I Will Outlive My Cat: A Reading List on Pet Death

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“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” — Colette

In place of an actual child, I have Birdie, a silver tabby cat covered in so much cute and cuddle it should be illegal.

Birdie came into my life almost three years ago after a messy divorce and she’s such a big part of my life now that I don’t know which one of us needs the other more. What I do know is that hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of losing her.

* * *

I was in elementary school when I had my first pet, a goldfish that died twice in one day.

While my family was on summer vacation, Nana was going to watch my fish. Before bringing it over to her house I decided to clean the bowl. It was only when I went to refill the bowl that I realized we were out of distilled water. When I asked my mom if we could go to the store, she told me to use tap water.

Ever the knowledgeable child goldfish owner, I knew you couldn’t just use tap water (the chemical balance is all wrong for their bodies). My mom insisted my fish would be fine for the 10-minute ride it would take to get to Nana and Poppa’s house.   

“We’ll get distilled water when we get there.”

Oh, mother. I wish it were that simple. Not even halfway to their house I found myself with the bowl on my lap and my fish floating on the surface of the water.

“He’s dead! My fish is dead!”

* As an adult, I learned my mom just swirled the water around hoping we’d leave Nana’s house before my fish floated again.

At a stop sign, Mom reached around to the backseat for the bowl. I wanted to tell her “I told you so!” but I waited for a miracle instead. And then it came. When Mom handed the bowl back to me, my fish was swimming around.*

By the time we pulled into Nana and Poppa’s driveway, though, my fish was floating again.

I set the bowl on their kitchen counter when we got inside, and Mom asked Nana if she had any distilled water. (Oh, mother.) Nana took one look at my fish and lifted the bowl. I watched her walk with it to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Flush.

She returned to the kitchen and set the empty bowl on the counter. I stared into the empty sphere while Mom and Nana agreed with each other that I could always get another fish. I wanted my fish.

* * *

Our family dog Tori, a sweet and cuddly miniature dachshund, had been in our family since I was in fifth grade. By the time I was in my freshman year of college, Tori was nothing more than skin and bones. Mom was the only one who’d pick her up with bare hands because the rest of us didn’t care much for the sensation of fingers slipping between ribs. I’d pick Tori up with a blanket, when she let me.

She’d become so sick that she growled if you tried to touch her. She barely ate anything, kept down even less, and could hardly support herself to stand or use the bathroom. This went on for far longer than I wish to admit simply because my mom didn’t want to “play god” by putting Tori down.

When I was home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, my family went out of town while I stayed behind to work my part-time grocery store job. Left alone at the house with Tori, and without discussing it with my parents, I called the vet down the street and made an appointment for Tori to be put down that day.

In the time leading up to the appointment, I sobbed every time I looked at her, but I knew I had to do for Tori what my mom would never do.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen, I confess Birdie is only about three years old now, but facts are facts: Cats have an average lifespan of 13-17 years. I’m expected to live another 50.

Birdie won’t be flushed down the toilet without a chance for me to say goodbye, but in all seriousness, will I have a chance to tell her goodbye? Or will she become sick — unable to eat, hold herself up — and I have to make the decision to end her life and hold her as she takes her last breath? And then, what will I do with her body? Cremate her? Bury her in a cemetery with a headstone that reads “My Darling”? Donate her body to science? 

Thinking about Birdie’s mortality won’t prevent the grief, but in acknowledging she won’t be around forever I find myself loving and appreciating her even more each day. And isn’t that why we have our pets?

For this reading list, I’ve put together seven longreads about how humans experience pet death — the hurt of losing our four-legged friends and how we move on, remembering them along the way.

1. How We Mourn Our Dead Pets (Jessica Miller, November 2015, Literary Hub)

Related reading: Today, in many U.S. states, it’s illegal to be buried with your pet. Sonya Vatomsky writes about today’s movement to change that in this piece for the Atlantic.

Archaeologists uncovered the earliest example of animal burial with the 1954 discovery of Ain Mallaha, “a village built and settled by the Natufian culture between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE in the Eastern Mediterranean, in what is now Israel.” Pictures from the site show remains of a woman’s hands resting on the remains of a puppy.

It’s from this point that Jessica Miller traces our relationship with animal burials through the etymology of the word “pet” to how, with examples of London’s Pet Cemetery at Hyde Park and Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York, we have the Victorian Era to thank for pet cemeteries and building the foundation for how we memorialize our pets today.

Pets still sit at the center of many homes, and many lives. With their presence, they remind us of our capacity to empathize with and, often, to love, animals. And with the miniature headstones and the sawdust-stuffed forms, the statues we make in their place, their absence reminds us of this capacity, too.

2. A Dog’s Life: What Would I Sacrifice for the Animal I Love? (Shawna Richer, December 2018, The Globe and Mail)

After an accident left her active dog Scout with a fractured spine, Shawna Richer found herself in an all too familiar situation pet owners face: Do whatever it takes to take care of my pet? Or go with “the other option, unspoken,” which was euthanasia?

