Cinnamon, Mary Kunkel’s little white terrier — like a surprising number of adorable dogs these days — has her own Facebook page. “Squirrel Chasing Inc” is listed as her occupation.
And on Feb. 28, Cinnamon’s page was exuberant.
“One year ago today, I had a grapefruit-sized tumor removed from my liver and a recent ultrasound was clear,” Cinnamon’s page said. “Celebrating!”
The celebration didn’t last. Two months later, the Kunkels had to make the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize Cinnamon. The loss was devastating.
“If I had talked to you a few days after she died, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without breaking down,” Kunkel says.
But now more than ever, numerous resources have cropped up to assist pet owners left reeling from their loss. There are entire hotlines, online support groups, trained veterinarians and therapists dedicated to helping bereaved pet owners who are struggling with grief.
At Washington State University, veterinary students get specific training for how to console grieving patients. Charlie Powell, spokesman for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says that veterinary students staff a hotline that those mourning a lost pet can call.
“The bond between humans and animals has become greater over time,” Powell says. At one time, we saw pets as a tool — a horse to pull a cart, a dog to hunt with, a cat to catch mice. Today, they’re our best friends.
“We’ve had a few people threaten suicide over the loss of their animal,” Powell continues, “It’s very common for people to lock themselves in their exam room after euthanasia and grieve with their pets for hours at a time.”
One big message that the pet-loss hotline assures callers: It’s natural to be heartbroken.
“There’s nothing wrong with grieving,” Powell says. “It’s perfectly OK for the big burly 300-pound cop whose canine companion has died to bawl his eyes out and miss work.”
In Spokane, Bob Brandkamp used to have a professional therapy practice focused entirely on helping people through the grief of a loss of a pet. After his license expired, he stopped charging money for it, but still meets with people to help them through the process.
“Grief is grief,” Brandkamp says. “You go through the same stages if you lose a human that you know.”
He assures people they needn’t feel guilty about their pet’s death.
“It’s nothing that they’ve done,” he says. “They’ve done everything within their power to give them the most amount of care.”
For Cinnamon’s owner Kunkel, a crucial part of the healing process was helped along by the veterinarian who euthanized the dog. Kunkel didn’t bring Cinnamon to a veterinary clinic. She called up Spokane veterinarian Lacey Rasmussen and asked her to come to the Kunkels’ house.
In her last moments, Kunkel says, “Cinnamon got to be at home and lay in her favorite spot.”
Veterinary clinics or hospitals can be stressful places for pets, Rasmussen says. So she drives out to the place of a pet owner’s choosing, conducting the euthanizations in living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms and backyards.
The pets, she says, “fall asleep like they’ve fallen asleep a hundred times before.” It’s a peaceful moment, and a chance for the whole family to say goodbye to their pet. One kid, she remembers, played a song for his dog over his Bluetooth speakers as the dog was falling asleep.
Sometimes, Rasmussen will take a piece of soft clay and press pets’ paws into it, to create a permanent momento.
“We can leave something with them,” Rasmussen says. “It’s hard when you take the pet away and they’re left with the empty spot.”
Similarly, Family Pet Memorial in Spokane offers ornate pet urns, necklaces and keychains that a cremated pet’s ashes can be placed in.
Kunkel says that Rasmussen’s presence was helpful. But the loss, months later, still lingers.
“I still have a hard time looking at pictures,” Kunkel says. “When Cinnamon died, there was this big void. We have a cat. The cat tries, but it’s not the same.”
A female dolphin may carry its deceased calf around for days, until the body is in such a state of decomposition that only the head or part of the body remains. New research published in the journal Zoology suggests that this behaviour is evidence that dolphins grieve for their dead.
The scientific discipline known as comparative thanology examines how animals respond behaviourally, physiologically and psychologically to dead members of their own species.
It is a somewhat tricky field, for the experience of grief and its expression varies widely even between the cultures of our own species, and for many cognitive scientists the jury is still out regarding whether animals have a concrete understanding of death and its finality. Still, the use of the word “grieving” in an animal context has been increasingly accepted since Jane Goodall’s landmark study of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in 1986.
Accounts of whales and dolphins caring for or attending dead or dying individuals have been reported since the 1950s, and are observed by cetacean watchers and researchers worldwide. Lead author Giovanni Bearzi from the Dolphin Biology and Conservation Group, based in Italy, along with an international team of colleagues, decided to conduct a comprehensive literature review to investigate patterns and variation in this behaviour in cetaceans.
The team analysed 78 records reported between 1970 and 2016, and adopted a weighted comparative approach to take observation effort into account – mainly because dolphins are much more readily observed than large whale species which tend to be out in deep water and submerged for longer.
Toothed whales were much more likely than baleen whales to attend to their dead. In fact, dolphins accounted for 92.3% of 78 records, and baleen whales only 1.3%. An analysis of relative brain size across the cetaceans found that the taxa with larger relative brain sizes are more likely to interact with their dead. This finding is consistent with the concept that sociality in mammals is closely associated with encephalisation, also known as the “social brain” hypothesis.
While dolphins had many records, killer whales or orcas (Orcinas orca), which are also highly social, had surprisingly low incidences of attending the dead. More systematic reporting may reveal this behaviour in orcas and sperm whales (Physeter microcephalus), but the study suggests it may be less prevalent in species which move in fast swimming pods, or are deep divers.
So what is going on with the dolphins and their behaviour towards dead members of their species? Are they grieving? The majority of sightings were of an adult female carrying a dead calf, presumably her own. In some cases, the behaviour was observed between mothers and other females in the group.
“If one accepts that at some point cetaceans do ‘recognise’ death – an aspect that is still controversial among cetacean scientists including co-authors of this study,” says lead author Bearzi, “then three phases of post-mortem attentive behaviour may be considered.”
In the first of these phases, the female attempts to revive or protect the calf or stricken adult. There is adaptive value in this action as it may result in the recovery of the individual.
In the second, the dead individual is carried around for days, even to the point of putrefaction and the “finality of death is cognitively recognised but possibly not emotionally accepted”.
The study posits that the strong attachment between mother and calf, or between closely knit members of the group, results in “a difficulty of ‘letting go’—possibly related to grieving, or perhaps individuals failing to recognise or accept that an offspring or companion has died”.
In the final stage, the dolphin loses interest in the carcass, and returns to its normal behaviour.
Grieving behaviour in our close relatives the chimpanzees and other large-brained, highly social primates is largely accepted in the scientific world. This research suggests that even mammals evolutionarily distant from Homo sapiens may also mourn.
Most of the time I am confident I know what is going on in my dog’s head; it’s not hard to figure out. Researchers believe that dogs think on the same level as a human toddler; about two and half years old. Having raised kids and dogs, both, I concur with that belief. But I admit to being surprised by Topper’s reaction to Chili’s death, now 10 days ago.
It has been a conscious plan on my part to always have multiple dogs, usually four, separated in age by about four years. I have done that to insure I am never left dog-less as the older ones pass away. By keeping about four years between the puppies that come to live with me, I have never had to worry that the dogs would become so attached to one another they would end up being companions for each other and not me. It is something that I often give advice and write about; for most families it is not good to take two puppies from the same litter and raise them together. For very active dog owners; those who play dog sports and show their dogs, the inherent problems of raising two puppies together can be circumvented, but for “average family dog owners” it is a huge mistake to raise litter mates together. New puppy owners often think raising two together would be great, so the puppies are not alone. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Two puppies raised together in a backyard develop astonishing behavior problems. Anytime one dog is taken for a walk or a trip to the vet; the one left behind usually goes crazy; vocalizing and often displaying destructive behavior in their frustration, because they’ve never been alone before. I have been told by many owners of a “pair of dogs” how difficult it is for the survivor when one dog dies, but I have never experienced that kind of behavior myself, with my own dogs, probably because of the number and ages of my dogs.
It was (and still is) hard on me losing my beloved Chili, at only 10 years of age. In fact, at this moment, I’m in an angry stage of grief; pissed off at the universe that Chili was taken so young; we should have had five more years together, but I never anticipated how hard losing Chili would be for Topper. A couple of years ago my Schipperke, Bigfoot Bob, died at a young age for a Schip; 13 years old, of cancer.
I started looking for a new puppy last year, but after a “dog deal” going bad with a miserable, dishonest breeder and costing me over $400. I gave up trying to get another pup, leaving me with three dogs. Several months ago, Sweet Little Annie, my Chihuahua, went to live with a good friend in Corning. It was a better home for Annie, with another small dog in the household. That left me with the two Toller boys; Chili and Topper. With Chili’s sudden death, I’m down to one dog and poor Topper has never been an “only dog” before. For the first time in my life, I am now experiencing a grieving dog.
A couple of years ago Chili and Topper were separated for a few days when my friends took Chili off to a flyball tournament. The team needed him, but I couldn’t attend, so Maureen took him. Topper didn’t act any differently, certainly didn’t appear to miss Chili so I guess that’s the other reason I have been so surprised by his behavior now.
