Why losing a dog is so painful


Frank T. McAndrew wrote about why losing your dog can be so much more painful than losing a relative or a friend.

When people who have never had a dog see their dog-owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it’s all a bit of an overreaction; after all, it’s “just a dog.”

However, those who have loved a dog know the truth: Your own pet is never “just a dog.”

Many times, I’ve had friends guiltily confide to me that they grieved more over the loss of a dog than over the loss of friends or relatives. Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one. Unfortunately, there’s little in our cultural playbook – no grief rituals, no obituary in the local newspaper, no religious service – to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can make us feel more than a bit embarrassed to show too much public grief over our dead dogs.

This is very true. These strong feelings are something that perhaps only dog lovers know because they are reluctant to say so to others since it might seem wrong to mourn the loss of a pet more than that of a human being. So they tend to reveal the full extent of their grief only to others who will understand.

Dogs entered my life only in adulthood when my children asked for one and I have had just two, including the current member of the family Baxter the Wonder Dog. I have reached an age where many family members and friends have died. I have mourned those losses but the death of my first dog Copper caused me a lot more grief than the deaths of many other people and it took me a long time to recover from it. The idea that Baxter the Wonder Dog will some day also die is so difficult for me to deal with that I shut it out of my mind.

McAndrew looks at why our bond with dogs is so strong.

This is no accident. They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to people, and MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food (and for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food). Dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from facial expression alone. Scientific studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, try to help their owners and even avoid people who don’t cooperate with their owners or treat them well.

One passage amused me greatly.

Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.” Misnaming happens when you call someone by the wrong name, like when parents mistakenly calls one of their kids by a sibling’s name. It turns out that the name of the family dog also gets confused with human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled from the same cognitive pool that contains other members of the family. (Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names.)

It’s no wonder dog owners miss them so much when they’re gone.

By coincidence, I came across this article just after returning from spending ten days with my new grandson. During that visit, on several occasions, I referred to my grandson as ‘Baxter’, much to the amusement of the people present. When I read this article, I clipped the above passage and sent it to them to show that my mistake was not entirely due to me losing my marbles.

Comments

  1. tecolata says

    I am a cat person. And while cats have a different evolutionary history (they are not pack animals) and therefore see their human as “mom” rather than “head dog”, the bond is similar. I lost two cats last year. My two rescue kittens turned out to be neurologically damaged, probably because their feral mother caught a virus during pregnancy. Their lack of coordination and tremors have gotten to the point where they have a great deal of trouble walking and eating is a challenge – which means all too soon these 7 month old cats will need euthanasia. Still every evening when I get home they come, stumbling and falling, to rub my ankles and be picked up and petted.
    I also lost my father last year and while I grieve and miss him, he was not in my life daily, living about 400 miles away. The cats are the ones I come home to.
    And I HATE it when people ask “will you get another cat” as though losing my loved friends is like my computer hard drive crashing or jeans getting a hole in the knee.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Our last “just a cat” was with us for 22 years.
    She left a bit of a gap when she died.

  3. busterggi says

    I’m actually a dog person who somehow ended up rescuing cats. I presently have 10, all rescued. I lost several last year – my mom’s cat who died of old age, another rescued cat who had been abandoned to die of numerous health problems that I was able to give almost another good year to, a 2 year-old feral that was shot & killed by a neighbor (who also shot another of my rescues – not that the cops gave a damn) and two kittens that I suspect were taken to other homes.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    After Max died, I swore never to get another dog. They capture your heart (and you theirs), and don’t live nearly long enough. Then my sister and her partner moved in with their dogs…

  5. says

    I reckon the business about how dogs respond to praise is true, but unnecessary.

    People bond with all kinds of things, especially animals and fellow humans. Grief is proportional to the loss you experience – any creature, human or otherwise, that lives with you and is a daily part of your life is going to leave one hell of a hole when they are gone, a bigger hole than even close blood relatives who might no longer be a daily part of your life. Sometimes this is more intense for animals, because our relationships with those are so much simpler than with our fellow insane naked apes; you will not often meet humans you can implicitly trust and feel so completely safe around as a pet.

    It’s the monkeysphere in action.

  6. invivoMark says

    I lost a cat last year, and can confirm that it was a major loss for me.

    I suspect the reason misnaming doesn’t happen with cats is because you are more likely to call a dog by name than a cat. I just got a kitten, and I call her “kitten.” I did this with my previous cat, too. If I want her attention, I make clicking noises or I use my hands. Like dogs, cats can learn their names, but they usually don’t respond to their names in the same way as a dog would.

  7. deepak shetty says

    This is very true. These strong feelings are something that perhaps only dog lovers know because they are reluctant to say so to others since it might seem wrong to mourn the loss of a pet more than that of a human being. So they tend to reveal the full extent of their grief only to others who will understand.

    Im probably one of those who dont understand. It looks to me that there are only 2 alternatives – either its just an animal – or if it’s something more than how the heck does someone justify keeping it as a “pet” ? – the pets have no freedom and have a bunch of stuff done upon them (like neutering). Note that Im still referring to the human’s viewpoint , not the animals

  8. invivoMark says

    @deepak shetty, do you really think that the quality of life for a feral dog or cat is better than that of a domestic pet?

