Scientists have documented hundreds of instances in which ape or monkey mothers continue to groom and hold on to the corpses of their infants for days, weeks, and in some exceptional cases, even months after the babies passed away. In a new study, scientists have analyzed more than 500 such documented cases among 50 primate species, finding that the behavior is more widespread than previously believed. The distressing behavior is seen as an expression of grief.
“Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in similar ways to humans: it might take experience to understand that death results in a long-lasting ‘cessation of function’, which is one of the concepts of death that humans have. What we don’t know, and maybe will never know, is whether primates can understand that death is universal, that all animals – including themselves – will die,” Dr. Alecia Carter, a researcher at University College London, said in a statement.
A striking coping behavior
The practice of carrying around dead infants didn’t have a clear explanation until now, considering it is costly and provides no apparent benefit to the parent. However, the widespread nature of the practice across time and many species motivated primatologists at the University College London in the UK to embark on a study.
The team analyzed reports dating from as far back as 1915 to 2020, compiling 509 cases of infant corpse carrying among 50 primate and monkey species, 80% of which engaged in this practice regularly.
Our closest relatives, the great apes — bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — had the highest frequency of cases, along with Old World Monkeys. Both of these groups carried their dead infants the longest.
For instance, in their study, the researchers describe a case recorded in 2017 involving a female macaque in an Italian wildlife park who carried her dead infant for four weeks, before eventually cannibalizing the mummified corpse. One of the most extreme cases of this activity was observed in 2003, when the corpses of two infant chimpanzees were carried around by their mothers for months.
Although we can never be sure what are the motivations behind this behavior, there are some patterns that point towards a form of stress management. Some of the primate mothers would shriek in alarm when the corpses of their babies were taken away from them, which suggests carrying the corpse is a form of coping strategy to alleviate the great stress caused by infant separation.
When live primate babies are separated from their parents, both the infant and the mother show signs of significant anxiety. A 2011 study showed that rhesus monkey babies do not fully recover from the stress of being separated from their mothers at birth, leaving them prone to a life of anxiety, poor social skills, and depression.
The researchers in the UK found that the younger the infant, the more likely it was for the mother to carry the babies for longer, perhaps because the bond between them was the strongest then.
The age of the mothers was also an important factor. Young mothers were more likely to carry their dead babies. The researchers write that older mothers may be experienced enough to recognize that their infants are gone and may be more psychologically equipped to deal with the broken bond with the baby.
Traumatic deaths, such as infanticides or accidents, were less likely to result in corpse carrying compared to deaths caused by non-traumatic events, such as illness. A death resulting from an illness may not make it immediately clear to the mother that her baby is lifeless.
“We show that mothers that were more strongly bonded to their infant at death carry the corpse for longer, with emotions possibly playing an important role. However, our study also shows that, through experience with death and external cues, primate mothers may gain better awareness of death and therefore ‘decide’ not to carry their dead infant with them, even if they may still experience loss-related emotions,” said co-author Elisa Fernández Fueyo of University College London’s Department of Anthropology.
Clues about the origin of human mortuary practices
The findings have important implications not only for advancing our understanding of how non-human primates grieve, but also how we’ve come to deal with death among our own species. Human social bonds are very similar to those of chimpanzees and bonobos due to our shared evolutionary history. Human mortuary practices and grief may have their origins in these shared social bonds.
“The thanatological behaviours that we see in non-human primates today may have been present in early human species as well – and they may have transformed into the different rituals and practices during human evolution,” said Elisa Fernández Fueyo.
“However, we need more data to enable us to further develop our understanding of this, and of how much primate behaviours relating to death may not only be explained by bonds but also by the associated emotions and, thus, resemble human grief.”
Last week, Maria Isabel Benites Chamba was laid to rest at age 95 in Ecuador. Chamba’s family and friends were in attendance to pay their respects at her funeral — but one attendee in particular insisted on doing even more.
