Do People Grieve Their Pets Too Much?

Recently, my grumpy and unhealthy old chihuahua finally met his maker. To put it lightly, I’m emotionally gutted over this loss. I think about Chip all the time. I’ve had trouble sleeping and eating.

However, I’m certainly not alone in my “fur baby” grief. A quick glance at Facebook reveals that there are hundreds of thousands of pet lovers out there facing similar losses congregating in “Rainbow Bridge” groups and the like. When you browse their pictures of the then-vibrant decedents, the animals don’t always look like much. But it’s still easy for me to imagine the value that this motley crew brought to owners’ lives.

One emerging, counter-cultural strain of thought about grief suggests that “anything goes” when it comes to bereavement. Whatever you feel, no matter the duration and intensity, is fine. Grief knows no rules.

Despite its obvious appeal, I have reservations about this “anything goes” view on grief. I think grief can indeed be improper, excessive, or otherwise misfelt. So I find myself wondering whether some people, many people, now grieve their pets too much.

How did we get here?

Well, “do people grieve their pets too much?” is already a bit of a trick question. If we have control over how (and how much) we grieve, it is only an indirect, circuitous kind of control.

Instead, grief is typically just the result of what kind of place someone had in our lives. If someone had a complex place in your life, it’s hardly surprising to end up feeling a complex grief. And if someone had an expansive place in your life, it’s only natural to feel big grief.

So the real question is “why have animals come to occupy such an important place in our lives, that their departures can produce so much grief?” And that story is a multifaceted one.

Wealth

Though you can find a few people who’ll forego food in order to feed their companion animals, mostly some kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is applicable here. Richer people have more to spend on things other than their own subsistence.

Industrialization

Moving out of nomadic bands, and off the farm, reduced naturally-occurring contact with animals. Living with animals became more and more of a deliberate choice, with attendant responsibilities.

Technology

Veterinary care still lags behind human medical care, but not by much. My deceased chihuahua underwent spinal surgery, skin cancer removal, dental extractions, blood transfusions, EKG monitoring, and more in his life. At the time of his death, he was taking thyroid supplement, an anti-convulsant, steroids, immune suppressants, heartburn meds, antibiotics, and eye drops. This cost only a few hundred dollars per month due to (you guessed it) veterinary health insurance.

Making increasingly high financial investments in our pets is partially a result of families already caring for them more deeply than before. But more investment also seems to cause more caring, in a kind of feedback loop.

Family changes

You’ve heard this story before: more and more people are living further away from their families of origin, marrying later, delaying children or not having them at all. Yet there’s no reason to think humans have become any less inherently social than they were before, hence a “loneliness epidemic.”

Flesh and blood pets aren’t just like people, but they aren’t just like houseplants or “pet rocks,” either. Humans commonly report receiving enormous companionate value from animals. We should take these reports at their word.

Pets vs. babies

Which brings us around to the good old, usually boring pets vs. babies argument. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the proliferation of pampered pets has indeed crowded out some babies at the margin. Though the process might not be a totally conscious one, perhaps a non-negligible number of people with (relatively weak) desires for human children end up deferring that decision into eternity while their furbabies partially dull the pain.

Of course, it’s no disaster that people whose desire for human children was roughly equal to their desire to take in some random cat never had those children. Maybe everyone involved is actually the better for it.

Changing mores

As usual, a certain family of ideologies both drives and comes along with these material changes.

It’s not really viable to believe that pets are extremely valuable and special until we have some power to treat them that way in practice. Too much cognitive dissonance, even if it were true.

But, once the money and time appeared, the animal-to-pet transmogrification went through, and it ratcheted itself up over time.

Now it’s not just children who are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless,” it’s many of our animals, too.

Animals are a (partial) solution, not a problem

But pets didn’t create massive demographic changes or “social atomization” all on their own, and they didn’t straight-up solve them, either.

Efforts by PETA notwithstanding, pet status has changed not from the top down but from the bottom up. One declaration of love for a generic-looking black cat here, one splurge on expensive raw food for a rescue mutt there.

People without pre-existing psychological problems don’t often trade off super heavily against human relationships in favor of animal ones. I may have left a few parties early to take care of my dogs when I was single, but that hardly made me a shut-in. If you are a well-adjusted person who usually chooses the company of your pets over the company of your “friends,” how good can those friends really be?

If a companion animal assumed the same role in your life as a long-time roommate or friend otherwise might have, then it would be weirder not to grieve that animal commensurately. Plus, as mothers of more than one child can tell you, love is not a straightforwardly zero-sum game.

The hours in your day and the dollars in your wallet might be limited, but the feelings in your heart are not. This is great news, when you find yourself swelling past assumed capacity with love for the members of whichever species have come to share your life. It’s worse news when one of them has to go.

The bottom line

If people grieve their pets too much after those pets die, it’s because they loved them too much while they were alive. But basically every aspect of modern life has pushed people towards pets, with no countervailing forces.

So who’s to say what counts as “too much love” for a pet? As soon as they could, people invested more and more in their companion animals. Various studies report links between pets and human health and happiness. In other words, there’s plenty of evidence that the value is real. Where’s the evidence that the value is illusory? I don’t know of any.

Though a bit of human friend/animal friend and human baby/animal baby substitution probably happens at the margins, it’s not even clear why that’s bad. Grief does sometimes become excessive (“complicated”) but that is determined on a individual basis, with all things considered.

You don’t need my permission to feel the loss of your pet as deeply as you do, but you can certainly have it.

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