Topper was present when Chili died, which raises more questions for me, about how cognizant dogs actually are. Could Topper tell the difference between Chili simply being away from home and dying, knowing he’d never see him again? After my friend picked up Chili for burial that night, Topper was in my room with me.
He was unsettled; wouldn’t lie down and relax and kept glancing at my bed, where Chili normally laid. I stripped the blankets and cover off the bed so there would be no remaining scent of Chili. I didn’t sleep that first night and neither did Topper. Instead of just flopping down and snoring, like usual, he propped himself up against the dresser and kept his head up, resisting sleep the way a kid does; head bobbing as sleep overtook him. His overall demeanor was depressed; he didn’t prick his ears or looked interested in anything. He also clung to me, following my every move. I took him outside and threw a bumper. For the first time in his life, he did not want to retrieve or play at all. We went to the farm and Tops still looked depressed. He finally retrieved a couple of times when we were playing on the pool cover, but his heart was not in it. I borrowed one of my friend’s young female dogs to bring home for Topper, thinking a new playful dog might cheer him up. Nope, didn’t help. For a couple of days, Topper went into the yard, did his business quickly, then lay under my bedroom window whining until I brought him back in the house and wouldn’t give the visiting dog the time of day. Last weekend we went to the farm again, to take my visitor home and Tops still acted depressed. He played and retrieved only a little bit while we were there.
Topper had a favorite flappy toy that he played with like crazy, by himself. That toy was completely destroyed a couple of weeks ago by a visiting German Shepherd. I asked my friends to keep an eye out for a replacement. Maureen found one and brought it over. It was brand new, still attached to the cardboard packaging when I called Topper outside and showed him the new toy. He went crazy, doing a happy dance! I’ve never seen such a reaction to a toy. He grabbed it and immediately did several laps around the yard before trying to get me to throw it for him. Playing with his new favorite toy, Topper appears to be feeling much better about being the only dog. He is still very clingy, not wanting to be away from me, but at least he perks right up when we go out to play retrieve with his new toy. I can’t help but wonder if he would have reacted the same way, if I had given him the new toy, the night Chili died. I don’t have nearly enough dogs now! After this incident, I clearly need at least three at a time. I’ve got a new Schipperke puppy coming in just a few more weeks, but after that, I think I still will need another dog before the year is out.
[I] killed my dog last year. Mika was a shelter mutt, so she was around 10 or 12 years old; I can’t be sure. Twelve dog years would have put her at around 80 human years, which is a pretty good run. But what’s strange about having a dog is how quickly they age relative to us – they start out younger than we are, catch up for a time, and then pass us by, declining into their twilight years, all in the space of a decade or so. As witnesses to that accelerated timeline, having a pet means that we often end up experiencing their eventual demise and learning something about death in the process.
Mika was a great dog. Obviously abused before ending up at the shelter, she had scars on her head when I rescued her and, whenever I took a broom or rake in my hand, she would cower in fear. She was easily overwhelmed when other dogs came up to sniff her, and would often growl defensively. But with time she grew to be less apprehensive and almost pathologically affectionate, if there is such a thing with animals, demanding to be petted by anyone who happened to be near. She was a great companion watching TV on the couch during my single years, and she helped me win the attention of the woman, a veterinarian, who would eventually become my wife. In fact, my wife has often joked – and maybe it isn’t a joke at all – that she would never have gone out with me in the first place if I hadn’t had a dog.
For whatever reason, the way I’d always pictured the proper death of one’s dog was like a scene taken from the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller (1956): after years of steadfast companionship, when man’s best friend no longer derives joy from chasing rabbits and can barely lift his head, his owner has to muster the resolve to get out the rifle to put him out of his misery. Although an oddly bucolic fantasy for someone living in Los Angeles, at least part of it was no doubt influenced by how I’d learned to think about death as a physician.
In human medicine, we’re used to implementing any and every life-saving intervention right up to the very end. As a medical intern 20 years ago, I remember thinking about the futility of that approach with patients in pain and suffering from multisystem organ failure, sustained only by machines and a regimen of some 30 or 40 medications, and unlikely to ever make it out of the hospital. What was the point? Whatever happened to quality of life? But those reservations be damned, we never gave up, and among the interns who transferred care to each other from shift to shift, the dictum of patients ‘not dying on my watch’ was something to which we all held fast.