It was Chamba’s beloved dog, Bumer. He refused to leave her side until the very end.
During the wake for Chamba, organized by Funeraria Santa Rosa, Bumer stayed close by — just as he had done while she was alive.
“You could see the loyalty and affection that existed between her and her dog,” a spokesperson for the funeral home told The Dodo. “He was always there with his owner.”
When the ceremony ended, a procession formed to follow Chamba’s coffin to the cemetery. Bumer, of course, insisted on coming, too.
“He circled the hearse before hopping aboard as if to say, ‘I want to go and say goodbye to my mom,’” the funeral home spokesperson said. “A tremendous example of loyalty.”
Bumer was heartbroken — but in that moment, his immense love for Chamba was clear for all to see.
Chamba may have passed, but Bumer’s faithfulness lives on. Hopefully, in time, his broken heart will begin to heal — but that’s a process he won’t have to face alone.
According to the funeral home, the little dog was last seen in the warm company of Chamba’s family, united in their remembrance of the person they loved so dearly.
When my yellow Lab died last spring, I was flattened by an overwhelming sadness that’s with me still. And that’s normal, experts say, because losing a pet is often one of the hardest yet least acknowledged traumas we’ll ever face.
I was walking home from getting my second vaccination shot last March when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t stand. Everything about the vaccine was fine. It was just that I had lost someone very dear to me a few days prior and I was overcome with crippling despair.
I plopped in the dirt next to the side of the road, wailing while I fumbled with my phone to find the number for Blue Cross Blue Shield’s counseling hotline. I explained my needs to an obstacle course of automated gatekeepers and finally got through to a human.
“My partner died two days ago,” I managed to say between sobs.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said the woman on the phone, clearly moved by my distress. She gave me phone numbers for grief counselors in my area; I headed home with tears running down my face.
What I didn’t say is that my “partner” was a dog. A beautiful yellow Lab named Sunny, who died at 15 and a half.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea. Now that I’m pushing 60, I thought I was fully experienced in coping with the death of loved ones. But the sadness from losing Sunny was far greater than what I had previously endured after the passing of my parents, grandparents, and other dogs. I was surprised and somewhat terrified that I had the capacity to cry so much.
If I had lost a human partner, there would have been the usual funeral rituals, and being an emotional basket case would have seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. Well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.During our more than 15 years together, Sunny was faithfully by my side as I went through a bitter divorce, raised my son alone, dealt with caring for my mother and her dementia, and endured the death of my parents, as well as PTSD caused by childhood trauma, empty-nest syndrome when my son went to college, stressful jobs, scary health issues, moving to a new town where I knew no one and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.Sunny was like a handrail along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Navigating life’s challenges seemed doable because I knew I could hold on to her if needed. Now the handrail was gone. Trying to understand why I was in such pain, I sought out a few experts, who explained to me what it is about these transitions that makes them so difficult.
“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.
As is true for many dog owners, my bond with Sunny was strongest in the outdoors. She shared my desire to wander in the wild more than anyone else in my life. And we did it daily, no matter the weather or what else was demanding my attention. I estimate that we hiked more than 15,000 miles together. On summer vacations and weekend trips, we hiked up to mountain summits and down to creek bottoms, through slickrock canyons and across snow-covered mesas bathed in moonlight. But mostly we just rambled for miles in the forest near my house, traveling cross-country on paths created over the years by our feet and paws. Sunny liked to walk about ten feet in front of me and insisted on carrying big sticks that were a minimum of five feet long. She would turn her head sideways to thread a stick through closely spaced trees and often looked back to make sure I was still there.
“Isn’t this amazing?” she would seem to say with her eyes.
“Yes!” I would respond, feeling life’s worries fall away.
We floated through the forest like synchronized swimmers, immersed in the joys of sticks and smells and towering pines bending in the wind. I needed this time with Sunny the way many people require coffee in the morning. It was hard to get through the day without it.
