I knew the game was up when he even refused to eat a handful of prawns – his favourite treat
Food obsessed, irascible and an ardent lover of warmth (we once found him curled up inside a duvet on a day when the thermometer hit 31C), he was also so ludicrously placid that you could pop him under your arm and squeeze him like bagpipes, or plonk him on your head and wear him like a deerstalker – something, I must admit, I occasionally did. Such was his docile demeanour that everyone from casual strangers to our cat-sitter and vet adored him.
When the end came, however, it came quickly. They day before his death he lay on the bed in the spare bedroom, listless, quiet and off his food. I knew the game was up when he even refused to eat a handful of prawns – his favourite treat.
Dave as a kitten
The following day, a Saturday, he refused to eat again, eschewing food but lapping up water as if he hadn’t drunk for a week. So abnormal was his thirst – I’d only ever seen him drink from the water bowl about twice in 15 years – that we took him to the vet immediately.
On discovering his kidneys were enlarged, he was transferred to another local vets for investigations and by 4pm we’d had the news that he had cancer.
A few hours later, my partner and I were standing in a small treatment room having to make the heartbreaking decision to let him go.
I could not stop crying. I was not prepared for the cavernous depth of my grief
Wanting to be there (as much for my other half as for Dave) but not wanting to experience the end itself in sharp relief, I obscured Dave's last moments from view by removing my glasses - a trick you might call The Magoo Manoeuvre - but what I did see through my unfocussed, tear-filled eyes certainly made me wonder why we don’t extend such a dignified, peaceful exit to humans.
After paying up (surely the cruellest blow to any just-bereaved pet owner) we left, slightly dazed and clutching an empty cat basket bearing a tag with Dave’s name on it. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite so heart-wrenchingly poignant in all my life.
That night I could not stop crying. I was certainly not prepared for the cavernous depth of my grief. In truth, the pain of losing this small, black and white animal, who’d been part of my life since the turn of the Millennium, was every bit as intense as that of losing my father to cancer back in 1997.
Now, that’s a controversial thing to say, I know. And to begin with, I was wracked with guilt for even thinking such a thing. And yet, it’s true. When you tell people this, many of them tend to think you’re heartless, disrespectful or just plain nuts. After all, how can you possibly compare the death of a pet – a mere animal – to the death of a loved one? Well, quite easily as it happens, because the animal in question was a loved one too.
I went to the local pub to celebrate his final journey with a couple of pints, plonking the tiny box of ashes on the table
The more I asked around, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone in having these slightly taboo feelings. “The grief of putting our cats down was as blistering and as shocking as losing my dad,” one of my closest pals confided, telling me that the only difference was that the pain didn’t last as long and that in a few weeks I’d start to feel better, in contrast to when you lose a parent where the grief seems never-ending.
Canvassing more opinion, I also discovered the dichotomy in our complex relationship with animals: we’re at once a self-professed nation of animal-lovers, and yet one where grieving for an animal is considered indulgent and faintly ridiculous. “For God’s sake it’s only a dog! What do you want? A day off?” the boss of a male friend told him after the family Labrador died in a car accident. For the mental health of this man and his family, yes, I should think a day off would have been a good idea, because the dog was a member of the family too.
• Cat performs seven tricks in one minute
I’ve heard it said that the point of keeping pets as children is to allow us to learn what it feels like to lose someone we really love, but pet bereavement isn’t some kind of rehearsal for the ‘real thing’ – it is the real thing and I reckon it’s about time we recognise the value, depth and integrity of many people’s relationships with their pets, and the veracity of their bereavement.
Certainly, if you’ve seen the touching film about Oregon-based photographer Ben Moon and his loyal dog Denali – both cancer sufferers and both there for each other when it mattered – you’ll know that the bond between animal and human can be as close, if not closer, than between humans.
Denali from FELT SOUL MEDIA on Vimeo.
It’s now several weeks since Dave departed this world for the great litter box in the sky and yes, things are improving. I still expect him to chip up at the cat bowl like nothing is wrong and my mind tricks me into thinking I can hear him meowing occasionally, but you know what they say about time’s great healing powers. Right now, I’m hoping it will heal Dave’s brother Mr W, too, because if our own heartbreak hasn’t been bad enough we’ve had to contend with his apparent grief, too, and this next bit of the tale is a warning to others in multiple pet households.
In a nation of animal-lovers, why is grieving for an animal considered indulgent and faintly ridiculous?
As different in character as the Hitchens brothers, Mr W and Dave nonetheless spent pretty much every night curled up together in a rough approximation of the yin and yang symbol. Although Mr W seemed to take the loss of his brother fairly well in the first few days, the weeks since have proved otherwise. Clearly disorientated by events, he spent the first few weeks after Dave was put to sleep wandering from room to room, sniffing and calling out plaintively for his brother. Since then he has become vocal and clingy and his behaviour has become erratic, but there’s one thing that’s upsettingly consistent: every night before he goes to sleep he calls out for his brother.
• Pet subjects: is my cat high?