As long as there were no ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders in the chart asking us to withhold ‘heroic efforts’, we rarely considered doing anything less to prolong life, and financial cost was never part of the equation either. As far as hastening death, that was never even mentioned. After all, the original Hippocratic oath states: ‘I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.’
[W]hen Mika, who’d had hip dysplasia from the start, developed increasing difficulties walking and was in obvious pain much of the time, my wife and I put her on medications and even tried acupuncture, which helped for a while. But one day, at the start of our morning walk, she ambled to the end of the driveway, sat down, and refused to go on despite me pulling the leash. It was the same the next day and the next, so I stopped trying. It was at that point that my wife first brought up the possibility of putting her down, but that seemed ridiculous to me because between Old Yeller and my experiences as a human doctor, I envisioned Mika struggling through the pain, fighting for her last breath to the very end. In other words, it didn’t seem right to think about letting her go because she hadn’t yet suffered enough.
As a veterinarian, my wife viewed things altogether differently. To her, putting our dog to sleep didn’t represent throwing in the towel as it seemed to me, but a compassionate way to preempt unnecessary but inevitable pain and suffering down the line. As she saw it, we owe this option to our pets as stewards of their care, especially given that animals can’t understand pain or decide for themselves just how much suffering they are willing to tolerate.
Indeed, the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals (2013) acknowledges that ‘there is no consensus on when it is appropriate to let [a] life go’, but notes that: ‘Euthanasia may be considered to be the right course to spare [an] animal from what is to come … if medical intervention would only prolong a terminal condition, or if current health conditions cannot be successfully mitigated.’
When we were dating in the years before we got married, my wife would often come home from a long day at work and say: ‘I killed my patient today.’ This, I came to understand, was a kind of self-reproachful statement of defeat as well as a starkly factual statement that reflected how she’d actually administered the medications that ended a dog or cat’s life that day, typically with tearful owners and their bawling children huddled around.
This strange admixture of guilt from failing to save a life, along with the resolve to be the agent that takes it, comes with the territory in a veterinary clinic where euthanasia is a daily occurrence. Although euthanasia literally means ‘good death’, it was totally foreign to me in my training as a physician. Human doctors might feel guilty losing a patient in the end, but that guilt is almost always tempered by the reassurance that while we might have lost the battle to cancer, nature, God or whatever, we did everything we could in the process. Being a physician means that doctors must sometimes admit defeat, but in doing so, we don’t go on to be the hand of death.
[A]s time went on, medications and acupuncture had less of an impact on Mika, and her hind legs would often give out so that she would walk only a limited distance before collapsing. She seemed to be slipping cognitively too, and one day even fell into the swimming pool while we were away at work, requiring rescue from a neighbour. In what seemed like a short amount of time, her muzzle turned fully grey, and she would often sigh heavily with a distant look in her eye. Finally, she began to lose control of her bowels, with increasingly frequent accidents around the house.
And so, discussions about euthanasia became more about ‘when’ than ‘whether’.
The difference in attitudes towards euthanasia for animals and human beings is understandable. After all, people have been killing animals without remorse for food, to avoid becoming food ourselves, and for sport long before we began domesticating animals or keeping them for companionship. Whereas traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic teachings include strong proscriptions against murder and suicide for humans, religious doctrine questions the animal soul. And while euthanasia is used as an ethical means to preempt suffering in veterinary medicine, it’s not unusual for some owners to simply abandon their pets by the side of the road, put puppies in garbage bags, or refuse to pay for life-saving medical procedures based on both economics and expediency. No wonder the expression ‘die like a dog’ has historically referred to the most miserable of ends.
In 2009, US legislation that would have allowed physicians to be compensated by Medicare for providing voluntary counselling to patients about options for end-of-life care was defeated due to political uproar over ‘death panels’. And yet, as I discuss in the World Journal of Psychiatry in 2015, human euthanasia is being increasingly considered and sanctioned both in the US and abroad. As life-extending medical advances over the past 50 years have fuelled growing concerns about prolongation of suffering and loss of autonomy, the euthanasia movement of the 1930s has gained momentum, evolving into the modern ‘right to die’ and ‘death with dignity’ movements that challenge us to consider what constitutes a ‘good death’. Today, some form of voluntary active euthanasia – death by administration of a lethal dose of medication to avoid pain and suffering – is legal in several states in the US, as well as in Japan and parts of Europe including Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Still, if the historical divide between our attitudes towards euthanasia for humans and for animals is narrowing, the devil in the details of cultural sanctioning involves who can actually administer, or is willing to administer, the medications that end life. With existing legislation to date, the sanctioned individual – whether a physician, family member, some neutral third party, or the person seeking to end their own life themselves – varies by jurisdiction. Although ‘death with dignity’ is increasingly supported in many parts of the world, often neither doctors nor patients seeking death want to ‘push the plunger’ and take responsibility for being the hand of death. In this sense, euthanasia remains a hot-potato issue in human medicine.
