On Losing a Dog

There’s no way to sugarcoat it, so: On Tuesday morning my 17-month-old dog ran into a busy parkway, met a car, and died on impact.

My husband and I took his body to the vet. Then we came home and wept, in fits and starts. We took all of his stuffed animals and balls and bones and other crap down to the basement. I took a bath, and later, a shower. We made sandwiches. We flipped through old text messages for the dozens of photos and videos of him we had sent to each other. We tried to get used to a too-quiet, too-clean apartment.

After a few hours, because this is what I do, I started looking up scientific research about losing a pet. There were more studies than I expected (PubMed produced 66 papers with search term “grieving pet”), and what the studies reported was more comforting than I expected. So I figured it might be helpful — both for my mental health and for any of my readers who are going through something similar — to write some of it down.

We’re already talking about getting another dog. We’re dog people now, thanks to him.

The new dog would never be the same: Even if the same breed, it would no doubt have a different personality, quirks, abilities. But a different dog is far superior to no dog. That’s the logic.

But there’s also the fear. Fear that the next dog will be a constant reminder of what happened. Fear that something awful might happen to the new dog, too. Fear of the inevitable day in the future when we would have to go through this hurt again.

We’d be taking lots of risks.

“Those who do insist on a special relationship with their dog or cat put themselves at risk from a mental health point of view,” wrote British psychiatrist Kenneth M.G. Keddie in one of the first studies about mourning for pets, published in 1977.

His report goes on to describe three medical cases illustrating the “psychiatric penalty” that can follow the death of a pet.

There was a 16-year-old schoolgirl who, after losing the King Charles spaniel she had had since age 3, developed a rash on her hands, couldn’t swallow fluids or solids, and repeatedly played with her fingers. A 56-year-old dog breeder lost her 14-year-old Yorkshire terrier, one of her champions. She had nightmares and “attacks of sudden breathlessness” during the night. And a 55-year-old who was severely depressed for 18 months after the death of her 14-year-old poodle.

Keddie proposes that these extreme grief reactions happened because each woman had created a specific “family relationship” with her dog. To the young girl, the spaniel was the sibling she never had; the breeder’s dog was the sympathetic husband she didn’t have; the 55-year-old’s poodle was the second child she had always wanted.

These three cases, Keddie writes, “serve to remind us of the hazards of pet ownership.”

I don’t know many dog owners who haven’t formed some kind of family relationship with their dog. Ours was our only child.

Science backs me up on the “dogs are like children” thing. As psychologist John Archer explains in this 1997 paper (that link will get you the full .pdf if you’re interested in any of these parenthetical references):

“Pet owners treat pets like children, for example, playing with them (Smith 1983), talking to them in motherese or baby-talk (Hirsh-Pasek and Treiman 1982), continually referring to “my baby,” and holding and cuddling them as one would a baby (Carmack 1985; Serpell 1986)… Similar (but less systematic) evidence that pets act as child substitutes can be found from anthropological and historical accounts of other cultures: this includes breast-feeding of young animals by humans (Messent and Serpell 1981; Savishinsky 1983; Serpell 1986, 1987).”

A few years ago researchers in Hawaii surveyed 106 people while visiting the waiting room of a veterinary clinic about their experiences as pet owners.

The survey was detailed and probed lots of different psychological measures. Sixty-nine responders reported losing a pet and filled out a battery of so-called complicated grief. I wrote about this phenomenon once; it’s defined as an intense, consuming grief with symptoms lasting for more than six months.

About 4 percent of the survey responders were deemed to have complicated grief. Nearly 32 percent reported some kind of grief features — numbness, disbelief, preoccupation with the loss — lasting at least six months, and 12 percent said their grief caused at least “slight functional impairment.”

Seventy-five responders reported the loss of a pet and filled out a battery of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’ve often written about PTSD; it’s defined as the recurring memories and heightened state of arousal that lingers for more than a month after a traumatic event.

Even using the most liberal criteria, none of the survey responders would meet criteria for PTSD, the study found.

“Findings from this study suggest that many people have close bonds with their pets/animals, often consider them ‘part of the family,’ and experience significant features of grief reactions after their death,” the authors write. “However, the percentage of people experiencing major pathological disruption after the death of a pet/animal is relatively low (<5%).”

In 1989, grief expert Kenneth Doka wrote that pet loss (like perinatal death and induced abortion) is a type of “disenfranchised grief,” meaning that the griever’s relationship with the deceased, and therefore, the griever’s grief, is not sufficiently recognized by other people. Pets, unlike people, are not publicly mourned, which means that grievers don’t get the social support they need to recover.

I’m grateful that that hasn’t been the case for us. After sharing what happened on Facebook, we received a flood of supportive messages, emails, and flower deliveries. It has meant the world to us to know that other people know how much we loved him, and understand that this is a real loss.

Pets are good for people, and good for couples.

A 1995 study of couples’ day-to-day interactions found that:

“…couples with dogs had greater well-being, and those with the highest attachment to their dogs — and who confide in them — fared the best. Interestingly, talking to dogs — in addition to one’s spouse — was related to greater life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and physical and emotional health. Confiding in pets to ‘discuss’ difficult life situations greatly relieved stress.”

A 2002 study measured cardiovascular changes of 120 married couples while they performed two stressful tasks — one was “5 minutes of rapid serial subtraction by steps of three from a four-digit number,” and the other was a 2-minute hand bath in ice water. Participants had lower heart rates and blood pressure when performing these tasks in front of their pet than when doing them in front of their spouse, the study found. Pets, the authors suggest, offer unconditional support under duress, with no judgments.

“While the idea of a pet as social support may appear to some as a peculiar notion,” the authors write, “our participants’ responses to stress combined with their descriptions of the meaning of pets in their lives suggest to us that social support can indeed cross species.”

Digging into this research has helped me understand the value of having a dog, and more fully appreciate the bond I had — and apparently still have — with the one I lost.

But there are questions I haven’t found answers for in the scientific literature, at least not yet. And for these I would love to hear stories about other people’s experiences.

How long do you wait after one dog dies before doing it all over again? If you get the same kind of dog, is it comforting to have a similar set of dog traits in your life once again, or instead just incredibly sad?

Do people ever regret getting another one? And if they do, do they ever dare to admit it?

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