After Sunny’s death, my craving for our daily hikes—and for simply seeing her look back at me—was almost unbearable. I filled my house with pictures of her face and walked so many miles with her leash in my pack that I completely wore the soles off my hiking shoes. Eventually I connected with Richard Mercer, a grief therapist and facilitator of a pet-loss support group in Boulder, Colorado, who assured me I was not going crazy.
“The death of a pet is a very big deal,” he said. “I often have people tell me that they are surprised the experience is harder than losing their mom or dad. And there are many good reasons for why this is so.”
Unlike losing parents or other loved ones who don’t live with you, dogs and cats have an intimate place in our everyday lives. We miss their constant companionship, unconditional love, and presence as motivators: they’re a reason to get up and go on those daily walks. Mercer told me the death of a pet can also “activate grief over previous losses,” and I know what he means. I found myself crying about Sunny and also about my childhood dog Lucky, who was kept on a chain and was relegated to sleeping in a flea-infested doghouse—both at my parents’ insistence.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea.
But the pain of loss also involves neurobiology. “Our field is just beginning to understand the positive benefits that dog ownership has to human health,” says Kevin Morris, director of research at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Nothing against cats, but Morris says dogs are especially adept at being close friends. “All the dog breeds of today came from wolves that were, according to the theory, living off the garbage heaps of humans eight to ten thousand years ago. Dogs evolved to be companions to people in ways that other domesticated animals did not.”
Morris says researchers have found that a dog decreases anxiety and increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, sometimes called “the love hormone,” that’s associated with maternal bonding. A study published in Science documented how simply gazing into each other’s eyes created a positive oxytocin feedback loop between dogs and their owners. Loving stares increased oxytocin levels in the dogs by 130 percent, and by 300 percent in the humans. Another study found that kissing dogs mutually increased oxytocin levels. Research has also shown that prolonged interaction between humans and dogs lowers harmful cortisol levels in both species.
“We are really wired to get that good stuff from our dogs,” says Mercer. “We associate the physical response of the oxytocin release to our connection with our dog and that is a lot of what we miss when they pass.”
I tell Mercer how I put pictures of Sunny all over my house and was walking around with her leash, apparently in a desperate attempt to get my oxytocin fix.
Doing whatever you can to feel better is a good idea. Mercer says that our culture’s widely accepted push to achieve closure by “moving on” after the death of a pet doesn’t really work. “The best thing to do is integrate the loss into your life by building a new relationship with a pet who is no longer physically present,” he explains. “We can give form to this relationship by honoring the memories of our pet, telling stories, journaling, and acknowledging our pain.” These memories embody not only the actions of our pets during their lives but also the events of our lives when the pet was supporting us.
Last March, when my 24-year-old son, Austin, and I decided it was time to put Sunny down, he flew from Los Angeles to my home in southwestern Colorado so we could give her a proper send-off. Sunny was being ravaged by cancer, but she still had an appetite. Our tight three-member pack, which had been the bedrock of Austin’s childhood, gorged for two and a half days on salmon, hamburgers, sausage, and some of Sunny’s unusual favorites, including Gouda cheese and lemon cake. Sunny could no longer hike in the forest, but we waded out with her into the Dolores River, where she had loved to swim. After Sunny was euthanized on her favorite patch of lawn amid swirls of fat snowflakes, Austin carried her inside and placed her on my bed. I anointed her with essential oils of ponderosa pine and blue spruce and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck as we prepared her for the crematorium. I had always joked that pink was Sunny’s best color, even though she was incredibly strong and fearless. In the coming days I would tie pink ribbons around candles, my wrist, the box that held her ashes, and a stick in the backyard where I built an altar, all to remind me of Sunny’s life and the tender, sacred ceremony of her passing. This brought me comfort—maybe even oxytocin—as did some of the other tips offered by grief experts.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was the license to cry as much and as often as I needed to. I have cried every single day since March 25, when Sunny passed.