Consequently, we now find ourselves debating a range of possible end-of-life care options, including passive euthanasia (withholding life-sustaining interventions including food or water), physician-assisted suicide (providing the means for a patient to end their own life), and active voluntary euthanasia (administering a lethal medication to a patient). Palliative sedation is an increasingly popular option within medicine, which involves administering medications that are intended to relieve suffering through sedation and pain control to the point of possible unconsciousness. Although death is a potential side effect, palliative sedation avoids the moral objections of suicide and euthanasia through the ethics of the so-called ‘double effect’, which argues that death is an acceptable outcome if unintended and in the primary service of relieving suffering among the terminally ill. Pushing the envelope of what it means to die a ‘good death’ for humans even further, my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles have been investigating the use of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin to relieve anxiety and depressive symptoms and to find meaning at life’s end.
[A]fter hemming and hawing for weeks, my wife and I finally decided to pick a date to have Mika put down. We asked a veterinarian friend to perform the euthanasia in our home. On the agreed day, it was my wife who put off making the call until I couldn’t take it any longer, and had to prod her to do so. The vet came to our house, started an intravenous line, and filled a syringe with Euthasol as we sat on the floor by Mika’s bedside, petting her with long strokes and saying our tearful goodbyes.
When we were ready, I asked if I could push the plunger, and the vet allowed me to place my hand with hers as we did it together. I was worried that Mika might show signs of discomfort, but seconds after the medication went in, she simply took a single, long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly for the last time.
[T]he perfect coffin for a gerbil is a Celestial Seasonings tea box. With the tea bags removed, the white wax-paper bag inside is the ideal size funeral shroud for a tiny body. This unfortunate factoid, like much of the information about how to dispose of a beloved pet’s body, comes from personal experience. I buried four gerbils in my backyard as a child, complete with incense on their graves and a few words.
As an adult with a puppy well on his way to being over 60 pounds, I hadn’t given much consideration to how I’d deal with other pet deaths until a friend asked me, “this is a terrible question, but what do you do when he dies?”
I dug into the question, and as I did I found that I wasn’t alone in wondering—but that there isn’t a great answer.
The experts I talked to emphasized that our relationship to pet loss has changed over the last century. “It’s not surprising to me that we feel such grief over the loss of a pet, because in this country at least they are increasingly considered family members,” says Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Sixty-eight percent of Americans own a pet, an increase of twelve percent since surveys of pet ownership started in the 1988, when it was already booming. Losing a beloved animal friend is made harder by the relative novelty of the experience, often being a person’s first experience with a close death, and by it being one of the few times most people chose euthanasia to end a life. And depending on the relationship, the loss of a pet can be more traumatic than the grief we feel after the death of family and friends. In part, this is because pets share some of our most intimate relationships—we see them every day, they depend on us, we adjust our lives around their needs—and yet publically grieving their loss is not socially acceptable.
We haven’t always felt this way, though. As a society, Irvine says, we’ve moved from thinking of pets as accessories or mindless pieces of furniture to thinking, feeling beings.
Pets become family members because they actively shape how we live. “A lot of people who have pets wake up at a certain time, not because of any alarm clock or any need of their own but because their dog needs a walk,” says Irvine. “Just as other humans participate in becoming family by doing these practices—getting up together, eating together, navigating the bathroom times, and all that—so do animals become part of the rituals that make family.”
And it isn’t just a daily ritual that makes pets familial. We form attachments to animals in the same way that we form attachments to people, says Cori Bussolari, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. She points to a study in Science from 2015 that found when people gazed into a dog’s eyes, both the person and the dog had increased levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, regulates social interactions. It’s released when humans stare into each other’s eyes, and when parents look at their newborn children. “I’m sure if you did the study with other animals it would be the same,” Bussolari says.
I already imagine losing my puppy will be harder than burying my gerbils, but I also didn’t stare into my gerbils’ eyes quite as much. No matter the species, our bonds with our pets are unlike our other relationships. For one, Bussolari says, they’re entirely dependent on us. For another, Irvine says, “we idealize animals, especially dogs. We create them as these almost angelic characters, so we have this idea of unconditional love for us.” When they die, she explains, it almost seems like a violation of this mythos we’ve built around them.
