Wednesday, May 22, 2013

He Will Be Missed by His Jack Russell: Pets as Bereaved Survivors in Obituaries

Every once in a while I come across a study that I wish I had thought of doing myself.  Such is the case with a paper that appeared in the latest issue of the journal Anthrozoös about companion animals in obituaries.  Four researchers, two from universities in Virginia, one from a university in Maryland, and one from the Institut für angewandte Ethologie und Tierpsychologie in Switzerland, undertook such a study, noting that in newspapers “pets have joined the list of bereaved survivors in the obituaries.”

Fictive Kin

The researchers categorize pets as a type of “fictive kin,” a term used by anthropologists and sociologists to describe pseudo- or pretend relatives, noting that there are “ample references in the literature to companion animals being perceived as and treated as fictive kin or family members.”  Pets are now common in wedding photos and have even served as ring bearers. I am probably taking a risk by admitting that when my wife and I were married in Brooklyn Heights, the wedding cake was crowned by a ceramic bride and groom and, in front of the bride, a small ceramic cat representing Arthur, my wife’s cat at the time and for a long time the only pet in our marriage. 

Newspaper Obituaries

The authors of this study looked at obituaries published in the Washington Post, the Richmond Times Dispatch, and the Zurich TagesAnzeiger (Daily News) from October 8, 2008, through January 7, 2009.  All obituaries were searched for mention of a survivor that was a companion animal or where, in lieu of flowers, donations were requested to be made to an animal-related organization, or both.  After reading hard copies of the three newspapers for a month, the researchers shifted to searching online postings for the following keywords: dog, cat, pet, animal, and companion.  Generally such searches would bring up any obituary that referred to an animal, though the authors acknowledge that some references to birds, parrots, horses, and other animals might have been missed.  Because some obituaries run for several days in a row, cross-reference checks were made in order to avoid duplication.  

The Zurich Daily News had only one obituary in the three-month period that mentioned a pet survivor, which happened to be a cat owned by a man.  A few Swiss obituaries mentioned animal charities. Apparently referring to animals in obituaries has not caught on in Europe.  

Of 11,818 obituaries searched, 260 (2.2%) listed pet survivors or suggested donations to charities.  Of these, 148 (57%) listed a pet survivor, while 130 (50%) suggested donations.  Males and female decedents were about even in this regard.  More than half of surviving animals mentioned in the obituaries were dogs.  Pet survivors were listed primarily by name.  Charities included humane societies, breed-specific rescue organizations, and animal support groups.  PETA and the American Kennel Club were among recommended recipients. 

“Pet” as a term was rarely used in obituaries.  Companion animals were often listed as survivors, sometimes even preceding actual relatives.  An 85-year-old woman was survived by two nieces, a nephew, and “a loyal canine companion, Shirley.”  One obituary listed four daughters in order, the last two, Lily and Lucy, being canine.  Sometimes granddogs were listed.  One man was said to have left “behind his beloved granddogs, Brie Sherwin and Otis Huddleton.  His first non-furry grandchild will arrive in May.” 

Obituaries with pet references were for people as young as 12 and as old as 100.  Animals included birds, cats, cattle, cows, dogs, donkeys, horses, and parrots.  The companions were described as “faithful,” “ever-faithful,” “loving,” “loyal,” “beloved,” “devoted,” and “a super pet.” 

The effect of the subject’s death on a pet was sometimes stated:

“He will be missed by his Jack Russell Terriers, Dickens, Belle, and Sunshine.” 
“He will be missed by his faithful Labrador Retrievers, Molly and Jenny.” 
“Also missing her and looking for her are her rescue animals, a dog, Miss Priss, and two cats, Sylvester and Princess.”
“He will be sorely missed by Molly, his ever-present cocker spaniel companion.”

The deceased was sometimes lauded for his or her love of animals.  One woman was remembered “for her gentle and loving nature which embraced not only family and friends but any animal in her care as well.”

“Wayne was an avid fisherman and enjoyed time with his beloved dogs, the late Bubba and Boomer, as well as Bear.”  Thus, even dogs predeceasing the owner were sometimes remembered. 

“June was very active in the dog community, often fostering dogs and volunteering for the collie club.”

“Linda’s love for animals generated a houseful of rescued dogs, cats, birds, and a tortoise.”

Sometimes the survivors sought to assure the deceased regarding the care surviving pets were receiving:

“We want him to know we will take care of his beloved pets, Pully and L.C.”

One obituary mentioned pets at the decedent's deathbed:

“She passed peacefully in her home attended by her loved ones and faithful dogs.”

Obituaries sometimes included pictures of the deceased with a pet. 


When it comes my time to become a few lines in a newspaper, I hope that someone remembers to mention Chloe, who has certainly achieved the status of fictive kin with my wife and me.  Perhaps the two Cocker Spaniels I grew up with, Sandy and Blackie, are too far back in my history to be appropriate for such a mention, but in any case my father wrote short pieces when they died, both of which achieved some lasting print memory by being combined as the Introduction to The Complete Book of Dogs. 

Perhaps there should also be mention of Arthur and Jack, the first being the cat on the wedding cake, the second a cat my wife and I got later.  I wrote a farewell to Jack here two years ago, the only blog in a site on dog issues that is devoted solely to a cat.  