Plenty of people experience this. “I wailed like a little boy,” Robert Neimeyer says of a cat he had several years ago that was killed by a car. “It was the purest and strongest grief I have ever felt in my life.” Copious crying is our body’s way of achieving homeostasis by physically releasing strong emotions.
Though letting the tears flow is healthy, it’s crucial not to remain stuck in despair. My thoughts often turned to Sunny’s tough final three weeks rather than to the wonderful years we shared. Mercer encourages people to make a conscious effort to focus on the good times and burn these happy moments into their brains.
“Meditate on these memories as if they are happening in the present and remember how you experienced them through your senses,” he says. “This is very grounding and builds resilience so that we are better able to handle the tough memories.”
Following another of Mercer’s suggestions, I joined the pet-loss support group he leads for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief and not everyone gets it,” he says. “So much of what comes out of the group is just normalizing and validating our feelings.”
The goal of the monthly meetings is to provide a safe place for grieving pet owners to share. Some participants hold a picture of a pet who died a few days prior and simply cry; others tell stories of a pet they lost years ago. I found every meeting to be like a giant hug.
One of the most surprising and hopeful things I learned was that my love for Sunny could be the bridge to bringing a new dog into my life—not as a way to replace her but to honor her.“Some people may feel it would be too painful or disloyal to get another pet,” says Neimeyer. “But the deeper way of honoring the pet is to apply the lessons of loving and living this creature made possible for you by sharing that with another animal when you have reached the appropriate point in your grieving process. This kind of love is so robust that it survives the pet’s physical absence.”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
In June, after speaking with Neimeyer, I decided to reach out to a Labrador retriever rescue operation near Colorado Springs, Colorado—a way to lay the groundwork for the day, maybe a year or two away, when I would be ready to adopt a new dog. I spoke with a breeder involved with the group and told her about Sunny. We agreed to touch base again in early 2022. Then she called a few weeks later.
“I know you weren’t planning to adopt anytime soon, but there is this dog who really needs you,” she said. “You would be the perfect owner.”
The dog was an 18-month-old yellow Lab named Trudy. Her owner had severe dementia and kept her confined to a cement dog run. A neighbor had contacted the rescue operation to report Trudy’s suffering. She’d been left alone in record summer heat and never walked. Nobody knew if her owner was giving her food or water.
The next day I drove eight hours to Pueblo, Colorado, to rescue Trudy. If I had not received counseling on pet loss, I probably would have declined, thinking I was too heartbroken to care for another dog. Instead, I took Trudy home and was soon watching her roll around in the grass and lie on a dog bed and play with toys—probably for the first time in her life. Trudy seemed like a gift from Sunny, or at least a karmic manifestation of Sunny’s positive influence on my life.
I bought her a bright red leash and have been slowly teaching her to walk in the wild. She is partly crippled from being confined to a cage, so there’s healing to do. We are healing together.
Trudy and I wander daily on a mesa near my house. It’s an awe-inspiring, oxytocin-generating landscape where a vast expanse of sagebrush is luminous green in the late afternoon light and the sky is a blue ocean filled with archipelagos of clouds. Some clouds are puffs of popcorn. Others are giant curtains of mist dangling over mountain peaks 50 or even 100 miles away.
I still carry Sunny’s pink leash in my pack. I expect I always will.
“Sunny!” I routinely shout into the sun-kissed abyss while Trudy delights in sniffing the ground. “Isn’t this amazing?”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
On other days I hike alone through the forest following the favorite secret paths that Sunny and I made together. Several times I have come upon a tree or bush that takes my breath away. Tied to a twig in the middle of nowhere and for no explainable reason is a bright pink ribbon.
Grieving the loss of a pet? You may be surprised to learn there’s a nationwide hotline that could help.
It’s offered by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
For the last 25 years, the school has been offering a free service for anyone in the country that many have never heard of.
“People sometimes are really at loss to even function, not going to work. They’re tearful all the time, and they’re reaching out for help,” said Eric Richman, a clinical social worker at Tufts.
The hotline is run by students who make it clear they are not trained therapist or counselors. They are looking to practice communication skills and learn about the empathy it takes to be a vet, like fourth-year student Meghan Hanlon.
“I’ve taken calls from people and had people that I’ve talked to multiple times,” Hanlon said.
Richman said they deal a lot with children who’ve lost an animal.
“It’s usually their first experience with loss and death, and if handled correctly it can be really powerful, positive one for them,” he said.
While most of the calls are for dogs and cats, the students hear about all types of animals and those calls have doubled since the pandemic.
“Because of COVID they were even more isolated, and their pet provided that sense of security and connection,” Richman said.
The hotline usually operates during the school year Monday through Friday from 6-9 p.m.
Some pet owners may be uncomfortable admitting to friends and family how much the loss of their companion affects them, but the students at Tufts want everyone to know they’re here to listen.
“You never always know the right thing to say, but people are always so glad to have someone listen to them,” Hanlon said. “And I think that the most important thing is letting them talk and work through grief that they’re dealing with.”
The pet loss support hotline number is 508-839-7966.
In a remote part of Scotland, Alexis Fleming and her motley crew of dogs, sheep, pigs, and birds, are enjoying the good life.
Aside from the expected chaos of a 100-plus animals on site, it’s a place of tranquillity, contentment and happiness, and that’s despite the fact that death looms large in these parts.
Fleming runs the world’s first animal hospice, a place where animals, many of whom have experienced brutality at the hands of previous owners, can live out their last days in peace and in Fleming’s words, ‘have a good death’.
“If we accept life then we have to accept death. It’s one inevitability, and it can actually be a really beautiful thing. It’s going to happen, and we’ve all got it inside of us to make someone’s death a lovely thing. It’s a gift to be able to do that, so that it can be faced with dignity and acceptance,” says Fleming, 40, who opened the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice in honour of her beloved dog, Maggie.
In her new book, No Life Too Small, Fleming recalls how the pair first met after she came across an online ad by accident.
The photograph of a brindle bullmastiff ‘small and skinny’, and ‘hauntingly sad’ caught her attention but it was the accompanying wording that sealed their fate.
Bought for breeding, 10 out of 12 of the puppies had died, so ‘it’ was of no use and the girlfriend was beating ‘it’ up – ‘10 months old. £100’, the ad stated.
Fleming wasn’t in a position to care for a dog, but she couldn’t turn her back.
“I had to turn my whole life around but it’s just what I had to do. It was never a debate,” says Fleming, who provided Maggie with a safe and happy home, and likewise Maggie supported her new owner as she battled a chronic illness.
So, it broke Fleming’s heart when Maggie died of lung cancer on a vet’s operating table seven years later.
Although Maggie was ill, it was unexpected and Fleming was beside herself that she wasn’t there at the end, but then the idea of opening a hospice occurred to her.
“It was a ridiculous idea really because I’d been very ill and going through such horrible grief at losing Maggie, but the thought was there, and was always going to niggle until I did something about it.”
The hospice opened in 2016 and Fleming has welcomed a host of old, terminally ill and abandoned characters through its doors over the past few years, including lots of canine pals such as George, Osha, Annie, Bran, B and Digger.
“I’ve never known a dog to wag a tail at me and be lying about it. Dogs are very emotional and pick up on your feelings, so, if you have happy dogs around you, you know you’re hitting the target. It’s a lovely thing because they are dependent on us, and knowing you’re making someone really happy makes me satisfied and happy,” says Fleming.
“It’s a very deep but simple relationship. I’ve got the same relationship with sheep. They very much get into your heart and your soul. I can’t imagine life without any of them.”
Baggins, a Great Dane, is one of the most recent residents to have passed away.