On a personal level, the death of a pet is often a person’s first exposure to the loss of a close relationship, says Thomas Wrobel, a psychologist at the University of Michigan-Flint. Human death has been relatively sanitized, he explains. We have an industry for funerals and cremations, and you don’t typically have to deal with a dead body yourself. “With pets it’s a lot more in your face,” says Wrobel. “Unless you do the cremation option, you’ve got this dead dog you have to deal with, which is a lot more intimate experience of the death.”
With pets, you also have to decide if you are going to euthanize, and when. In a study of 305 pet owners, Bussolari found that almost seventy percent chose to euthanize their pet. It’s often medically necessary—the kindest thing to do for a dying animal—but the decision can wrack the owner with guilt. In 2005, Wrobel did a study of the relationship between symptoms of grief and attachment to pets. “In our results we saw that guilt was way up there [on the list of emotional responses], because a lot of people are carrying the animal to where it would be euthanized,” says Wrobel.Years ago, my cat, who I had rescued as a kitten, developed a urinary tract infection that lingered due to a weakened immune system from his feline HIV. I’d tried everything to help him get over it. One day, I came home and saw from his tepid movement that he was clearly in incredible pain—he was dying. Driving to the vet was excruciating, and my mom had to be the one in the room when he was euthanized because I was too upset.
“After the passing of a pet ninety-nine percent of people say to me in some shape or form, this was harder for me than the loss of my mom, or my grandma,” says Dani McVety, veterinarian and CEO of Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice network. She has found that the option to have in-home euthanasia and pet hospice makes death easier for families.
In-home euthanasia helps remove the negative experience of knowing that you’re driving your pet to their death in a place that you know causes them stress. In her practice, she sees the same kind of anxiety over deciding the right time for euthanasia at the end of a pet’s life. “I’ll tell them, I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but when this is done, you will feel relief,” McVety says. “And people do this thing after it’s done. . .they stand up and put their hands on their head and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel so relieved.’”
But despite the fact that 68 percent of Americans own a pet, and have grown to treasure them like members of the family, taking care of a dead animal’s body isn’t the same as dealing with a human corpse. In New York City, if you look up what to do with a deceased pet on the 311 page, you come to this statement:
If you think that’s appalling, you’re not alone.
“Wow. Wow, you end up just treating it like a raccoon. Wow, that’s crazy,” says McVety. The New York Department of Sanitation doesn’t keep data on how many pets are left on the curb so it’s unclear how often this happens. Other major cities, like Houston and Los Angeles, will pick up pets curbside, and in other cities you can call for pickup.
These guidelines are written so that the city has some response available, but they don’t take the emotional element into consideration, says Bonnie Beaver, professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M.
City services aren’t the only ones to fail to see how emotional a pet death can be.
“You feel often isolated, socially,” says Beaver, “because people don’t understand what you’re going through, because they might say, ‘get over it, it’s just a dog’—which is exactly the wrong thing to say.”
When you lose a person, there are rituals—the funeral, the memorial—and it’s acceptable to take time off work and talk about your loss. “What people grieving the loss of a pet don’t realize the first time they lose a pet is the strength of the grief and how long it lasts,” says Wendy Packman, a psychologist at Palo Alto University. “So it surprises the griever, and it really surprises the people who aren’t sympathetic to pet loss.” Although Packman has found that the depth and length of grief is similar to how we grieve people, this social stigma causes it to feel more painful.
“With disenfranchised grief is there is less support, and the grief can be even worse than for a person because there are no rituals,” says Packman, “and when people do go out and do a ritual, when they feel brave enough, they can be ostracized.”
As I was researching this story, friends told me about the lengths they went to in order to bury their pets properly, despite regulations about where and how you may dispose of animal remains. One snuck into their community garden at midnight to bury a pet rat under a rose bush. Another drove out in the middle of the night to bury their cat underneath a beautiful oak tree they pass on their daily commute. Even my gerbil burials, and the funeral I held for my cat were private affairs, in the backyard with my family—our secret, quiet grief shared together.
Packman believes this social acceptability of grieving for pets is changing, noting that she’s seen a rise in memorials for pets and pet cemeteries. But in the meantime, says Bussolari, we grieve our pets so deeply because we feel like we’re not supposed to. “We worry a lot about making people uncomfortable, because then they don’t want to be around us—and if they don’t want to be around us then we’re by ourselves,” she says. “But the reality is that the more we talk about grief, the more we normalize grief.”