The researchers acknowledge that more studies will be needed to determine if mention of companion animals in obituaries represents a steadily increasing trend.  It is to be hoped that they will regularly update this interesting research.  They might also include some analysis of pet obituaries appearing in newspapers, an issue that has become contentious among editors of some papers. In any case, the desire to be remembered for our relationship with pets is ancient, as shown by the first century BC funerary monument from Alexandria (now in the Louvre) reproduced here.  Dozens of similar monuments from the Greco-Roman world can be found in museums throughout the world.   
Cindy C. Wilson, F. Ellen Netting, Dennis C. Turner, and Cara H. Olsen. (2013). Companion Animals in Obituaries: An Exploratory Study. Anthrozoös, 26(2), 227-236.  

See also Jill R.D. MacKay, Janice Moore and Felicity Huntingford (2016). Characterizing the Data in Online Companion-dog Obituaries to Assess Their Usefulness as a Source of Information about Human-Animal Bonds.  Anthrozoos, 29(3), 431-440. 

Thanks to Eric Krieger, Ronald Keats, Suzanne Boule, and Dennis Civiello for comments and suggestions. 


  1. Hi John,
    I am writing to you in regards to a recent experience I had with the Washington Post.

    My father passed away on August 29th. His death notice was printed today, Monday, September 2nd in the Washington Post. However, getting the Washington Post to print the notice as we had written was impossible. Below is what we had requested:

    Wayne Clifton Bagford, 56

    Of Fairfax, VA, succumbed to a short battle with cancer on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at his home surrounded by family. Son of the late Frederick Russell and Mary Ellen Bagford, Wayne spent all of his life in the Northern Virginia area. Wayne is survived by his daughters, Kathy and Christi; his son/dog, Kota; grandpuppy, Kolbie; brother, Greg; sister-in-law, Sharon; nieces, Kimberly and Michelle; nephew, Brian; parents-in-law, Charles and Margaret Lavon Miller; and a host of relations and friends around the country . Wayne was a loving son, father, brother, uncle, and friend to all. The family will receive friends in a private gathering on Saturday, October 5, 2013. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made in Wayne’s name to the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association.

    When the Post received our death notice and sent back the proof, they changed it to read as follows:

    Of Fairfax, VA, succumbed to a short battle with cancer on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at his home surrounded by family. Son of the late Frederick Russell and Mary Ellen Bagford, Wayne spent all of his life in the Northern Virginia area. Survived by daughters, Kathy and Christi; brother Greg; sister-in-law Sharon; nieces Kimberly and Michelle; nephew Brian; parents-in-law Charles and Margaret Lavon Miller; and a host of relatives and friends. He will be missed by son/dog Kota; grandpuppy, Kolbie. Wayne was a loving son, father, brother, uncle, and friend to all. The family will receive friends in a private gathering on Saturday, October 5, 2013. Memorial donations can be made in Wayne's name to the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association.

    I have highlighted the differences above. When the funeral director contacted them, he was informed that they did it this way because it is "policy" and that a pet cannot be written in the notice as survived by; they can be missed or loved, but not survived. I also called and received the same information without them budging on their stance. The concern here is that the death notice is written and paid for by the family. It would be one thing if there was something obscene in the notice, however, that is clearly not the case. Who are they to make the determination if the deceased is survived by his/her pet(s)? To many people, their pets are like children, which is why my father's notice was written this way to begin with. The dogs are a major part of our lives and writing his obituary in my original format allowed us to express that in a way that those who know us would laugh and go "Yup, that's Wayne." Having to speak with them and hear that expressing his relationship with his family (which is inclusive of the dogs) in a manner that they, the Washington Post, approves of only added to unneeded stress and emotional blows in this situation. This just goes to show the insensitive nature of the Washington Post.

    Per my cousin's quick thinking, we had them adjust it so that instead of saying "his son/dog Kota; grandpuppy, Kolbie," it now would say "son, Kota; grandson, Kolbie." Although this suffices to have them listed with the other human relatives, it still takes away from what my father wanted.

    Here is the link to the site for your confirmation purposes as to what was printed:

    I would appreciate your assistance in bringing this inappropriate "policy" to light. Thank you.

    1. Dear Ms. Bagford--

      This is indeed curious and I will try to find out more about the Washington Post's policy. The article by Wilson et al., upon which my blog is based, listed 52 obituaries "naming pet survivors" in that newspaper.

      The Oxford English dictionary (1991) gives. as the first definition of "survivor." "A person, animal, or plant that outlives another...." Although this and the examples might be argued to indicate that a survivor is generally of the same species as the one survived, the Post's policy seems unnecessarily restrictive given that the point is to indicate that the surviving pets were considered by the deceased, or at least the individuals purchasing the obituary, to be members of the deceased's family.

      The legal usage of the term survivor in the OED is specific: "One of two or more designated persons, esp. joint-tenants or other persons having a joint interest, who outlives the other or others; a longer or the longest liver." This, however, applies to very few survivors mentioned in obituaries, so has no bearing on the Post's policy. My copy of the unabridged Webster's International Dictionary sheds no additional light on why the term could not apply to a pet surviving a master.

      If a service animal survived a master--an individual for whom the animal was trained and to whom the animal devoted much of its life--it would seem obvious that the loss of the animal's function should be acknowledged by recognizing it as a survivor. I would like to know if the Post's policy is identical for such a situation.

      I will update this response as I get more information. -- John

    2. Hi John,
      Thank you for the information. I am interested to hear what you learn.

  2. Kathy, I'll see if the authors of the study know anything about the paper's policy, then I'll contact the paper. You can contact me directly at -- John