Before arriving at the hospice, he’d been left on his own in a garden without shelter, and almost starved to death.
“He was a kleptomaniac, spent his days winding folk up, knocking them over and thieving and thinking he’s the most hilarious guy in the world. He had an absolutely brilliant time here, but one day he looked at me and said I’m done, and I said ‘okay pal’. The vet came and he left really peacefully.
“I’m devastated, I miss him so much and always will but I’m so happy for him because it was a beautiful death, and it’s possible for that to happen,’ says Fleming, who has learnt to accept what she can and can’t control so it doesn’t become overwhelming.
“Some of the animals have been through traumatic situations, but there’s nothing I can do about their past, it’s all about what I can do for them now.”
And although people often presume she wouldn’t want to get too close to her residents to prevent greater heartbreak, the opposite is true.
“You’ve got to know someone really well to know when they’re saying ‘I’m done’ and then face that,” explains Fleming, who makes a deal with every new arrival.
“I say to them, ‘There will come a point where you don’t want to be here anymore, you’re fed up and had enough. Tell me and I promise I’ll listen’, and then we don’t think about it again. That’s the way I find that helps me and them the most. We know that day will come, and I’ve made a promise and I can’t break it but until that point, we just enjoy it. It’s just about enjoying it while they’re here.”
Although friends and family stop by to help, Fleming runs the hospice primarily by herself, which often means 20-hour days, but despite the exhaustion, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A friend of mine said it doesn’t matter where you go here, there’s a happy face smiling at you and it’s true. It has been a real slog at times, and there have been times when I’ve wanted to chuck it all in and stamped my feet and thrown Hobnobs in the pond but it’s an amazing way to live being surrounded by happy folk. I mean, it’s not perfect, folk die and it’s traumatic and horrific at times but overall, we’re all really content and it’s just a great way to live.”
My daughter got Bella at her dad’s house shortly after the divorce. My ex even called the sweet yellow lab “the divorce dog.” Visits with dad also meant time with Bella, which was great when my daughter was 8 years old, but the teen years brought work, band practice and a social life. Visitation with dad became more sporadic. Then, my ex asked if we would dog sit. Bella was a senior dog by then, and we were all smitten. We asked if we could just keep her. He said yes.
Bella and I bonded in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I worked from home, and she was my constant companion. My daughter grew up and moved to an apartment of her own, but Bella stayed with me.
COVID-19 brought with it a puppy boom as people sought comfort and companionship during quarantine and isolation — but for me, Bella was there. We took walks in the woods and played in the yard with my son. Our circle got smaller as the pandemic began to rage. Schools closed, my husband was furloughed, and then, just as everything shut down, we had to say goodbye to Bella. That stacking of hardships is known as collective — or cumulative — grief, and I wasn’t sure I could take it.
One day in April, I woke up to find that Bella couldn’t even raise her head from her bed. Something was seriously wrong. I debated on rushing her to an emergency veterinarian but knew, due to COVID, I would have to watch her disappear into the building and not return. I knew this was her end. I made her comfortable and placed a video call to my daughter so she could say her goodbyes.
Every time we welcome a pet into our lives, we also welcome the inevitable heartbreak. We know how it ends, and yet we still open our homes and our hearts to four-footed companions.
Bella died at home in her bed while I sang her lullabies.
Anticipatory grief is the price we pay for unconditional love. Pets have seen us at our worst and our most embarrassing. They bear witness to everything in our lives without judgment. “That’s unprecedented emotional intimacy,” says Rachael Nolan Ph.D., MPH, CPH, public health educator and grief recovery specialist. Sure, pets can be moody sometimes (I’m looking at you, George the cat) but for the most part, their behavior is pretty predictable, which also provides us a source of stability. Nolan says stability is “one of the most important things in life for humans, particularly in regards to emotions.”
Isolation and quarantine during the pandemic deepened bonds and strengthened connections to our pets. Then, to have to say goodbye … it’s just devastating.