Thailand’s bereaved pet owners who take their dearly departed dogs to Wat Krathum Suea Pla, a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok, where ceremonies and rituals are believed to speed the animals’ reincarnation and boost their karma
The Suwans, a family of five, have brought the earthly remains of their dead pet to Wat Krathum Suea Pla, a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. They’ve come to administer the last rites to their late canine companion to boost his karmic prospects.
“Beckham was like one of my own children to me,” says Saythan Suwan, 43, a mother of two. She rescued the dog from the streets in 2004 and named him after English footballer David Beckham, who is hugely popular in Thailand.
The stray pup became a loyal member of the Suwan household. He guarded the premises, played with the children and shared a bed with grandma, who died recently at age 84. When Beckham took his last breath, the Suwans bathed his body, sat in vigil, and the following morning took him to the Buddhist sanctuary to be cremated.
“We want to do the best for him so he can be in the best place in his next life,” explains Saythan, a saleswoman. “If Beckham is reborn, I hope he gets reborn as a member of our family again. We hope he will come back to us as a puppy.”
To help ensure this happens, the Bangkok family have paid for a private ceremony at the temple on their dead dog’s behalf.
In the predominantly Buddhist country, where age-old superstitions still hold sway, most locals believe that by performing meritorious deeds, such as giving alms to monks, they can earn valuable karmic points for deceased loved ones, thereby hastening their rebirth in an auspicious new incarnation. And for an increasing number of Thais, like the Suwans, these deceased loved ones include pets.
The Suwans are gathered mournfully in a small chapel, where Beckham lies draped in lily-white funerary shrouds on a bier among colourful garlands and bouquets of flowers. One by one they sprinkle the dead canine with marigold petals and take turns pouring scented water over him from a small decanter.
“If I’ve wronged you, please forgive me. If you’ve wronged me, I forgive you,” a funeral assistant intones on account of the dead dog, during a service with stylised rituals that closely follow those of human funerals.
Sitting cross-legged on antique wooden chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl, four monks chant plaintively for Beckham’s benefit. In return, the family offer the monks new robes and provisions in their dog’s name.
Beckhamis then taken outside to a small crematorium custom-made for pets, where the Suwans place roses fashioned from wood shavings on his corpse in a final tribute.
“We will scatter his ashes in the [Bangkok’s] Chao Phraya River,” explains Anyamanee, one of Saythan’s daughters. “We scattered my grandmother’s ashes there. She and Beckham were always together in life,” she adds. “We want them to be together in death, too.”
Outside, another dog is waiting to receive the same treatment. Lying peacefully on a metal table is Nimbus, a 10-year-old husky. He looks as if he is asleep. The night before, he began pacing agitatedly and died soon afterwards, explain his tearful owners, a Thai-Chinese man and woman.
“He seemed to be in pain and then he passed away,” the man, who identifies himself only by his nickname, Chok (“Luck”), says between sobs. “We believe he will come back to us – maybe in another form.”
Presently it’s Boozo the poodle’s turn. He’s just died of renal failure. He is placed in a small fuchsia coffin where he’s wreathed in flowers. “He brought us so much joy and so much luck,” Payao Tang-on, 63, says. “We won the lottery because of him.”
She now wants to get the dead pet on the spiritual highway to rebirth. “If we had buried him, his body would have taken a long time to decompose,” Payao says. “This way his spirit can get into a new body faster. He may even be reborn as a person.”
According to Phrakru Soponpihankij, the temple’s abbot, only a few animal species – including elephants, horses, dogs and cats – can be directly reborn as human beings. “But usually, even loyal companion animals can’t earn enough merit on their own in this life for that, so people have to do it for them,” he adds. “Monks are intermediaries between this life and the next. They can help animals gain more merit.”
Next up for a treatment of monk-assisted extra karmic merit is Luke, a small mixed-breed dog with fluffy, off-white fur, who died of bone cancer. “He was as good a pet as you could ask for,” says his owner, a retired American executive who came with his Thai wife to bid tearful farewell to the dog. “We want to send him off to something better,” he adds. “I’m not sure I believe in the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, but you never know.”
Within three hours on this Saturday morning, four dogs and a cat are cremated in quick succession at Wat Krathum Suea Pla. On some days, says Worratap Janpinid, who operates the crematorium, as many as 20 dead pets are brought here for funeral services – mostly dogs and cats, but there have been rabbits, monkeys, birds, tortoises, goldfish and even monitor lizards.
“I’ve cremated thousands of pets,” Worratap says. A wiry man in his 20s, he is covered in magic tattoos all the way up to his shaven pate, and wears unwieldy signet rings with protective amulets on several fingers to ward off misfortune and death. “Many people who come here have good hearts,” he says.
