There is no such thing as just a dog or just a cat for pet lovers. They become far more than that, transcending their “just” status by bonding with us and us with them. Inevitability then, when they die, we grieve for them in the transcendent way they lived: being more than just a dog or just a cat we’ve lost. Such is the wisdom prolific animal writer Jon Katz tries to impart in his 2011 book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. I do say “tries” because Katz’s book fell short of the mark for me, which I will get into momentarily.
Katz, who operates Bedlam Farm in upstate New York, is used to experiencing the life and death of countless animals, including dogs and cats, but also roosters, chickens, sheep, cows, and so on. Such is the life of a farmer and the reality of a farm, Katz says. You won’t survive as a farmer or operating a farm, if you don’t accept that reality. I think that certainly applies to non-farmers and their relationships to animals, or other humans, for that matter. All living beings will die eventually, some sooner than others. That question is settled. The open question is how to deal with it, and that’s what Katz addresses in his book stemming from his own experience with not knowing how to grapple with his border collie, Orson’s, death. Orson needed to be put down, he says, after biting three people (including a child). Due to his upbringing and his gender, Katz says he didn’t know how to express grief for Orson and even felt silly embarrassment for grieving over a dog.
I think that’s an understandable feeling mixed in with our grief is a meta embarrassment for feeling it at all over a dog, especially as Katz admits (and as I’ve also felt before), when we feel more deep sorrow for the loss of a pet than we did for a family relative. That isn’t just an internalized embarrassment; it’s also reflective of our expectations from society. First, as many pet lovers know, other humans do think of dogs and cats as just dogs and cats (“it’s just an animal!”), only furthering our sense of shame at experiencing grief over their loss. Secondly, specifically American culture doesn’t like to talk about death and taken with the former, that’s only magnified when it comes to the loss of pets.
Humans, because we personify so much of our pets’ personality and existence, also have a tendency to assign blame and guilt to ourselves when our pet passes. Is there something I could have done differently? Or if we do have to “put them down,” a euphemism for killing them, we feel guilt for doing so. I know when my first family pet, Jessie, was getting too sick and too frail, my parents made the decision that it was time to euthanize her. I distinctly remember going with my father to the vet and handing over Jessie to the veterinarian, with Jessie looking back at me with her sad, brown eyes. I’ve always interpreted her look as, “How can you do this to me?”
But what I think it is is that for the most part, when our dogs die or are at such a state of needing to be euthanized, their minds are still intact. That is what makes it so so difficult: The same unconditionally loving dog is still looking at you with that love you’ve always known from them, but sadly, their bodies are giving up on them. And as Katz rightly points out, it’s not fair to the dog, or to us, to prolong their suffering for our own selfish reasons of not wanting them to go yet, hence the title of the book, Going Home.
That said, I think there is a line somewhere between doing what you can to save your dog and prolonging their agony selfishly. For example, our second family dog, Dallas, broke her back running down the stairs. We were initially told she should be put down. We were confronted with how expensive it would be to save her. I understand that not everyone has the privilege of paying expensive vet bills (which is also a reason for not getting a dog in the first place, to be fair), but we went ahead with Dallas’ back surgery. We got six or seven more years with Dallas because of that decision. I can’t imagine not having those years with her.
Before I get to the criticisms I have of Katz’s book, let me offer one more point in Katz’s favor. It’s become fashionable to proclaim and meme about how we don’t deserve dogs and dogs are better than humans to the point of it become a misanthropic claim. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh at those memes, too, and on some level, I understand the instinct — dogs are less complicated than humans and they truly possess unconditional love for you — but Katz is right to say that our relationships to our pets should be reinforcing our relationships to each other as humans. In that way, pets aren’t there to replace our human connections, but to remind us of how important they are.
So, one of the main reasons I said Katz’s book falls short for me (I gave it four out of five stars on Goodreads, which if you know my ratings, is rare as I rarely ever go below five stars) is because I didn’t feel anything. A book about grief, and about the loss of family pets, as someone who has experienced the death of two family pets thus far — and both sides of it: I experienced putting Jessie down, and I came home to Dallas dead on my porch and had to take her dead body to the vet — I expected to read a book about it and be teary-eyed often. Instead, the book felt either too obvious, too surface-level, or hokey at other points. To the latter, I thought it was amusing Katz rightly said we should treat children seriously when it comes to the deaths of their pets and not lie to them, and then by the same token, he seems to take dog psychics (animal communicators, he calls them) seriously when they tell him about how his dog is doing in the afterlife.
When we talk about grief, too, I also don’t like the notion Katz presents of “moving on.” At first blush, it seems healthy for us to find a way to “move on” after a death, human, dog, cat, whomever. But I think that’s a misunderstanding of grief and loss. It isn’t so much that we need to “move on,” but we need to learn how to live with this new feeling of grief and this loss of love in our lives. “Moving on” indicates that there is a stage at which grief should end and we leave it behind. I don’t think grief works like that, nor should we be expected to operate like that. I like how one site I saw framed it as “moving forward” instead of “moving on.”
I also can’t help it, I have a visceral reaction to the farmer stuff, the delineation between lambs and dogs Katz draws. He “personifies” a baby lamb, knowing that one day it will grow up to be a rude ram, and so, he realizes he needs to detach himself from his feelings with the ram and sell it back to the rightful farmer who will surely “take it to market.” I have a deep philosophical disagreement with that, which is easy for me to say not living the farmer’s life, but I don’t see how you can have a relationship to a lamb akin to one you’d have with a dog or cat, then minimize it by saying a lamb isn’t like a dog or a cat, and be okay with knowing it’s “going to market.”
Finally, one last bit that perturbed me, is that Katz rightly argues that one of the best ways for pet lovers to turn their grief into productive, positive energy is to get another dog or cat. I know at first it may seem like you’re being disloyal to the memory of your cherished, deceased pet, as I’ve certainly felt that, too, but I can’t imagine not having had Dallas in my life because I was still sad over Jessie’s death. But what perturbed me is that Katz follows this advice up with an anecdote about a friend of his he helped, who was grieving over the death of her dog, by matching her with a Labrador breeder. A breeder! You just talked about dogs and cats languishing in shelters, and then followed up with an anecdote about breeders!
Sorry, I, again, have a visceral reaction to breeders. Adopt, don’t shop. Save dogs from shelters.
All of that said, I could see someone finding Katz’s book a helpful way to think about their grief over the loss of their pet, if they’re in the midst of it. For me, though, it missed the mark somewhat, but I still appreciate the book giving me cause to think about the loss of my family pets.