BBC SCIENCE FOCUS MAGAZINE
PET GRIEF: WHY LOSING A DOG OR CAT IS LIKE LOSING A FAMILY MEMBER
Studies reveal that the bereavement of a pet can be as traumatic as that of a human family member
Recently, I discovered an article with the title “Losing a pet can be just as hard as losing a loved one”. For many, this is like saying “Breaking your femur can be just as painful as breaking your leg”. Obviously it is: they’re the same thing! The first one just uses more specific terminology.
However, clearly not everyone agrees. There are those who, when encountering someone upset over the loss of a pet, say “just get a new one”. Legally, pets are just property. A cat is something you buy, and one cat is the same as any other, right?
Those with no concern for pets may think this. Nonetheless, it’s still fundamentally wrong.
First, human brains are very capable of forming strong emotional connections, even with individuals we’ve never met, or those that do not, or cannot, exist. We even form emotional attachments to inanimate objects, and experience a sense of profound loss if they’re lost or broken.
Taking this into account, people forming meaningful emotional connections with non-human creatures is more likely than not. Indeed, it happens often.
Some may still scoff. Because how can you form an emotional bond with something that can’t even talk to you? Easily, it turns out.
WHAT MAKES HUMANS CARE ABOUT PETS?
Although it can be argued that non-human pets cannot offer the same intellectual or cognitive stimulation of a fellow human, they do actually have advantages when it comes to invoking emotional bonds. One obvious one is that, with their small overall size but proportionately large heads and big eyes, typical pets have many of the qualities of human babies, which our brains are instinctively, and emotionally, driven to care for and protect, to an often confusing degree.
Indeed, babies offer no intellectual or cognitive stimulation, but we tend not to write them off as irrelevant. The very idea is abhorrent, let alone the fact that doing so would effectively doom our entire species.
We humans, and other fellow primates, are also very tactile creatures, and comforting contact is a priority when forming interpersonal bonds. So, for all their lack of witty repartee, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, ferrets, and pretty much anything else that can offer warm cuddles, can often tick emotional boxes that our species cannot.
Granted, not every type of pet can offer this tactile dimension. Furry mammals, and some birds with their soft feathers, can. But reptiles, insects and fish will struggle here. The ever-emotional human brain can still clear this obstacle, but still, this may explain why some pets are regarded as more ‘lose-able’ than others.
But consider a pet’s limited cognitive abilities and interactions. They may actually mean the emotional bonds we form with them are stronger, not weaker.
The human brain has evolved many complex mechanisms to thoroughly engage with our fellows. Empathy, theory of mind, mimicry, impression management, and more. But most, if not all, of these involve elements of manipulation and deception. This is actually an impressive cognitive ability, but it nonetheless can introduce an element of doubt into any bond we form with another person. Are they being honest with me? Do they have ulterior motives? Even if we trust someone implicitly, we know they can be deceitful. And this will ultimately impact our brain’s understanding of them.
But this isn’t true for pets. If we come home and our dog is ecstatic to see us, we know it’s not lying. Because it can’t! If our cat opts to climb on our chest and purr, it’s hard to think it’s playing ‘the long game’ and trying to win us over.
And yes, you may think the behaviours we perceive as love and affection from our pets are overly anthropomorphic interpretations of something more basic (“Your cat doesn’t want to cuddle, he just wants a warm place to sleep, and would eat your face if you died at home”). But as far as the human brain is concerned, that doesn’t matter!
Consider how many people mourned, and still do mourn, Princess Diana, or the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II. These are individuals they never encountered in person. Whatever emotional attachment they had is based on a concoction of their imagination.
Why would pets be any different? If the wagging of a dog’s tail is perceived as affectionate excitement rather than a primitive canine cue, then that’s what it is as far as our brain’s concerned.
And if we can form equally potent emotional bonds with beloved pets as we do with humans, it logically follows that we experience similar grief when they die, as studies have revealed.
This suggests that the grief following the loss of a pet should be treated just as seriously as that following the loss of a family member or loved one. Because as far as our brains are concerned, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Ideally, what services that exist should be expanded to acknowledge pet death as a source of grief. It can legitimately be as traumatising as the passing of a loved human. And in some ways, even more so. After all, nobody would ever say “Your mother died? Well, adoption exists, why don’t you just get a new one?” Such people would be vilified. I’m not saying that those who say the same about pets should receive the same treatment, but the comparison isn’t exactly unfair.
by DEAN BURNETT
Dean is a neuroscientist and writer. His new book, Emotional Ignorance: Lost And Found In The Science Of Emotion (£14.99, Guardian Faber) is out now.
2 thoughts on “Why is the death of a pet like losing a human family member?”
Thanks for posting this. Non-pet people realty just don’t get it!
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Agreed. It’s devastating — just as it would be for any family member of your immediate household.