Emotional Health

Losing a Beloved Pet

Recent research has confirmed that dogs in particular have developed unique features expressly to tug at our heartstrings. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that dog’s faces are structurally different from wolves’. They have a special pair of muscles framing their eyes giving them that “adopt me” look. Scientists consider this exciting biological evidence to indicate that domesticated dogs might have evolved a specialized ability used expressly to communicate well with humans.

There is also some speculation that dogs may in fact have “a theory of mind,” that is, the ability to imagine what others are thinking. Experiments with the recently deceased Sarah, known as the world’s smartest chimpanzee for her remarkable communication skills, prove that some animals do have that ability. It may be a useful adaptation. The New York Times writes,  “in social animals, being able to glean what others might be thinking is a good strategy for getting along.”

While cat owners seem to enjoy their pet’s independence, most dog owners relish what they see as the unconditional positive regard in the relationship. And it works both ways: not only do our pets forgive us for anything, dog owners are often much more tolerant of their pet’s behavior than they are with the people in their lives.

One reason for this is that we see our pets as innocent and guileless. We tend not to ascribe negative, ulterior motives to their behavior, although if we do, (“he made this mess because he was angry I left him”) we often take responsibility rather than blaming the pet. As with infants, we imagine that pets are simple, uncomplicated creatures that can’t be blamed for doing what comes naturally. Parents and pet owners who do ascribe “motives” to needy or unpleasant behavior, are more apt to be abusive.

The process of both ascribing unconditional regard to our pets is also joined by the projection of our own feelings of innocence and helplessness lost. Empathizing with the animal’s dependence and reliance on us is a way of expressing our own feelings of helplessness. Many devoted dog owners I know have a history of traumatic or premature separation in their childhood, for example.

This is not universal, of course, but I believe that the bond between humans and pets touches this aspect in all of us. I know of several people, once determinedly pet neutral or even against owning one, who have become fanatics after caring for someone else’s pet. They are almost like people who have refound a lost love they didn’t even know they missed.

When we lose a pet, we often feel as if we have lost our best friend, or even a part of ourselves. Unhampered by the ambivalence we all feel towards other humans (who are pesky enough to have lives, feelings, and motives we can’t control) we mourn in an uncomplicated way for what is for many of us, the most reliably positive relationship in our lives. We marvel at the way our pets are always happy to see us, the way they make no judgments, and hold no grudges nor act petty.

And we mourn them as brave, loyal, quirky, etc. What we see in our pets is not all imagined. But we value it all the more because it is freely given, without expectation, guile, or selfishness. They only want our loving care, and they owe their lives to us. It’s a wonderful thing to have, and a very big thing to lose.


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  • hillsmom September 1, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    When I first read this a month ago, little did I know that my precious little kitty, Gussie, would leave for the Rainbow Bridge yesterday. I don’t have the words or the energy to express the profound sadness and darkness of loss which has overtaken me. I lost my DH last year just 3 months short of our fifty-fifth wedding anniversary, but Gussie was there to console me. I was with both of them at the end, but it gives me no relief.