Why do so many of us let ourselves care so much for dog and cat members of our families?

Most journalists are taught leading stories with a question is a weak lead. But, when you’ve just “put down” a 15-year member of the family, questions fill your mind in the hours that follow.

Her name was Mowse; all-white, indoor cat of medium size. Nothing unusual about her. Typical feline. Spent most days by herself, washing, napping wherever she wanted. Spent most nights prowling the house. She intimidated Rat Terrier Winston just being in the same room. Mowse seemed to realize she was here first and didn’t let Winston forget it. They got along grudgingly and traveled well together in the motor home but they weren’t buddies.

Humans and animals share a commonality: life support systems wear out as we get to our senior years. The last few months, she threw up a lot, didn’t move around much, spent her time mostly sleeping behind a rocking chair. She still demanded meals on time and purred when petted. She still intimidated Winston. But you could tell life was hard.

The vet diagnosed renal failure and several other infirmities of old age. The choice was several expensive tests to confirm or to stop the suffering. What would you have done? We chose the latter.

We say we “kill” insects or mice or rabbits. But we can’t bring ourselves to say “we killed” our cat/dog/horse. We use the word “euthanasia” or “put down” to describe the process. Like saying “passed away” rather than “died.” We try to soften the blow by word substitution. But death is still death . Loss is still loss.

So we are asking that attachment question. Why let it happen? Why let ourselves in for heart break when we take these animals … these creatures … into our homes and our personal lives? We know, if things progress in a natural way, we’ll out live them. We will suffer loss and grief. But we do it any way.

We had working horses on the Wenatchee, WA. ranch many years ago. My grandfather, a John Wayne-type, “put down” more than a few. To a kid watching, he was tough about it; no tears, no sentiment. One shot, dig the hole, shove the body in, cover it up.

But after he died, my grandmother found pictures of some of his favorite horses; even a few locks cut from old manes near the end of life. All in a bureau drawer she dared not open in his lifetime.

My folks in Bend, OR, had two English Bulldogs. In each case, after a few years, cancer developed and they had to be “euthanized.” My normally rugged father responded the same way in the days following each death: sitting in his chair, watching the birds on Mirror Pond, saying little and eating almost nothing. Good old healthy grief.

As a hospice volunteer, I watched a number of end-of-life stories play out between patients with dogs or cats. In every one of them … every one … the animals seemed to know what was happening. They’d sit in the patient’s lap for hours instead of running around the house or yard as had been their habit. They’d get on a lap or a bed and lie quietly for days on end.

Maybe that’s one reason why we let ourselves become so attached; so involved; so vulnerable. We know, on some level, the attachment is very often two-way.

We watched Winston, our normally active pup, during my mother’s last weeks at a Roseburg, OR, nursing facility. She was frail, weak and had pain with movement. At first, when she asked to see Winston, we feared having him on the bed where he felt he belonged would be hard on her. We hadn’t counted on Winston.

He would trot into her room and stand by her bed for a second. Then, without being able to see what was up there, he’d leap to the foot. Not once did he come even close to landing on her aching feet or legs. Sounds strange to say, he always knew where she wasn’t. Then he’d snuggle in next to her hip and stay absolutely still for her petting. How did he know? Where did he learn?

Some of you will wonder “what’s the big deal?” Some will say “I know the feeling.” To the former, if you don’t understand now, you never will. To the latter, we know it is a big deal.

Mowse is gone. The house is emptier. There’s a vacant spot in our lives. It’s grief now. But there were 15 good years; a cat’s lifetime. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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