Mourning the Death of a Pet

Megan McArdle was chastised by an insensitive blogger of whom I’ve never heard for posting a poem on her blog mourning the passage of her dog, Finnegan. She is, understandably, perplexed and angry at having the legitimacy of her emotions called into question.

Obviously I do not think that losing a dog is like losing a person; no one sane believes that the two things are the same, though I grant you that some people do make creepy implications (calling themselves their dog’s “mom”) in that direction. Losing a dog or a cat is in some sense sadder, because they don’t understand what is happening to them, because they live such a little time, and because with a pet, you generally have to choose the moment of their death. And in many other ways it is not nearly as sad, because they have no dreams or aspirations to die with them; because one can never be as close to an animal as to (some) sentient beings; and because hey, everyone’s a little bit speciesist. But psychologists will be happy to tell you that we use the same basic mental equipment that loves people to love our pets, even if we can never love them as fully as we love people; and when they leave us, the same basic mental facility that grieves for people helps us scar over the hole our animals leave behind them. It’s not some completely alien process that has no business being compared to human death; it’s a difference of degree, not kind.

For most of us who have had pets, let alone lost them, there is no need to explain.

Our pets, while not people, are part of the family. That’s especially true for those of us whose dogs and cats live in our homes and sleep in our beds. We therefore bond with them and tend to anthropomorphize them. Whatever the felicific calculus for such things are supposed to be logically, most of us take the deaths of our pets much harder than the deaths of all but the people closest to us.

There’s no need to apologize for that. Emotion is, almost by definition, not logical.

UPDATE: Dave Schuler recently wrote a long tribute to Qila, his pet Samoyed, who died recently. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t know how to explain to you my relationship with this dog. I don’t look on him as my child. He’s not precisely a friend—the relationship is closer and more intimate than any friendship. I have spent nearly every moment of every day of the last ten years with him. During his puppyhood and young adulthood I still maintained an office and took him with me every day.

He has gotten me up every morning and seen to it that I went to bed at night. He made sure I got plenty of exercise. When I was sad, he comforted me. When I was lonely, he was there.

He is my own, personal therapy dog. Or, perhaps, my other self—the better part.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:
  2. Bithead says:

    Any chink in the armor is a possible target.
    Goes with the territory, anymore.
    I don’t like it, but there it is.

  3. whatever says:

    Stupid comments, especially anonymous ones, will be summarily deleted. -ed.

  4. Uncle Pinky says:

    Brings to mind Heinlein’s description of the symbiotic relationship between neo-dogs and handlers in Starship Troopers.

    I have found that pets, in most cases, have a sort of constancy that humans almost never show. Even cats are always and at all times cats, where humans alternate between a dizzying number of roles. That sort of elemental simplicity is something to be cherised.

  5. Tlaloc says:

    The bond that can form between people and animals, especially certain animals like dogs and horses may be one of the few things that continues to give me hope for us as a species.

    When you can love a creature that routinely licks it’s own butt you have a tremendous capactity for love. 🙂

  6. DC Loser says:

    I felt the same way when I lost my canine companion of 14 years almost two years ago. People who’ve never had pets just don’t understand.

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    When you can love a creature that routinely licks it’s own butt you have a tremendous capactity for love. 🙂

    I hadn’t thought of it that way Tlaloc, but this is one of those rare moments when I agree with you.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    I hadn’t thought of it that way Tlaloc, but this is one of those rare moments when I agree with you.

    It gets easier each time.

  9. Mark Wayne says:

    I find most dog owners annoying since they assume everyone has the same attitude about their dog as they do.

    They let them bark for hours on end in their back yard, oblivious of the fact they are disturbing their neighbors. They let them jump up on people that are visiting. They let them run around without leashes in areas that have leash laws. Tons of people can attest to ruined flower beds, dog droppings in the street, the list is endless.

    I have little respect for dog owners since in their self-absorbtion into their animal they lose conciousness of real people around them.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with you, Mark Wayne, but wouldn’t draw the line at irresponsible dog owners. All irresponsible people are irritating whether dog owners who don’t see that their dogs are properly controlled and socialized, parents who let their children run riot in public places, or drivers who tailgate while talking on a cellphone and reading a newspaper.

  11. Steve Verdon says:


    Your bigotry is duly noted. Not all dog owners are irresponsible. My dogs are always contained, either in the house, the backyard, or on leash when out with me. I stop them from barking after several minutes (I wait to see if they’ll calm down on their own first), and I always clean up after my dogs when they eliminate (solids).

  12. SJ Reidhead says:

    I’ve lost three cats since the first of March. GeorgieW was my beautiful long-hair I rescued as a kitten and literally fought to keep alive for 6 years. Brunhilda was nearly 18 years old. Redford was less than a year old and died of a rare birth defect.

    My grief was tempered by the fact that our vet’s oldest son was murdered during the same time frame. No, the loss of Georgie, Brunhilda, and Redford was not the same as the loss of a child, but it was a loss. And, I am fortunate to have a vet with enough humanity to know I was upset and enough humanity to put things into perspective and fight to keep Redford alive, and search for an answer as to why he died.

    There is nothing wrong with mourning the loss of a pet. There is something wrong with a person who cannot mourn or indeed love a pet.

    The Pink Flamingo

  13. DiscoverSD says:

    Maybe that insensitive blogger is the type of person who, as a kid, received a puppy as a birthday gift, didn’t get the idea, and sold the puppy for a few bucks the following day.

    There’s nothing wrong with mourning pets. Some may go overboard in doing so, but it’s their business. And ultimately their right.

  14. James: Thank you for this post. I will disagree with Megan on only one thing – for me, personally.

    With the exception of my ex-partner, I love my dog more than I have ever loved another human being. The old choice comes to mind – if you had to kill someone, who would you choose?

    If the choice were between my dog and another human, I’d hate to have to make that choice. I’d hate to be the human being in that mix. 🙂