Bio: Alexandra Yaksich wears many hats: she is a veterinary technician, writer of all things veterinary, and helps clinics build their practices. She completed her undergraduate studies in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2012 with a special interest in biology and behavior. Her work during this time focused on mapping neural pathways of behavior in dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain. This was the foundation of her interest in behavioral psychology. While noticing that she spent more time writing to the ethics committee on research proposals than doing the actual research, she decided to move from the hard sciences into clinical veterinary work near the end of her undergraduate degree and fell in love with the field. She has been working in the industry ever since. Alexandra is on a mission to dispel myths in the animal health industry and create solutions available to both clinic staff and pet owners. Follow her educational and informative Instagram (@alexandra.yaksich) and LinkedIn.
We have a rich and colorful history with our companion animals. They bring so much to our lives. That said, the majority of us are unfortunately sure to outlive our furry companions. Once they do pass on, how do we treat them in this next stage? Can we commemorate them and all the joy they have brought us adequately? What does history tell us about our special human-animal bond, how have we treated our deceased pets in the past, and how can the veterinary industry help?
The loss of an animal companion is as heartbreaking as the loss of a family member. They are our family. They bring us so much positivity and joy it’s hard to articulate in words, this special human-animal bond. Our experience with our pets is very tactile in nature, and this missing touch is often the first thing that is noticed when they depart. There is countless information on just how much impact our pets have on our emotional well-being; tactile sensing being one of the top factors in how our pets influence us. We know that humans have an innate need for touch. There have been studies that show human babies have extreme developmental delays if they are deprived of touch in the first few weeks of life1. Touch is not only vital in our development, it also builds trust as well as reduces our stress, and increases our overall immune response. Our pets help us here. More than we often realize.
Our companions help to keep us social: playing and bonding with animals increase our levels of serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains. We’ve heard countless times they help stave off depression. They are great companions for those living alone. Sometimes we can’t help but smile by simply looking at them. We get to know them and their habits very well. I know my cat likes to eat his portion of pate before his crunchy meal.
I know he likes to bathe in one particular area in the house, the spot with the best sunlight. I know he likes this one particular chair to sleep on after bathing, provided he has his blanket to perform the infamous ‘happy paws’ (i.e., kneading). We are all so intimately familiar with our routines as a human-animal family, and these are just a few of many ways our fur family helps us.
There is something deeper than simply making us feel good. They are part of our tribe. We know them well, and we would do anything for them.
Interestingly, our culture is beginning to adapt to the research and incorporate animal therapy into a variety of practices from hospitals and schools to rehabilitation centers. There is a non-profit group called Gabriel’s Angels2 that introduces pets to help abused and neglected children and they believe animals will help them develop trust, learn empathy skills, respect, and other life skills that are important for children to learn.
They do so much for us. They are such an integral part of our lives. Their unconditional love is so genuine that when it is their time to depart, our grief matches the love they brought to us. Often, we are surprised by this feeling. The question is, how can we pay respects, mourn them, and do them justice for their departure? Do we have any precedents on which to guide us in this next step? This gets interesting:
As early as the ancient Egyptians, archaeologists have found enormous evidence that not only were animals treated well, there were harsh punishments for those that disrespected animals. Egyptians believed that animals were a major source of physical and spiritual survival. Often, pets who have passed were mummified and placed next to their human companions to be together in the afterlife. Almost all pets were mummified at this time.
In other areas of the world, archeologists have discovered pet burial sites that date back as early as 14,000 years! There is a very large gravesite in Russia that dates back to around 7,000 years ago. These people gave the same respect in the afterlife to dogs as they did to humans. “It’s my hypothesis that people really saw those particular dogs as being spiritually the same as themselves. That they were an animal with a soul, an animal with an afterlife,” says Losey, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada who researches ancient human-dog relationships.
In another area in Egypt, some animals were not mummified but buried in a cemetery – one area having a count of 86 cats, 9 dogs, and 4 monkeys. A few had iron collars, and some animals were buried together, one gravesite containing a cat and kitten.
Israel has pet cemeteries dating back about 2,500 years with an estimated 1000-1500 dogs!
Those are but a few examples of the burials and rituals dating back to the beginning of animal domestication. We have a long history of human-animal partnerships and a long history of commemorating them respectfully.
There now exists several pet cemeteries as well as cremation services. There are many more unique options for pet remains and paying respects to our beloved furry companions. There are artists who can embed ashes into jewelry, there are places that will plant a tree in memory of the pet, memorial artwork can be made. Those are among some of the creative ways we have developed to pay respects to our companions.
But how are the remains transported after the last visit to the vet clinic?
Unfortunately, in most cases, they are transported in a garbage bag. Yes, a garbage bag. It’s quite unsightly, and certainly, something one would never presume given how much history we have and how much our animals do for us.
Dr. Celine Leheurteux, a practicing veterinarian, saw this a huge gap between what the pet owner sees and what actually happens, and decided to make a change. Something that has surprisingly not been done in the veterinary community until now. She has created a pet body bag called Euthabag that will allow the appropriate and respectful transfer of remains from the clinic or home to their ultimate destination, be it pet cemeteries or burial. The bag is eco-friendly and contains no harsh chemicals that emit it into the environment. But importantly, it is a symbol. It’s a symbol of our respect. If the ancient Egyptians and other very old cultures around the world treated remains with high regard, it would do our evolved and contemporary culture well to have our beloved companions depart with dignity. We can give them this respect since they indeed give us so much.
Another wonderful service she offers is help with grieving our animals and how to adapt to this new loss. Check out the Euthabag website here: euthabag.com for practical advice, information, counseling, and why the bag is so relevant to us and our furry family.
Let’s pave the way for better treatment of our companions.
After all, they really are our guardian angels.