Dearly Departed Dogs

Do online pet obituaries reveal how we truly feel about our pets?
Guest post by Jane Gething-Lewis (Hartpury College).

A beautiful old Red Setter sleeping

“You were such a selfless and giving boy. Dad loves you with all his heart.”

A heartfelt online tribute to a dearly departed loved one – but this loved one had four legs, a tail and was called Cosmo. Over the top? Not necessarily. Research suggests that many people feel the loss of a beloved pet as keenly as the loss of a child.

The bond people have with each other has long been debated and discussed. Generations of psychologists have attempted to explain and quantify the mechanics of attachment (or lack of) between fellow humans. But is it possible that we form similar bonds with our animal companions? Recently, researchers have been interested in exploring whether human theories of bonding apply to our relationships with our pets. No easy task, when only half of the bonding equation can talk.

Now researchers at the University of Edinburgh believe they have identified a useful source of information about the nature of the human-animal bond – online pet obituaries.

“The digital environment is a really interesting place for people to talk about animals,” said Dr Jill MacKay, who led a study of tributes posted on pet memorial websites. “Society has an expectation that animals are not as important as humans, but the online space has no rules. I suspect that people write more freely and honestly online about what they’re really feeling.”

Dr MacKay and her team looked at obituaries for dogs on two dedicated websites, investigating the kind of information available in these tributes. They also assessed whether that data might prove useful in future studies into the nature of the human-animal bond when it comes to attachment, grief and bereavement.

Pulling a sickie? Or sick with grief...

Taking time off work following the death of a pet is generally frowned upon, and yet losing a pet can seriously disrupt our lives. Some people lose sleep, lose their appetite and are unable to carry on with normal life for some time; the higher the level of bonding with their pet, the deeper the mourning.

 “Our study shows that people feel real grief when they lose their animals,” said Dr MacKay.

A dog walks away, gone too soon written in the sand

Why do we feel so close to our pets?

Here’s the science bit. The Attachment Theory of human bonding is a widely used psychological model, coined by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950’s. It works on the principal that a strong emotional attachment to a primary caregiver (usually a parent) is essential for making us feel safe, secure and grounded. Put simply, we will form a deep bond with another person if one or more of four key elements are present in the relationship. Do you want to be near to someone you feel close to? That’s Proximity Maintenance. Do you seek out that person when you need comfort or are a bit scared? They are a Safe Haven. Do like to know that person is nearby when you’re chatting to others at a party? They are your Secure Base. Do you panic a little when you think that person has left the party without you? That’s called Separation Anxiety. Congratulations – you are attached. The degree and the style to which we bond with other people will differ from person to person, and will affect the way we cope with life’s ups and downs – including the way we feel grief.

In her 2011 paper, Not Just a Dog, Dr Marilyn Kwong, a psychologist at the Simon Fraser University in Canada, looked at whether human attachment theory may explain why some people are so deeply affected by pet bereavement. The study built on existing research, which has established that intense bonds with our pets do exist; pets are often considered to be family members, and can fulfill emotional needs like love and companionship.

Dr Kwong looked at grief experienced by 25 people with disabilities who had lost their Assistance Animal. Assistance animals included Guide Dogs and dogs specially trained to help with physical tasks. The team analysed the transcripts of open-ended phone interviews. They looked for – and found - evidence of three of the four attachment theory components: safe haven, secure base and separation anxiety. All participants reported feeling intense grief, even when the bereavement may have occurred many years previously. The team concluded that grief following the loss of a well-loved pet can be as strong as losing a human loved-one. “She was always there for me,” said one participant. Another even took her dog into the operating theatre because she couldn’t bear to be separated from him. Of course, all the dogs in Dr Kwong’s study were not purely pets; they had a working function as caregiver. Therefore separation from them would likely generate additional anxiety above and beyond ‘normal’ levels.

Deciphering the dead

Phone interviews and questionnaires can provide a robust set of results for formal studies, but they depend on the researchers’ personal interaction with the mourner, who may not feel able to be frank about their true feelings. Could online memorials offer a more unadulterated source of information?

Dr Jill Mackay identified two websites, and Focusing on dogs, she selected 130 obituaries of up to 400 words in length. The researchers identified and agreed a number of key concepts present in the texts relating to attachment theory and relationship with the pet. They grouped these concepts under three categories: owner-pet relationship, pet’s actions, and owner’s feelings.