I began applying to adopt senior dogs. I’d fall in love with an online profile, only to be upset when the dog found a home with someone else. Pet adoptions soared last summer, making the high demand and the long wait heart wrenching. On one particular hot mess of a day, I sobbed over another dog I’d never met. I really missed my Bella. Adopting another dog wouldn’t fill that void. I withdrew my application from the local stray adoption program and gave myself time.
Then, one September day, my friend texted me about a litter of puppies needing homes. “I could pick up two and bring you one,” she wrote.
I said yes. She wasn’t an old Labrador like Bella — she was a mutt puppy who licked my face and chased my son while he squealed with delight. We named her Hamilton. I know I’ll have to say goodbye in a few years, but I’m grateful she’s here now, and I’m here for all the belly rubs she can handle.
It was painful to watch our dog, Ezzy, deteriorate during the long confining months of 2020. We had nursed the 9-year-old blue merle Shetland sheepdog through various illnesses during her lifetime, including one that required a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Her joints were giving out, so we had invested in a stroller to allow her to continue to enjoy walks. But now, we could see that just lifting herself to get to her food bowl or crouching to go to the bathroom had grown obviously uncomfortable.
This prompted a hard family conversation about quality of life. It was time, we thought, and made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize her. But there was one bright side: We were able to do so in a way that was best for Ezzy and for us: in the privacy, comfort and, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, safety, of our home.
Here are some things to consider about at-home euthanasia, if you are faced with this difficult decision.
Home offers pets a humane, respectful setting
My husband and I had covid-19 work-from-home orders, allowing us to bond even more with Ezzy, and she with us. Being home with us, in her favorite place and with her favorite people, was when she was happiest, making it the compassionate choice for her final moments.
As Maryland veterinarian Karen Randall puts it, “Where do you want to be when you don’t feel well? You want to be home. And for dogs and cats, home is their sanctuary; it’s their safe place. These are the people they trust. These are the things that smell like them. This is where their happy place is.”
Those were among the reasons Randall, who came to our house in November to put Ezzy peacefully to sleep, founded Solace Veterinary Services a decade ago.
At the time, Randall, a now 30-year veteran in the field, could have opened her third bricks-and-mortar practice. Instead, she felt called to focus solely on at-home euthanasia services after occasionally offering home visits to some longtime clinic patients. “It was really kind of mind-blowing how much easier it was for the patient and also for the family,” she says.
Psychotherapist and thanatologist Andrea Warnick has experienced both clinic and at-home euthanasia when her cats were terminally ill. “I think [at-home euthanasia] is a wonderful option because at this point a pet is pretty sick, and actually transporting them to a vet’s office can be anxiety provoking and uncomfortable,” says Warnick, whose practice in Canada, Andrea Warnick Consulting, focuses on supporting grieving children, youth and adults.
It eases stress for families and provides privacy for grief
Pet loss is often underappreciated as a traumatic life event, says grief therapist, author and speakerClaire Bidwell Smith. Your stress will be eased if you can stay home. “Especially with pets — because they are so dependent on us since we are their caregivers — we feel the added responsibility to take care of them to the end. If it’s this chaotic stressful thing that we fear is causing more pain, then that just causes us more pain,” says Bidwell Smith, who is based in San Francisco.
In a veterinary clinic, we’re likely to self-consciously suppress our grief, something Warnick says can be harmful. “The essence is that, as humans, we are designed to do grief — there’s no pathology. It’s rooted in our love and actually withholding it and not allowing ourselves to express it is far more harmful.” Home provides a haven conducive to facilitating a “healthy grief process.”
Being home also provides an unhurried environment that Randall believes is valuable. Saying goodbye can take time. She won’t rush it, often remaining with clients for a couple of hours. Logically, you can know death has occurred, but the body remains and there’s a connection, she explains: “The head and heart are not the same beings.”
