Added 15 March 2008.

Animal owners and bereavement

When a pet or domestic animal passes away


Bereavement, or the loss of a loved one, is something that the vast majority of humans must face at some point in their lives, and over which they have little or no control. Even if we never marry, we still face the loss of parents, siblings or friends, and unless we are unfortunately deprived of emotional warmth or simply sociopathic, bereavement of such will hit us hard. Even the death of comparative strangers can sadden us and evoke feelings of compassion and sympathy.

Such appears to be the case also when we take animals into our homes, often regardless of the species or the task for which it was adopted. The bond between man and dogs has long been known, as evinced by Rudyard Kipling's poems , as has that between man and cats or horses. Rabbits, tortoises, pet birds and small mammals are also included in this broad feeling. It may be surprising to some (usually those who despise anything lacking fur or hair), but individual reptiles, amphibians and fish can also invoke these feelings, especially if one has had a long relationship with the deceased.


It is a sad fact in this current world that all that is born will die sooner or later, whether in its first few hours or after a century of life. This applies of course to humans as much as anybody, but is even more true of animals, most of whom lack the longevity of the human race. Thus a pet rat will normally not live much beyond its fourth birthday; a bearded dragon, usually not more than fifteen years; a domestic horse, probably around twenty-five years. The record for a goldfish is I believe about forty years. Some lizards, snakes and turtles may make twenty to thirty years; African grey parrots and a few large lizards, about sixty years. Only well-kept domestic tortoises may outlive their owners.

The point is that if we take an animal into our home, barring any accident or misfortune to ourselves, we will probably see its demise long before our own. This is something to be borne in mind when considering pets for children, although it is not a good reason for refusing to let them have one (see below).


The death of an animal is more likely to be emotionally traumatic if unexpected or through misfortune rather than the result of reaching its own natural longevity. In the latter case death may actually be a merciful release, albeit still a sad event. I remember rodents, some of whom we were very fond, who had reached an age and state where they were clearly failing and either mentally or physically fading. The feelings of sadness we had were mingled with a sort of relief that their suffering was over. On the other hand the unexpected death of an animal can cause sadness and also feelings of guilt, even if misplaced. Of course we must always in such cases stop ourselves and ask ourselves whether we had been neglectful, whether through not closing the tank lid properly or not getting to a vet in time, but equally an unforeseen cause may be the reason, such as in domestic species which are more prone to sudden organ failure.

To feel sadness and grief is perfectly natural, particularly if the animal was a companion in the closest sense of the word, ie one had a strong degree of interaction with it and was recognised in a special way by the animal itself. This is obviously strongest with dogs and cats, but again can equally occur with other mammals, birds and cold-blooded creatures. Snakes, not normally considered the most intellectual or emotional creatures, can from anecdotal evidence show some such bond with an owner.

Although Roger Scruton, in his otherwise fairly sensible book on animal rights, dismisses such feelings towards what might be termed the less domestically common or lower animals as sentimentality, I believe such feelings are natural. Furthermore, if humans can become attached to inanimate objects - old furniture, cars or musical instruments, especially guitars, spring to mind - surely it is in no way unnatural for them to feel stronger attachment to living creatures? Unlike inanimate objects, animals, even humble invertebrates, do respond in some way to the actions of an owner and are not as predictable, having most evidently a mind of their own (something we often attribute to inanimate objects, notably those that can apparently let us down at awkward moments, but for which we know the basis is a mechanical or other failure rather than an act of will).

The intensity of sadness or grief may vary. In a large collection of invertebrates, for example, the loss of a small number of a common species where no individuals have been named may hardly be noticed. At the other end of the scale, the loss of the family dog, cat, parrot or single large python or boa may be felt acutely, especially if all the family have been involved with the care of the deceased. The grief at death may later become a lingering sense of sadness or sorrow at certain points of day, eg first thing in the morning or on returning home from work, when the owner is reminded that the animal that once needed feeding or attention in other ways is no longer there. Simple but poignant things such as a dog lead or empty tank may trigger a profound emotional response. Again, these feelings are natural and should be allowed a release rather than being repressed. Grief only becomes unnatural if unnaturally prolonged or deliberately sustained by the sufferer rather than being allowed to run its course.

Practical considerations

Although it may sound callous in the light of the death of a beloved pet animal, the initial necessity for the owner is to take care of the body. Apart from anything else, there are health considerations involved.

Small animals such as rodents, most cold-blooded vertebrates (reptiles, amphibians and fish) and similar-sized creatures can be buried in the garden if one is available, although nowadays there is often a problem with foxes disinterring the body in their never-ending search for food. Dogs, cats and animals of similar or larger size are often better cremated. Many vets now offer this service, which is outsourced to specialist companies who offer a sensitive service and will return the ashes in a suitably box (often with a name plate) on request for a reasonable fee. Taxidermy is still an option for some people but you may need to look on the Internet or in the phone directory for such a service, which seemed to fall out of favour somewhat in the twentieth century.

An alternative, or complement, to these options is to have the animal buried in a special pet cemetery. There is often one located within reasonable driving distance, and a plaque or commemorative tree can be bought.


A book that is quite helpful is , which deals with aspects of grief and bereavement as well as enlarging on some of the practical considerations considered above.

There is an anthology of anecdotes by pet owners of various animals and of poems, including Kipling's "The Power of the Dog" and "Four-Feet", by Susie Cornfield entitled Farewell, my lovely, with a helpful appendix of useful addresses and organisations in the back.


Farewell, My Lovely, Celia Haddon, Garret Books 2006. Short, readable anthology of anecdotes by pet owners (some quite famous) and famous poems.

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