I’ve read much on the internet about how pets have no perception of death in the way we humans do. The general consensus is that they most probably experience death in the way children do: they feel the loss but don’t understand the finality of it. Because Dave was euthanised at the vets his brother never had chance to check out his lifeless body - something some vets recommend so as to allow a degree of closure.
Lying in bed the other night, listening to the nightly mewling, it struck me that without this undersanding Mr W must feel a little like the parent of a missing child, wondering where that child is and whether they will suddenly bound through the door and back into their lives at any moment. And calling out their name just in case they can hear. It’s a heart-breaking thought.
I have no idea whether animals can love each other in the way humans can, but what I do know is that Mr W clearly misses his brother being there – something that’s no surprise given cats’ known appreciation of routine and familiarity. As my mother pointed out recently, if you spent all day with someone for 15 years, wouldn’t you miss them being there?
I’ve spent more time in Dave's company than I have in the company of any of my dearest friends
She’s right, of course – and I suspect grief is as much about familiarity as it is about love or affection anyway, which adds weight to my argument that we need to take pet bereavement more seriously. Working from home, I have spent the last 15 years with my pets, day in and day out. During the day they sat in the office where I work. Dave often sat on my lap while I typed. Looking back, I’ve spent more time in his company than I have in the company of any of my oldest and dearest friends.
He currently resides in a box on a shelf in our living room, waiting for his brother to join him one day. I collected his ashes from the vets a week after he left us. Born in Balham he died in Belsize Park – just up the road from where I live in London – which, without wishing to offend anyone south of the river, I consider to be quite an achievement, social mobility-wise.
On the day I collected his ashes, the sun was shining and I opted to walk home rather than take the bus or Tube. On the way I decided to pop into a local pub to celebrate his final journey with a couple of pints, plonking the tiny box of ashes on the table and raising a jar in his honour. You can laugh, but I tell you this: I’ve had worse drinking partners. And certainly ones who didn’t mean nearly as much to me.
I was in a rush that morning and so our walk was shorter than usual. As I brought Lee back inside our building and fed her and put water in her bowl and put her pills between two slices of salami, I told myself that her dog walker was coming in the afternoon and, in any case, the day before we had gone to Fort Greene Park and I had let her off her leash and she had scampered around.
It was the beginning of November and when I got home that night, it was dark and getting cold and I was tired, and I had to take Lee out for another walk. She ran up to me and barked as I came through the door, but then, when I went to get her leash, all of a sudden she couldn’t get up at all.
Lee was everyone’s favorite dog in part because she didn’t make it easy for you to like her. She was stubborn and needy and scared of almost everything: kids, loud noises, basketballs and footballs, dancing — any sudden movement, really — and cats. She wouldn’t fetch. She barked, loudly, when people were having sex. When friends came over she would insist on being petted and if they stopped she would nudge them with her head, sometimes so hard that people who were holding glasses of wine spilled it on themselves.
But she was also silly and loyal and had a perfect round tan spot on her white back, and she wiggled her behind when she walked, and when you let her off the leash in the park she would bound toward the dogs who still hadn’t been neutered and flirt shamelessly with them, even if they were a fraction of her size. When she finally trusted people she would let them play with her and rub her tummy. She once stole a carrot cake off the back of a kitchen counter and ate the whole thing.
In the eight years I had her, Lee was my only constant: I lived in seven apartments in two cities; I am on my fourth job, not counting internships and freelance work; I went to two graduate programs, one of which I finished, one of which I didn’t; I dated a bunch of guys, some for a while; I made and lost friends. And knowing I had to take care of her meant I couldn’t do certain things that people do in their 20s, like take spontaneous trips or stay out until dawn.
Even though I knew on a rational level that she wouldn’t always be there, I sort of assumed that she would be. I couldn’t picture a world of mine in which she wasn’t.
The first thing I did when it seemed like Lee couldn’t get up was try to make her get up. Maybe, I thought, she just needed a little help. She was almost 14, after all, and she had had arthritis for the last three years. Lately her feet had been dragging on her walks, and sometimes she would collapse on the sidewalk, or fall as she went up or down the four steps leading into our building. But she had always managed to make it back up, and so I assumed this time would be no different: I put her collar and leash on and tried lifting her hind legs while simultaneously pulling up her front half with her leash. She just stared at me. She didn’t seem aware that her back half wasn’t working.
I didn’t know what to do, so I called Sam. We had broken up over the summer — I’d moved out of the Carroll Gardens apartment we shared and back to Fort Greene — and we were friendly, but distant. He hadn’t seen Lee since the breakup, but a few weeks before I had run into him at a party and promised him that if it looked like things were getting bad he could see her one last time. I wasn’t sure if things were in fact getting that bad but I knew I wanted him there.
I got his voicemail. I left a message asking him to please call me. I called my friend Emily, who lives nearby and had dogsat for Lee many times. She seemed to know right away that something was wrong; I rarely talk on the phone, to anyone, and it was 11 on a Thursday night. “Lee can’t get up,” I blurted, and then I realized I was crying. “I don’t know what to do. She can’t get up,” I repeated.