It allows you to prepare and include kids
The home environment can also give children the time and space to process their pet’s death. Warnick suggests that you let your kids decide whether they want to be there, after you explain in detail what will happen. Be straightforward and leave nothing to the imagination, avoiding euphemisms such as “put down,” she said; whitewashing what’s happening will undermine your children’s trust. As Bidwell Smith points out, losing a pet often is a child’s first experience with death, and perhaps their first exposure to the concept of mortality. The importance of honesty cannot be overstated.
You can tell them that the procedure is generally quick and, barring a pinch when the sedative is given, is pain-free. First, the heavy sedative is administered, which causes the pet to fall into a deep sleep. Then a final injection — a concentrated barbiturate — is delivered directly into the vein, which halts all brain activity. Randall says it’s a peaceful process. Two potentially upsetting effects to warn children about are that the pet’s eyes might stay open, and that sometimes the muscle relaxation leads to urination or defecation.
Parents also can use this opportunity to teach kids that it’s natural to struggle aftersomeone we love is gone, Warnick says. Modeling healthy grieving means crying with your kids and letting them know that when people are sad, it’s not their job to fix it but simply to be supportive. Conversely, she says, “it might be that a child is devastated for five minutes and then is off running to play video games, and that’s completely healthy as well.”
It allows you to incorporate meaning
Randall, who has completed multiple grief education courses, worked with hospice palliative care and hosted several pet-loss support groups, says that euthanizing a pet may be one of the most difficult decisions we face.
Once you decide it’s time, book an appointment several days in advance, because last-minute slots are more difficult to secure. During the lead-up to the appointment, you may experience what Bidwell Smith calls “anticipatory grief.” Randall explains that grief doesn’t begin with a pet’s death, it begins when we know death is drawing near.
But this gives you time to prepare. Randall underscores the importance of “the where,” encouraging families to consider one of the pet’s favorite places in the home as the spot for their last moments.
Conducting a ceremony or ritual can be therapeutic, Warnick says. Poetry readings, candles and a photo display with favorite toys are a few ways Randall has witnessed pets being memorialized. “We really need ritual to move through these kinds of transitions in life,” Bidwell Smith says.
It is especially helpful during the pandemic
During the pandemic, demand for at-home euthanasia has increased, Randall says. Covid-19 restrictions have made clinics “much more forthcoming about referrals for the service that we offer,” she adds. At-home visits follow covid protocols, including requiring masks and practicing social distancing.
It can be expensive
One drawback is that at-home euthanasia costs more. Liz Bales, a Philadelphia veterinarian with more than 20 years of experience, says that though it’s difficult to compare prices, owners should generally expect costs to run 30 to 50 percent higher than in-office euthanasias. Randall charges $350 for the visit, and cremation is an additional cost, ranging from $175-$350 (we paid $650 total).
It is not for everyone
Some owners find this approach too personal and the thought of having their pet die at home distressing. We’re all different, Randall notes. And for those more comfortable with their pet dying at their local veterinary clinic, Randall is reassuring, explaining there’s not a clinic that doesn’t do its best to make the end of life as easy as possible for animals and families. “We don’t want pets to suffer,” she says.
It does not guarantee closure
Our decision to have Ezzy die at home didn’t ease the ache nor necessarily hasten healing. “Closure is a bit of a myth,” says Bidwell Smith, whose parents died when she was a young adult. She doesn’t think we ever “get over” those we lose and that although grief doesn’t last forever, the loss is something we hold.
Randall believes that while it can be helpful when the environment is peaceful and gentle, it doesn’t take any time off the grieving process. “We know that grief is proportional to the relationship you’ve had with a pet,” Randall says.
Still, Randall sees at-home euthanasia as so valuable that she considers her work with Solace Veterinary the most consistently rewarding period of her career. “There are a lot of cases where people don’t have a choice about how their pet dies, but when you do, I think this is such a gift. I really do.”