When a pet dies, owners often ask their veterinarian whether they should show the body to their other pets. They ask this in a sincere effort to help "explain" the finality of what has occurred to the surviving pets – to let them know why their buddy won't be coming home.
Whether this is helpful is the subject of debate … and there is little evidence to support either view. On one hand, it may be argued that dogs and cats do not have the cognitive ability to understand the finality of death. Showing them a body would be like letting a 2-year-old see a deceased family member at a funeral – the consequences just don't register. On the other hand, it can be argued that dogs and cats see death as we do, and that viewing a deceased companion does help to explain why that pet won't be around in the future.
Does a "Viewing" Help?
There are many anecdotal reports of pets grieving the loss of a deceased companion. There has been more work and writings about dogs than cats. For example, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs, describes a dog that howled for the first time when it somehow sensed that its buddy was not returning following a final trip to the vet's office. Howling is a long-distance communication and, in this case, may have been an attempt by the dog to communicate with a "lost soul." It is possible that the dog may not have been so vexed if it had accompanied its buddy to the vet's office and witnessed the final event.
In my own book, Dogs Behaving Badly, I describe a dog whose canine companion was put to sleep in its absence. The dog's owners went out of their way to conceal the event and took the surviving dog away from home until his companion was not only dead but also buried. On returning home, the remaining dog frantically combed every inch of the house looking for his deceased companion until he finally went to the garden, where he immediately honed in on the dog's well-camouflaged grave. There he sat for days, staring off into space with a far-away look. It was as if he knew what had happened, and maybe he did.
A veterinarian in England wrote to the journal of the British Veterinary Association, The Veterinary Record, explaining his opinion on this matter. This vet granted a woman client's request to have her setter observe a companion dog's body, following euthanasia. The woman believed that her dog was better able to accept the loss of his companion when shown the body. In his letter, the veterinarian stated that his own dogs did not seem affected by the death of a close canine companion.
Horse and donkey mares do better if they are allowed to spend time with a deceased foal than if the body is whisked away from them and is not available for inspection. If unable to inspect a dead foal, frantic equine moms may even dig up the foal's remains from a shallow grave and seemingly reflect for a while before coming to terms with their loss.
Cognitive scientists are still wrestling with the concept that animals have self-awareness, let alone awareness of another creature's mental or physical state. The weight of opinion today is that a "viewing" is not likely to help a pet to understand the death of a companion. While the argument continues, I think we should give our pets the benefit of the doubt and allow them to view a deceased companion, if we feel it might help.
For a pet that was closely bonded with another, displaying the deceased's body may help the survivor accept the finality of the event – to bring "closure," so to speak. When death separates a closely bonded animal from a loved one, whether a person or another pet, the pet may exhibit classical stages of grieving – becoming less active, eating less, sleeping fitfully, and generally appearing depressed.
Whether allowing a cat to see a body for a last goodbye lessens the grief is not known. However, if the human experience is anything to go by, it may help some come to terms with what has transpired.