“Oh no,” Emily said.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Emily said she’d be right over. Then Sam called back. He was at a work party in Manhattan. He asked if I wanted him to come over. I said no. Then I said yes, and so by 11:30 the three of us were sitting in my living room. Lee didn’t seem particularly perturbed; she was happy to see two of her favorite people, and she was still able to drag herself backward around the apartment. I gave her some food and she ate it quickly, and she drank some water. “See? Maybe she’s O.K.,” I said. Sam and Emily looked at each other, then at me.
I learned that night that there is a pet ambulance service, and it is based in Astoria, Queens, and when you call them they ask what kind of animal you have and how much it weighs and what the problem is and where you want to take it, and 45 minutes or so later a burly man shows up with a bag and a muzzle and carries your pet downstairs, and you sit in a van with the back seats taken out and the driver tells you that it is illegal, in New York State, for an ambulance that does not transport humans to have a siren but that the police are usually lenient if he is forced to run a red light.
It was close to 2 a.m. when the veterinarian at the 24-hour clinic offered a prognosis. She was reasonably sure that Lee had had a spinal stroke. X-rays, she said, would at least rule out cancer; if I wanted a more definitive diagnosis, she’d have to get an M.R.I., and even then it wasn’t guaranteed they’d know exactly what was wrong. In the meantime, they were going to keep her in the hospital for two days.
When I went to pick her up that Saturday, she seemed disoriented, but happy to see me. The vet tech had to show me how to use the sling that would hold up her back half, which was basically paralyzed, and hold the leash at the same time, which was tiring and awkward; then she gave me a bag of medication and told me that I was to lie her down on her side and rotate each hind leg, backward and forward, for 20 minutes three times a day. If she was going to get better, the vet said, I would see progress in a few days.
Watching a dog age comes with its own set of daily, incremental choices and changes. Her tan spots have mostly faded; she is grizzled and gray, and her eyes have the same film over them that I remember seeing in my great-grandmother’s eyes when I was a child. One day she can get up on the bed; the next day she falls, whimpering, when she tries to leap onto it, and no amount of coaxing can get her to try again. One day she stops barking when I turn the key in the lock and that is when I realize she’s losing her hearing, and at the park, when I’m not directly in front of her, she seems panicked and lost and I know she can’t see as well as she used to. She can’t make it up three, then two, then one flight of stairs.
Lee getting old reminds me of my own mortality; in her I see what it is to become elderly, to not be able to do the things you used to be able to do, to have things happen slowly, seemingly forever, and then very and irrevocably quickly. And for this I am irrationally and deeply jealous of people whose dogs die suddenly and young, because although they feel a different kind of pain, this is something they never have to face.
The night I decided to put Lee down, I sat alone in my apartment at my computer for hours, mindlessly listening to music and reading Twitter and Tumblr, and sobbing, those deep kinds of sobs where you can’t breathe and you can’t control the tears, which just keep coming, even when you think you don’t have any left. It seemed unjust and yet fair that she had no idea what was to happen the next day, and every time I thought about that I cried more.
Lee almost never slept in my bedroom — she would usually either sleep in the living room or in the bathroom — and especially since she stopped being able to walk, getting around the apartment meant she had to drag herself. But when I woke up in the morning she was lying on the floor next to my bed.
That afternoon, when it actually came time to go, it was almost impossible to be somber because nearly everything seemed to be going comically wrong: She peed in the hallway as Sam and I, grim-faced, were trying to get her outside, and so he took her downstairs and put her in the car while I cleaned up. In the car she couldn’t get comfortable, and struggled to sit up, then lie down, then sit up again. And then we parked too far away from her vet and so we had to hustle her down Atlantic Avenue, Sam hoisting her up by the sling and me leading her with the leash.
We finally got to the vet and they led us to a cozy room that felt like a therapist’s office. Sam and I sat down on the couch while Lee lay on the floor on a blanket. Her butt was stained with urine and I noticed how red the joints on her front legs were, from where she had been licking them. We were alone in the room. We looked at each other. “What happens now?” I said. Sam shrugged. “No idea,” he said. Lee was quiet.
Her vet came in and knelt down on the floor next to her. “So what’s going to happen is a technician is going to come in and give her an injection that will make her go unconscious,” she said. “That will take a few minutes. Once we’re sure she’s unconscious, I’ll come in.”
“So you’ll actually … do it?” I said.
She nodded. “So I’m going to leave the room now — the tech should be in soon,” she said. “But we can do this as quickly or as slowly as you want.” I nodded.
I just remember certain images from the next 20 minutes: the bandage with stars on it that the vet tech put on her leg after he injected her, me caressing her head and stroking her side. The way her tongue hung out of her mouth and stuck, immobile, to the floor as she drifted off to sleep but how one ear stayed up, and how I thought that maybe this meant she was still awake and there was still time to save her. The way her vet said simply, “She’s gone.”
All this winter, when I looked outside I thought of her bounding through the snow, flakes on the end of her snout, so excited just to burrow back and forth through the drifts.
Doree Shafrir has contributed to New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Awl and The New York Observer, where she was a reporter. She is a senior editor at RollingStone.com.
Townies is a series about life in New York, and occasionally other cities.