Bereavement in animal owners and disenfranchised grief

I’ve been inspired to write this blog by a Facebook group for the owners of horses with Cushings disease. I’ve been a member of the group for some years, mostly lurking, but reading the posts with interest.
Over the last year it seems that many of us in the group have lost our beloved horses after much care, love and management of this tricky disease. Recently, one member posted twice in one week. Both posts told of her heartbreak at loosing one of her horses. She lost two, unexpectedly, in one week- that’s a lot of trauma and a lot of grief.
I’ve been reading a lot about grief in animal owners in recent months. It was all prompted by a cutting from a professional journal that my friend and vet sent me. So, I thought I might share, in some short blogs, some of the information I have come across.
Lots of studies, over many years, have looked at how humans grieve when they loose someone close to them, but little attention has been paid to the bereavement processes for humans who loose animals. What literature is out there will probably not be a surprise to many of us who have loved and lost animals.
The grief experienced when an animal dies is often, for those who were attached to it, much the same as a bereavement reaction when a close human dies. Sometimes it can be more deeply felt and experienced. There are several issues that make grief for an animal more tricky.
One of these is that often other people don’t recognise the owner’s grief, or think that they are just being silly and sentimental. It’s common to be told that, “it was only an animal” or “you can get another one.” It is not unusual for a grief reaction for an animal to be considered as a sign of mental illness or instability.
All of this can lead to what is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ – when an individual is bereaved but can’t express it or explain it to others, but instead has to keep it bottled up inside. How lonely and difficult this must be. And how unhealthy. Rather than the expression of grief for a lost animal being a sign of illness, the suppression, due to disenfranchised grief, of those deep feelings is much more likely to cause emotional damage and mental health problems.
So, the ‘Equine Cushings Disease Horses’ Facebook group looks like it has a very important function as, in addition to all the practical support and sharing of ideas, it allows horse owners to openly express their feelings before and after the loss of their equine companions. With each post that tells of sadness, grief and bewilderment as another horse dies there are many replies offering kind words, support, warmth and virtual hugs.
That very special group is a superb example of how, when at its best, social media can be connecting and helpful.


Animal welfare crisis – a perfect storm that will lead to an increase in animal hoarding?

Social media and animal welfare

Having previously used social media to keep in contact with friends and up to date with areas of interests, I have only recently become aware of the world of animal welfare pages, especially the pages and groups focused on equine welfare.  Initially I followed a few to keep abreast with what was happening in the UK, and further afield.  Quickly I became saddened by the relentless stream of truly dreadful stories about equine abuse, neglect, suffering, damage and death.  I’ve had a volunteer equine role for over 20 years, one that is well underpinned by my mental health training and experience, however the level of harm and deliberate pain inflicted on animals by some individuals was shocking.

I then became concerned about the use of social media, when combined with the general public’s kindness and concern about the welfare of animals, being used to generate scams or hoaxes, one of which I describe in an earlier blog

Animal welfare crisis

All of the horse welfare agencies, both large and small, are clear that there is a welfare crisis in the UK.  Lee Hackett, Director of Equine Policy with the British Horse Society recently wrote about the current situation of many horses being ‘rescued’ to face further neglect.  His view is that for some horses, euthanasia is preferable to being passed from pillar to post and experiencing chronic, long term suffering. His article can be found here;

It is not just horses; there is a massive dog, cat and other smaller companion animal problem too.  The RSPCA states that its centres are now at crisis point and has just published report, “Tackling the cat crisis” which can be found here; It highlights the need for neutering and the concerns about multi-cat households where the welfare of both animals and people is compromised. Usefully the report describes the importance of multi agency working, especially involving housing providers.

A perfect storm

There is a perfect storm brewing where we are likely to see an unprecedented increase in animal hoarding cases involving all companion animals, including horses and ponies.  All the equine welfare organisations are full.  A small horse rescue centre told me recently that they get calls every day from agencies, such as councils, who phone round to all the rescue organisations, trying to persuade them to take in animals. There are thousands of horses deemed to be at risk of becoming welfare cases.

Rather than horses being euthanised or going for slaughter people are encouraged, especially on social media sites, to take animals on to avoid them being ‘killed’. These pages often use language such as ‘baby’, ‘poor’ and ‘cute’  when describing an animal promoting an emotional response in readers, some of whom will feel compelled to help, perhaps against their better judgement.   It is likely that this will result in individuals taking on animals they cannot afford or for which they have no room. Very probably these recue animals will come with complex physical and behavioural issues and may be unmanageable.

Don’t get me wrong, I would, rather that horses (and other animals in need) had a good home and lived happily in to a ripe old age than go for slaughter or be euthanised.  Some will be lucky, will find excellent homes and be fine, but a number will not. Many of the animals who become welfare cases will have been poorly bred resulting in conformation problems making them unusable for riding. They come with damaging worm burdens, other parasites or the effects of ragwort poisoning or consumed toxins. They can require significant dental work, farriery, veterinary attention and investigations.  They may need specialist feed and medication.  None of this is cheap. They may still need to be euthanised at the end of treatment that has been expensive for the humans and stressful for the animal.

Animal hoarding is often joked about and brings to mind images of the local cat lady.  In reality animal hoarding is no joke for the people involved, their dependants, the animals hoarded, their neighbours and communities.  Animal hoarding often starts by well meaning individuals rescuing and caring for animals which then gets out of hand and the animals end up in a worse state than before they were ‘rescued’, as described in my recent article in Mental Health Practice found here;     

Before any of us takes on an animal as a ‘rescue’ we need to think beyond our current situation, what happens if we or a member of our family gets sick. How will we manage if we lose some or all of our income.  If we take in an equine will our current grazing / stabling always be available.  It may be possible to manage now but companion animals will live for some years and horses live for a long time, will we still be able to manage day to day when we, and they, are twenty plus years older.

Taking on any animal is a responsibility, taking on a horse or pony is a long term commitment and a rescue one comes with possible physical and psychological problems which require significant financial, time and emotional resources. Taking on an animal to make things ‘better’ for it may make life worse in the long run for it, and for the individual ‘rescuing’ it.