Where it was possible to identify the gender of the writer, Dr MacKay found that the majority of female memorial authors (34.6%) considered themselves to be ‘mum’ to their dearly departed dog. Tributes were also found from male parental figures, ‘dad’ (7.7%), and from children (5.4%).

Nearly half (49%) of the tribute writers referred to their dog as part of the family – “my baby”, “mummy’s darling”. The researchers identified this category as a potential predictor for the depth of grief experienced by the human owner. A little over half (51%) discussed the afterlife in relation to their pets, who were “in heaven”, or “over the rainbow bridge”. There was a strong association between the two concepts of afterlife and being part of the family, supporting attachment theory understanding that the loss of a pet can be akin for some to the loss of a child. If you’re feeling a little depressed by now – there was some light at the end of the (white, brightly lit) tunnel. 11% of the dog obituaries celebrated happy times, writing of their pet’s sense of humour and gratitude, ‘laughing’ at its own farts and ‘grateful’ for a play in the park.

In contrast to Dr Kwong’s study of bereaved Assistant Dog owners, Dr McKay’s investigation does seem to have disinterred a rich source of natural information about the human-animal bond: genuine expressions of love and loss, expressed on a public forum, garnered from real-world texts and not under experimental conditions. However, scientists might see this as a problem. Little is known about the demographics of the tribute writer, making it difficult to breakdown the information as a potential predictor for people more likely to feel the deepest and most debilitating grief. Neither does this plundering-of-the-online-grave study relate directly to specific elements of the formal attachment theory model.

RIP online

The internet has become the go-to place for information, support and emotional expression around grief and bereavement. Mainstream animal charities like Blue Cross, veterinary practices, rescue centres, and even universities like Glasgow offer bereavement advice, steering the mourner to create an online memorial to their pet.

While Dr MacKay’s study focuses solely on dedicated pet obituary websites, she plans to broaden her investigations into the world of social media:  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram teem with emotion.

“We looked at dedicated pet obituary websites rather than social media because of ethical issues,” explained Dr MacKay. “Pet obit sites are public, but facebook is personal.  There are layers of privacy settings. However,” she adds, “this would be a really interesting area to look at further because the way we express ourselves online is evolving rapidly.”

Good grief – how can we use this information?

For scientists, Jill MacKay has identified a seam of easy accessible material readily available for studying the human animal bond around grief, mourning and attachment. She has also identified social media as another potential area for further academic study.

In the real world, the knowledge gained by researchers like Jill MacKay and Marilyn Kwong could help us support and understand people who are grieving their pets. Information gleaned from online pet obituaries may be a useful tool in developing educational materials to help bereavement counsellors. Veterinary practices could be better able to identify people more likely to experience more profound grief, and refer them to support. Social workers who work with families, older, and isolated people might better understand the impact of pet loss, and employers, who still roll their eyes, may be a little more sympathetic.

And was Jill MacKay inspired by her own study? ”Just after I finished this project, I had to have my 18-year-old cat Posie euthanised. I did a memorial for her and put it up on facebook.”

RIP Cosmo. Your dad loved you. He really did.

About Jane Gething-Lewis:

Portrait of Jane Gething-Lewis with one of her dogs

Jane is a post-graduate student at Hartpury University Centre in Gloucestershire, where she is studying part-time for an MRes in Anthrozoology. Jane has recently returned to education, and balances her studies with her role as a producer for BBC local radio. She is an experienced writer and broadcaster, and has written for many national publications, including BBC Countryfile Magazine, Country Living and Woman. (Jane lives in the Forest of Dean and is mum to one female human and two unruly dogs!)

Kwong, M., & Bartholomew, K. (2011). “Not just a dog”: an attachment perspective on relationships with assistance dogs Attachment & Human Development, 13 (5), 421-436 DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2011.584410
MacKay, J., Moore, J., & Huntingford, F. (2016). Characterizing the Data in Online Companion-dog Obituaries to Assess Their Usefulness as a Source of Information about Human–Animal Bonds Anthrozoƶs, 29 (3), 431-440 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181374
Photos: Reddogs (top) and Supie Davis (both
Propose a guest post to Companion Animal Psychology.

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