We can’t ask such questions, so we are left to make informed guesses to explain the behavior of our companions. Hence, it is still up for debate whether pets truly grieve in the way that we humans do.
Our understanding of how animals think and feel is constantly evolving in the face of fascinating new evidence, but in the end it is very educated guesswork – a reality that daily haunts veterinarians and pet owners alike when we know something isn’t quite right but just don’t know why.
A friend recently shared this story about Bootsie the cat on her Facebook. Bootsie was taken to a shelter and separated from his companions, after which he spent his days hiding under a blanket. The author describes bringing Bootsie into her home – on the heels of her own mother’s death – and slowly coaxing him out of his shell. She concludes that Bootsie was experiencing a sense of loss not unlike her own. Could be. It’s equally possible, however, that Bootsie is simply one of those cats that is extremely timid when presented with new situations.
I do know this – the bond that companion animals have with their humans and other animals is very, very real, and very much mutual. Conventional wisdom used to be that animals don’t remember their past and, therefore, cannot experience grief or loss. I don’t buy that – anyone who has received the rockstar greeting from their dog upon arriving home knows that our pets love and remember us.
I am also fairly confident that dogs and cats, at least, live in the moment. Each new situation is, in essence, forever to them. Again, that’s why your dog is just as ecstatic to see you no matter whether you’ve been gone for five minutes or five years. It’s why my feisty (formerly) feral cat will become timid, withdraw and hide whenever she must spend a day at a clinic – although it’s just for the day and she always comes home, that experience is forever to her while she is living it.
So yes, Bootsie may very well be grieving the loss of his mother and sibling. Or maybe not. In the end, whether this constitutes grief as we choose to define it boils down to semantics. What matters is that Bootsie needed a loving soul, someone to nurture him and gently bring him out to participate once again in the living world, someone to patiently ease his fears and gain his trust. His new owner needed someone to care for and make a connection with as she processed her own emotions. It is a story of loss, grief, new beginnings, and of hope. Above all, it is a touching, profound, and beautiful testament to the miraculous healing power of the human-animal bond.
That’s something upon which we can all agree.