    As for why we “have stuff done upon them (like neutering)”: same question. Do you really think pet owners would like to see more feral dogs and cats?

  9. ledasmom says

    Our fourteen-pound cat is purring under my foot as I type. We have two others – one who likes to sit with her face half an inch from my face, and one who has trouble recognizing food if it’s not in her bowl. The first two both have heart conditions – second one will probably die of it eventually. Luckily she does not know that. I very carefully do not think about it more than I must.

  10. machintelligence says

    invivoMark “Like dogs, cats can learn their names, but they usually don’t respond to their names in the same way as a dog would.” Dogs come when called, cats take a message and get back to you later.
    The last bit about names is dead on. When I was away at college my name moved to the bottom of my mom’s recall list, below all of my siblings and the dog.

  11. chigau (違う) says

    deepak shetty #8
    Do you really think that a contrast between:
    “just an animal”
    and
    “something more”
    is, in any way, an honest approach to this question?

  12. deepak shetty says

    @invivoMark

    do you really think that the quality of life for a feral dog or cat is better than that of a domestic pet?

    Can’t ask the animal , now, can I? (or you). But would you accept that style of argument if for e,g, someone in Apartheid South Africa made the argument about colored people ?

  13. deepak shetty says

    @chigau
    I don’t see where dishonesty comes into it. Logically I’m trying to phrase it as x and !(x) to cover the possibilities – The something more was meant to cover different degrees of attachment one might feel towards ones pet. Once you acknowledge that animals are more (and I use animal in the colloquial sense) how do you not see that you are effectively their owner – not their friend , not their companion etc.

  14. Brett Hanson says

    @deepak
    Animals don’t have the agency to make the distinction you’re claiming. While you may be technically true, in the context of animal cognizance and behavior it is realistic to expect the animal would invariably choose a loving home over living on the streets (or being dead). Your arguments don’t add anything of substance or generate useful diaglogue.

  15. KG says

    I am a cat person. And while cats have a different evolutionary history (they are not pack animals) and therefore see their human as “mom” rather than “head dog”, the bond is similar. – tecolata@2

    Actually I’ve seen numerous cat-lovers say that cats regard their human as staff, not “mom”! And there is experiemental evidence (sorry, I don’t have a reference) that cats do not, unlike dogs, derive reassurance from the presence of their human in potentially threatening situations.

    Deepak shetty@14,
    The problem was in the “just an animal”. After all, people can also be described in that way. We acknowledge that they have unique properties which underlie the range of relationships we both can and should have with them – why can’t we acknowledge that dogs also have unique (but different) properties? And of course a dog-owner is, legally, the dog’s owner, and of course the relationship is not the same as one with a human friend or companion. That doesn’t mean it’s not one of mutual love, and enjoyment of each others’ company.

  16. Holms says

    But Deepak, a pet is not ‘just an animal’ if by that you mean a random animal that is a stranger to the owner. The difference is the familiarity, the attachment, and yes a genuine relationship of sorts. A pet is a friend, playmate, little sibling or child to most owners; and yes, also owner. Owner is not incompatible with the others.

    Putting this into your framework of x / not x, this places a pet firmly on the not x side. The fact that you lump ‘coloured people’ in the same category as pets only goes to show the shallowness your framework.

  17. Holms says

    WTF, my attempt to close the bold tag fucked up so badly it introduced an italics tag.

    In other news, always preview.

    [Holms, I corrected your comment according to this classification. – Mano]

  18. says

    I had a fish for two years and I cried when it died, so I would never judge someone for mourning over a pet.

    But would you accept that style of argument if for e,g, someone in Apartheid South Africa made the argument about colored people ?
    FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuu… No. I’m just going to bite my tongue and walk away.

  19. busterggi says

    “And there is experiemental evidence (sorry, I don’t have a reference) that cats do not, unlike dogs, derive reassurance from the presence of their human in potentially threatening situations.”

    I know this is anecdotal but there have been quite a few times I’ve tried to comfort my cats when they were afraid (even though I knew they weren’t in danger) and they always reacted by freaking out and left me bleeding nehind them.

  20. Trip Space-Parasite says

    Reading about the Trumpists murdering human children: whatever, people suck.
    Reading tecolata @ #2 above: now I’m crying at work, in an open-plan office.

  21. deepak shetty says

    @Brett Hanson

    Animals don’t have the agency to make the distinction you’re claiming.

    Which is why I said “Note that Im still referring to the human’s viewpoint , not the animals”.

    @Holms
    Im using just an animal to cover the people who treat it as a possession or plaything and who even mistreat pets. So no not everything falls under not X.

    The fact that you lump ‘coloured people’ in the same category as pets only goes to show the shallowness your framework.

    Sigh – even though I specifically used “style of argument” ? Effectively X is better than Y implies X is good. I used the example I used because the response did remind me of a letter to the editor in a Green lantern apartheid special that made that exact argument – The editors response to which was I prefer Herpes to AIDS.

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