Last week’s house call was like so many others before it: An old dog in the last throes of a terminal illness was ready to call it a life. Friends and family had assembled to commingle their tears while the veterinarian knelt on the floor for the last solemn rites. Finally it came time for the household’s myriad pets — who had absconded for the occasion — to say their goodbyes, too.
But wait, some of you are saying, rewind that last bit. Do pets really have to say goodbye when their fellow housemate dies?
I don’t pretend to know the answer to that one. But I’ve had plenty cause to wonder at how strongly some owners hold fast to the belief that pets must acknowledge the death of another before moving on with their lives. It’s a question that I often receive during in-hospital euthanasia and one reason clients cite for preferring an at-home service ... or even for taking the body home for a "viewing" by the entire household.
Here’s where I confess: This notion, tenaciously held as it is by such a large percentage of pet owners, baffles me more than a little. No doubt because I don’t subscribe to it myself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my theories.
a) That humans would anthropomorphize grief makes lots of sense to me — especially given that some species do overtly grieve, as when elephants tarry mournfully over the bones of their dead.
b) There’s an almost overpowering human need to share in the death of a loved one. Sharing it with the other significant members of the household, then, would only make sense, whether they believe the animals understand it or not.
c) Our understanding of the grieving process has come a long way since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal book, On Death and Dying was published in 1969. It’s no wonder that many of us now hope to make that process easier for the animals in our household by initiating the grieving process at one point in time rather than allow animals to languish in the wondering stage ... "Where did my buddy go?"
I get it, but I can’t help thinking it’s a stressful thing for pets to experience at the time of a house call. I see pets shake and shiver — doubtless because (a) they recognize me or my aroma, and (b) everyone is acting absolutely strangely — and yet many owners still persist. Yes, I’ve even seen owners put treats on the dead animal’s bedding to entice others to come forward and acknowledge the death.
Under less stressful circumstances it makes a lot more sense. But I still wonder whether our household pets are capable of understanding the scenario the way we’d like to think they do.
So here’s where I get to ask: What do you believe?
Dr. Patty Khuly