When Animals Grieve

by Chris Bodenner

A reader responds to Andrew’s latest post about his dogs:

First, thanks for sharing the story about Eddy’s delayed grief for losing her friend Dusty. I thought I’d share a story about when I lost one of my two cats many years ago. Molly was really the first cat I owned (my mom didn’t like cats, so we grew up with dogs). I was renting a small house and took in the stray who stayed there; it was easier to give Custard a home rather than cleaning up the mess he made of the trash cans. While Molly and Custard generally got along, they never seemed particularly close.

Then one day, I was going out of town to visit some friends in New Orleans for a week, so I made arrangements for a co-worker to feed Molly and Custard while I was gone. On my first day in New Orleans, I got a call from Steve – he had gone to feed the cats and found Custard dead. I never learned what happened, but Custard sometimes had the habit of his former stray self and would stuff himself when he had a really large bowl of food and would later vomit. I had a feeling that is what happened, and he probably choked on the extra food he had consumed. Steve very generously offered to bury Custard.

When I got home, I emotionally prepared myself for the loss of one cat but I suspected no emotional response from Molly. After all, cats never gave you any sympathy when you needed it. When I got home, I found a house with no cats and a note from Steve. He said that Molly had gotten away from him and escaped from the house. She then watched him bury Custard from a distance.

He returned a couple of times and left food on the porch but didn’t see Molly. I also didn’t see anything of her the night I got back, but she was at the door early the next morning. The first thing I noticed were that her front claws were completely worn down, and there were marks on the ground where Steve had buried Custard.

She had spent some time digging at the spot where her friend had been buried. My idea of having a cat who paid no attention to Custard’s death was completely wrong. Molly was clearly upset, and my formerly tough, independent cat kept very close to me the next few days. While she eventually calmed down, this represented a permanent change; she spent the rest of her life being much more dependent on me because of the loss of Custard. There clearly had been some deep bond between them I had never perceived.

I’m old enough now to have experienced the death of several pets – dogs in childhood, cats since I’ve been on my own. Dogs and cats can bring a tremendous richness to our lives – it’s just unfortunate we have to experience the pain of their deaths. I hope that you and your husband will take care of each other, along with Eddy, and perhaps consider adopting another dog when your hearts tell you it is the right time.

Another reader remarks on the unparalleled company that pets often keep:

I care for two dogs, brothers/littermates, now just over 10. They have literally never spent a night apart (although at times have slept in different rooms). It is almost unheard of them to not both go on walks at the same time. The only time they are separated for any time is when one or the other goes to the vet.

I live in dread of the impact of the loss of one on the other. They have different personalities, and I can see them reacting differently, but I know the survivor will show grief and possibly worse (if already aged, I think it could speed the process). As much grief as I’ll be feeling, the most important thing I can do at that point is to be there for the surviving brother.

The post that sparked this thread – a reflection on Barbara King’s recent book, How Animals Grieve – can be read here. The long and emotional thread “The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets” can be found here.