Do we “replace” our pets when they pass?

Many owners look to purchase or adopt a new pet following the loss of a prior companion. I’m frequently consulted as to my opinion the best time to consider bringing another dog or cat into the household. Should they do so prior to the death of their beloved friend, or wait until after they have passed? My answers are a bit feeble, as I’m not the authority for making educated guesses about what works best for the dynamics of their particular family situation.


Many owners will send pictures or updates on their new additions- I’m always thrilled to be included, especially when we’re talking fuzzy puppies and squishy kittens. It’s an honor to be a part of meeting new family members and a nice way to close the circle of loss. However, I’m always a bit startled when owners quickly get another pet following the loss of a longtime companion.


I know there’s no statue to place on mourning, and I’d never suggest they are truly replacing their lost pet with another animal. But there are many instances where the time between death of one pet and the addition of a new friend is often a few short days or weeks. It has me considering the fragile and fluid nature of the bonds we form as humans.


I stand before you guilty as charged – I’ve had the unfortunate experience of losing my first cat at only 4 years of age. I never was a cat person until meeting this my Cosmo, an outgoing and confident 6-week old stray kitten who happened upon a family member’s back porch. Though I’d worked in the veterinary field for some time, and had cats as pets growing up, I never considered them particularly compassionate creatures.


Cosmo was more dog-like in nature, and it was his gregarious personality and quirky antics that sold my soul to the crazy cat-lady side of life. Whether it was how he played fetch with his toys, or raced to greet me at the door when I returned, I learned cats could be equally (if not more so) faithful and loving as a dog.


When Cosmo passed from feline leukemia, I was devastated by his death, and exceptionally lonely without his ever cheerful presence. I wasn’t looking for another pet, but the absence of his companionship and silly behaviors weighed heavily on my heart. When a stray kitten quite literally fell into my hands a mere 6 weeks after his death, I took him in with barely a second thought.


Bailey was a scrawny and fluffy long haired tabby cat who grew into the most handsome feline I’d ever seen. I’m not just bragging or being “that” pet parent – he actually won “Best Looking Cat” at the Feline Follies during vet school. Bailey’s most impressive feature was his sheer size, tipping the scale 23 pounds in adulthood.


Bailey was affectionate and outgoing, similar to Cosmo, but different in many ways. He was guaranteed to offer a “Meow” for every time I sneezed and would travel contentedly in my car sans carrier, sleeping quietly in his own car seat.


Unfortunately, his great size predisposed him to a myriad of health issues, including cardiac problems. Bailey died suddenly, also at 4 years of age, during the most stressful time of my internship.


Once again I was pushed into the shallow depths of sadness and loneliness that comes from the loss of a pet. I hadn’t planned on getting another cat as I was set to move back to upstate New York in 2 months’ time to start my residency in medical oncology.


A stranger dropped two pet carriers off at the clinic one evening, packed full of cats of varying ages, genders, and colors. In the midst was a teeny gray tabby kitten who purred when he was held and ate like it was his job. The decision was made to bring all the cats to a local shelter as our hospital was not equipped to handle strays. I took the kitten in under the guise of helping out an animal in need, when actually I was filling the void created by my cat’s death.


Nadir was visually essentially short haired version of Bailey, but once past the coat color, there was nothing similar about the two. Nadir was the coolest cat. Ever. Nothing bothered that guy and he had no enemies. Well, maybe the vacuum.


Following his tenuous start on life in a cramped carrier, Nadir settled into my apartment as first a “foster” kitten, who stuck around forever. He moved with me from Long Island to Ithaca to Rochester, NY to Rockville, MD. He took it all in stride. As long as there was a full food bowl and a sun patch to sleep in, he didn’t care about geography.


Ironically, Nadir also succumbed to a heart problem at the tender age of 9. The difference between this devastating loss and the prior ones was this time was I had adopted another kitten a year after Nadir came into my life. I’d also gotten married and adopted my husband’s cat into our household. When Nadir passed, I wasn’t alone. The crushing sadness was somewhat mitigated by my other pets.


I’ve half-jokingly told my husband how sure I was he would replace me within 6 months should I experience an untimely death. He laughs and tells me I’m crazy, but am I really so off base to think loneliness and depression are not the major accelerants for such actions? Does our action to replace animals mirror what would happen in life with our loved ones?


The void created by the passing of a pet is obviously different from that created by the loss of a person. Different doesn’t imply an attempt to quantify pain – I’m not here to comment on whether there’s more or less grief under the different circumstances. But there is grief for sure, and the loss can be mitigated with the addition of another pet.


It’s human nature to seek to comfort when grieving. And interesting to see the roles pets play in keeping us soothed. Even when their loss is the impetus for our sadness, we are able to find sanctuary in the companionship these future animals so freely and unquestionably provide.

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