One bereaved dog owner drove his dead companion 1,000km to the Bangkok temple from the southern Thai province of Satun for a proper pet funeral. The sanctuary lies in a warren of winding streets in an industrial area that was once marshland. It’s one of the few Buddhist temples in Thailand that assist pet owners in administering proper funerary ceremonies for their animals.
Many other temples dispose of the bodies of pets and stray animals, but they do so with little ceremony. Routinely, the carcasses of beloved pets are burned in incinerators, often without their owners’ knowledge. This practice appalled Teerawat Saehan, the proprietor of a pet grooming salon who was invited by a customer to a dog’s funeral. “It looked as if pets were treated like rubbish,” he recalls.
So a few years ago Teerawat set up Pet Funeral Thailand, a small company that specialises in elaborate cremation ceremonies for pets. “We started replicating human funerals for pets,” says Teerawat, 37, an amiable man who also sports magic tattoos. “People come to us because we do things properly.”
Business is booming. Each month the company hosts 300 to 400 pet funerals, which cost anywhere between 1,500 baht (US$48) and 400,000 baht. The price depends on variables such as the length of the service and the number of monks present. The most expensive pet funerals are overseen by as many as 60 monks and feature special funeral processions, including motorcades. At some of these funerals, the flower arrangements alone can cost 100,000 baht.
But it isn’t these lavish affairs that impress Teerawat. He’s more moved by acts of generosity by poor people. Not long ago, a hard-up family’s two dogs died in a house fire that sent all their possessions up in smoke. With the little money they had left, they paid for a proper funeral service for their dogs.
In a similar show of kindness, when a street dog called Daam (“Black”) died, vendors at a food market where the dog had lived on scraps all chipped in for her funeral. They even brought food for her so she wouldn’t go hungry in the afterlife.
Lolling indolently at the side of the pet crematorium is a stray black mutt, also called Daam. She was dumped last year at the temple with a broken foot and has become something of a resident mascot at cremations. She seems oblivious to the mournful goings-on around her.
Perhaps, Teerawat muses, Daam is here to atone for bad deeds she had committed in her past life. “It’s sad to see dogs suffer and die,” says the businessman, who owns two Rottweilers. “But there’s hope for them in the next life.”
[T]he death of a pet can bring as much grief as the loss of some human friends and family members.
This makes sense when you consider the role our animal companions play in our everyday lives. You cared for your pet’s every need and, because they could not speak, you learned to communicate in other ways. Such caring builds intimacy similar to that found between a parent and their infant; love without conflict, jealousy, or any of the other complications found in most relationships. So when a pet dies, the depth of your grief reflects your loss of a special relationship.
“When we lose a pet, we lose a relationship unlike any other,” says Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio (www.greengateleadership.com), a family therapist and author of The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice From Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups.
“Many of us love our pets the way we love our children. But in the immediate aftermath of this unique loss, too often family members and friends say things like, ‘Just get another one.’ Instead of devaluing your grief over the loss of this important relationship, as others may advise, embrace your sorrow. Your grief is important, for it will lead you to healing and teach you important things about what matters most in life.”
Dolan-Del Vecchio offers these tips for those grieving the loss of a pet:
Share your grief with empathetic friends. Spend time with people who understand your closeness with your pet. Even some friends may be insensitive, so be careful to avoid “get over it” types of people. “Unfortunately, many people see animals as if they were non-living objects,” Dolan-Del Vecchio says.
Attend a pet loss support group. Pet loss groups provide a concentrated dose of social support. Meeting with others who also grieve and share similar emotions can boost one’s healing greatly.
Keep moving. Exercise is a healer. It boosts feelings of well-being and calm, improves sleep and brightens your mood.
Be creative. Whether you lean toward writing, scrapbooking, ceramics, photography or making collages, creative projects may contribute to healing.
Spend time in nature. Nothing quiets the mind and soul like a stroll through a park, nature preserve, or by the seashore. “The natural world brings special benefits when your heart has been torn by grief,” Dolan-Del Vecchio says. “The sights, sounds, and smells of nature connect us to eternal, circular stories of life and death in ways that go beyond our usual thoughts and feelings, and this experience brings solace to many people.”
“It’s important to care for yourself when you’re grieving your pet,” Dolan-Del Vecchio says. “This requires some planning and acts of will, as grief can diminish energy and motivation. You can lessen your distress through self-care. Above all else, be gentle with yourself.”