other species, the grieving process stays the same. A survey of 400 Japanese pet owners found that over half of the bereaved pet owners experienced neurotic symptoms shortly after the death of their pets, rates similar to those observed during spousal loss.[7] These owners were not just grieving the losses of cats and dogs, but also of chickens, parakeets, rabbits and hamsters – and despite that, the grief of the owners was just as strong.

            It is not just the research that is starting to show that if one views an animal as a companion, regardless of species, the loss of the animal will have a profound impact on the owner or caretaker – it is also the anecdotes and stories from the humans themselves. The pain of companion animal loss is frequently captured online, as many people write and post tributes to their deceased animals on the internet. As Kirsten Schultz wrote in her post “What My Guinea Pig Oreo Passing Away Taught Me About Myself,” when her guinea pig Oreo died, “I spent a lot of time crying and chiding myself for not preventing death from stealing this little bub from us,” as Oreo was “not just a pet.”[8] She writes that following Oreo’s passing both she and her husband were “both inconsolable, barely sleeping but more holding each other and crying.” Other stories detail similar pain. When Alex, a parrot who made national news for having a confirmed vocabulary of over 100 English words that he could understand, passed away in 2007, his owner and trainer, Irene Pepperberg, described it as “the worst day of my life.”[9] More recently, Harambe, a 17 year old silverback gorilla, had to be shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 3 year old boy climbed into his enclosure. The public shooting of an endangered animal combined with the gross negligence of the parents let to a societal outcry and made national headlines. However, to some, the death was not just a public spectacle or horrifying news story, but the loss of a companion. Jerry Stones, Harambe’s caretaker for 15 years: “An old many can cry, too. He was a special guy in my life. Harambe was my heart. It’s like losing a member of the family.”[10]

             The outcry over Harambe is one example of a new phenomenon in companion animal grief: as traditional pets become more a part of the family, and the internet and social media make videos and stories of animals more accessible, even when we aren’t directly a companion of the animal, we still feel the pain a companion would, albeit temporarily. Dr. Susan Cohen DSW, who was the Director of Counseling at the Animal Medical Center in New York City for 20 years, notes that “[our] affection for companion animals has perhaps changed how we view the natural world… as a result, more people seem passionately interested both in individual animals and in the larger issues of animal keeping and species preservation.”[11] When Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, passed away at age 45 in 2018, it wasn’t just his keepers who mourned. Many people across the world grieved the rhino’s passing. Nargis Fakhri, an American actress who met Sudan before his passing on a trip, wrote that “When I heard Sudan had died, I felt like humanity had failed. A feeling of hopelessness took over.”[12] Ed Yong, a staff science writer for the Atlantic magazine, remarked that “Sudan’s death is certainly a tragedy—the heartbreaking end of a momentous individual life, and a moment of symbolic import for the world.”[13] I myself remember feeling a deep sadness and sense of loss when reading about Sudan’s passing, feelings which came up again as I read the tributes by Fakhri and Yong. I was able to read many articles about Sudan and see pictures and videos of online. I saw how Sudan’s caretakers interacted with him and saw the love that was there. As a result, I related the pain Sudan’s caretakers were going through to the pain I experienced when Snickers passed. While Snickers’ death was not a symbol of larger issues with poaching and climate change as Sudan’s was, at the most granular level, the pain was similar: Sudan and Snickers were companion animals, and their respective caretakers were saddened and grieved over their losses.            

            Grieving over the loss of any companion animal is normal. There has been a rise in programs that can provide support for owners or caretakers follow the loss of a companion animal, like the Honoring the Bond program at OSU[14], which provides access to social workers and pet loss support groups free of charge for companion animal owners who use their veterinary clinic. As grieving the loss of companion animals continues to be more accepted by society, we need to be mindful that how a loss impacts a human is driven more by closeness and relationship than by species. There is no “ranking” for companion animal losses. Hopefully, more research will be done on how the deaths of companion animals of all types impact humans emotionally, mentally and physically, so we can provide all owners and caretakers the support they need. In the meantime, if you are struggling with grief due to a companion animal’s death, no matter whether it’s a dog or a koala, you should reach out to a friend, family member or therapist for further help. You are not alone.   

[1] Beware Backyard Breeders. (2017, September 16). Retrieved December 8, 2019, from Animal League America website: https://www.animalleague.org/blog/tips/pet-adoption/beware-backyard-breeders/

[2] Swift, S., Baldin, A., & Cripps, P. (2017). Degenerative Valvular Disease in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Results of the UK Breed Scheme 1991–2010. Journal of veterinary internal medicine, 31(1), 9-14.

[3] Axelrod, H. R., & Schultz, L. P. (1983). Handbook of tropical aquarium fishes. TFH publications.

[4] Zawistowski, S. (2008). Companion animals in society. Delmar Pub

[5] Uccheddu, S., et al. (2019). Pet Humanisation and Related Grief: Development and Validation of a Structured Questionnaire Instrument to Evaluate Grief in People Who Have Lost a Companion Dog. Animals, 9(11), 933. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31703410

[6] Wrobel, T. A., & Dye, A. L. (2003). Grieving pet death: Normative, gender, and attachment issues. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 47(4), 385-393. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2190/QYV5-LLJ1-T043-U0F9

[7] Kimura, Y., Kawabata, H., & Maezawa, M. (2013). Frequency of neurotic symptoms shortly after the death of a pet. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 13-0231.

[8] Schultz, K. (2016, December 29). What My Guinea Pig Oreo Passing Away Taught Me About Myself. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from Medium website: https://medium.com/@KirstenSchultz/what-my-guinea-pig-oreo-passing-away-taught-me-about-myself-e117c741ce66

[9] Chandler, D. (2007). Farewell to a famous parrot. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/news070910-4

[10] Bult, L. (n.d.). Former caretaker mourns death of Harambe, gorilla killed after toddler fell into his cage; family thanks Cincinnati Zoo for “quick action.” Retrieved November 24, 2019, from Nydailynews.com website: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/caretaker-gorilla-killed-cincinnati-zoo-mourns-loss-article-1.2653971

[11] Cohen, S. (2019). Loss, Grief, and Bereavement in the Context of Human-Animal Relationships. NEW DIRECTIONS IN THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND, 395.

[12] Fakhri, N. (2018, December 20). This Photo of the Last Rhino of His Kind Helped Define 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2019, from Time website: https://time.com/5482842/time-top-10-photos-2018-sudan-northern-white-rhino/

[13] Yong, E. (2018, March 20). Sudan, the Last Male Northern White Rhino, Is Dead. Retrieved November 24, 2019, from The Atlantic website: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/03/sudan-northern-white-rhino-death/556058/

[14] Honoring the Bond, Support for Animal Owners. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2019, from The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center website: https://vet.osu.edu/vmc/companion/our-services/honoring-bond-support-animal-owners