There is little doubt about it: pets are now intrinsic members of our family. At a commercial level, the UK retailing giant Pets at Home has posted record figures that show the market for pet food, treats, toys and, even pet clothing, is booming. At a personal and family level, as I discussed in 'What's so wrong with pet parenting?' pets have become kin; they have become our nearest and dearest. So, what do we do, how do we feel and act when they inevitably travel to the 'rainbow bridge'? Inspired by the Norse legend of Bifrost, the rainbow bridge represents the notion that owners will meet their pets again after death in a joyous reunion.
I personally can't help feeling that a heaven without pets, as accepted, indeed advocated, in many religions, would be a pretty dull place. The rainbow bridge sounds like much more fun. On the sad side, pets are bound to live much shorter lives than us, which means that by loving them like family, we are allowing ourselves to be subjected to regular heartache when they inevitably slip this mortal coil.
History is full of close bonds between people and pets. The most celebrated, and poignant, include stories of the unwavering devotion shown by animals when their masters depart this world. The Greyfriars Bobby, a tale of a terrier who, it is claimed, spent 14 years at his master's grave side, is the most well-known example, but there are many more.
Mortality has been at the forefront of my mind of late, as my darling Cavalier Sophie, aged seven, has been diagnosed with a grade three heart murmur. The vet says she probably only has a few years left. Upon hearing the news, I cried and cried; and am indeed writing this as tears well in my eyes. I had always wistfully thought, and wished, that Sophie would live to become the oldest dog in the world. As an aside, Mitral Valve Disease (MVD) is the biggest killer of Cavaliers with over 80% suffering from it to some extent by age eight. A brilliant petition has started to call upon the Kennel Club to institute the compulsory registration of Cavaliers to weed out their health issues. Please sign if you can: https://www.change.org/p/the-kennel-club-stop-registerin-g-cavalier-king-charles-spaniel-puppies-unless-their-parents-are-mri-scanned-and-heart-tested
A previous family pet, Rosie, a Border Terrier, had to be put to sleep at 16. She was senile and had lost use of rear legs, which had sadly led to incontinence. My parents, for she was one of those wonderful dogs one always remembers from the endless summers of childhood, did not tell me when they took her that final time to the vets. I, overwhelmed with emotion, and not thinking rationally, would have tried to stop them. This would not have been the best course of action for poor Rosie, who by that time had enough of life. I eventually accepted her passing, and we even had a very simple ceremony to say our goodbyes. In life, she was a water baby and a scattering of her ashes in a river where she had loved to swim seemed fitting.
Just a few years before Rosie's passing in 2001, we would not have thought about cremation, and it would not have been a viable option. It was a time when pet cremation services were springing up and we were, as a nation, turning away from digging up the garden to bury Rover alongside the pet goldfish. Now, there are so many ways of remembering our precious pets. One of the most innovative I have come across recently is the 3D pet sculpture, which many bereaved pet owners have chosen - all they need to do is submit a series of photographs of the deceased pet. In life too, it's a quirky and memorable gift. London-based Arty Lobster http://www.artylobster.com has seen a growing number of people approach them for memento mori. Where once we might have kept a favourite pet's collar, we can now immortalize them in 3D.
There is little doubt that losing a beloved pet can leave a massive hole in a family's life. Unlike the death of a human family member, which understandably attracts a huge outflow of sympathy, love and care in both actions and words, the death of a pet can be bewildering for other reasons. Many people may still belittle or not understand the overwhelming sense of loss. This issue came up recently in the British dark comedy Inside No 9, which was set in the call centre of a counseling service. An old lady, mourning the loss of her beloved cat, committed suicide after a 'counselor', overwrought by a previous call, told her to pull 'herself to together', as it was 'just a cat.' This reaction, satirized in the extreme, is still too pervasive, which is why brilliant services such as the Pet Bereavement Service have emerged. Many people worry about asking for time off from work after the death of a beloved companion animal, and the PBSS can advise on ways to have this important discussion with employers, for instance.
As a nation of animal lovers, where pets are increasingly members of our families, there is little doubt that we are changing. Grief upon the death of a pet is ever so gradually no longer being seen as unusual or somehow embarrassing. It is becoming more natural, and arguably more human to visibly grieve upon the loss of a beloved pet.
Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine, a unique leading lifestyle magazine for pet owners, with a monthly readership of 24,000. She also runs specialist PR, Content-generation & Marketing & Digital Publishing Services for the Pet Industry - more details at Pets Magazine's website.