Richer writes about the financial, physical, and emotional lengths pet owners go for their pets as she describes the unconditional bond she shares with Scout. Paired with videos and pictures of Scout’s recovery, this piece is an emotional heavyweight. 

People who have not loved a dog will never experience the most honest, pure and unconditional relationship a human can have. But to love a dog is to sign up for heartbreak. You’ll surely outlive them. Accidents occur and illness happens. When you love a dog, you have a say over a life that has a price on it. You know the judgment that comes from loving a pet so much you’d do just about anything for it.

3. How Much is Too Much to Save a Dying Cat? (s.e. smith, November 2017, Longreads)

When s.e. smith found a lump on their cat Leila, the options were bleak, including “a mammary chain removal, the feline equivalent of a mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy”; options that would give Leila maybe six more months; and options that would only prolong death. 

Through the experience of losing Leila and being present when their grandfather died after “[h]e denied all supportive care,” s.e. smith explores how death is viewed as a failure instead of inevitable and how sometimes letting go can be enough.

“Could” strikes me as more analgesic for human than pet, a sense of doing something, buying time, at a high cost of misery and stress, nausea and fatigue and confusion. For the low, low price of hours of agonizing car rides and long anxious waiting in the lobbies of veterinary clinics while doleful barks and terrified meows filter through the halls, here’s six more months. The monetary cost, which could run to $6,000 or $7,000, seems almost beside the point. Your cat won’t understand why she’s being tormented, but at least you did something instead of just giving up. This is your last chance to show your love.

4. The Death of Pet Can Hurt As Much As the Loss of a Relative (Joe Yonan, March 2012, The Washington Post)

Joe Yonan was no stranger to death when he came home to find his dog Red lifeless on his bedroom floor. He’d watched his father die from a stroke and then, three years later, his sister from cancer. “Yet somehow,” as he writes, “and much to my distress, the death of my dog seems even harder.”

Finding himself questioning why that is, part of Yonan’s grieving process becomes seeking out answers from experts and research into the way we grieve after losing a pet.

 A few weeks after Red died, some friends from the dog park suggested we have a get-together in his memory. I was grateful for the suggestion, but as I came in and exchanged hugs, I felt a bit sheepish when I pulled out the box of Red’s ashes and a recent photo and set them up on the table.

5. How Starting a Pet Euthanasia Business Saved My Life (Ace Tilton Ratcliff, June 2019, Narratively)

Ace Tilton Ratcliff achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a mortician only to have it cut short with the diagnosis of a rare and degenerative connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

Faced with a future unlike the one she ever imagined for herself, Ratcliff shares how she found her way back to guiding families through the experience of death with the start of Harper’s Promise, an in-home pet euthanasia, hospice, and palliative care service she started with her veterinarian husband in honor of their dog Harper.

When I left the mortuary, I had regretfully accepted the hurt of knowing I wouldn’t do this work again, yet here I am. I feel like I have stepped back onto the ferry, wrapped my hands around the rowing oar and felt the gentle waves of the river Styx lapping against the hull.

6. My ‘Recovery Cat’ Would Never Recover (Carla Zanoni, April 2014, Modern Loss)

When the time came for Carla Zanoni to put down her cat Kali, she’d shared a “tome’s worth of love and life” with her. In this piece about losing one of life’s greatest confidants, Zanoni shares how Kali was in on 16 years of her secrets and conversations, relationships, fights, and reconciliations, how Kali saw her through life’s great milestones, both high and low.

My body shook apologetically as our vet injected her with the liquid that paralyzed and sent her into a trance before it stopped her breathing. But as we strolled near the Hudson River moments after she died, I sensed I was living in a gap of space and time. It was like finishing a beloved book, mourning its loss and wanting something to fill its space, while knowing nothing quite can.

 Shall we end on a lighter note?

7. Barbra Streisand Explains: Why I Cloned My Dog (Barbra Streisand, March 2018, New York Times)

Related reading: Sarah Silverman wrote an “obituary type thing” in 2013 for her dog Duck, and in 2012 Fiona Apple canceled her South America tour to spend time with her dying dog Janet.

Lest we forget celebrities are regular people, just remember their pets die, too. When it comes to Barbra Streisand, though, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

When Streisand lost her beloved dog Samantha after 14 years together, she was devastated. Wanting to keep her alive “in some way,” as Streisand explains, she was inspired to clone Samantha after a friend had cloned his. 

You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul. Still, every time I look at their faces, I think of my Samantha…and smile.

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Alison Fishburn is a writer and recovering Floridian living in Ontario. She’s working on a memoir about the sudden death of her younger sister while learning to grieve. You can find her on Twitter @AlisonFishburn.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands