How we coped with losing a pet: Saying goodbye to a four-legged friend
As Strictly's Craig Revel Horwood is finding out, the prospect of losing a pet is heartbreaking. In moving accounts, Alex Kane and Una Brankin explain how they coped , while some of our best-known faces share fond memories.
He might have a reputation for being Mr Nasty on Saturday nights but Craig Revel Horwood recently revealed he can be soft-hearted too. The Strictly Come Dancing judge admitted that he and his partner, Damon Scott, were devastated to discover their beloved dog Sophie has a serious heart condition and is not expected to live very much longer.
Mr Scott rescued Sophie, now 13, five years ago when he discovered her "lying in her own filth".
She is deaf and has no teeth and now the diagnosis of an inflamed heart means that she's not expected to survive the year.
Sophie has been perilously ill before and has to take eight tablets a day, at a cost of over £150 a month. Revel Horwood freely admitted that he was bowled over by the affection he has developed for the King Charles spaniel.
"It comes as a complete surprise to me to find out how much I love her.
"We both think of her as our daughter. The love she gives back is enormous.
"It is going to be absolutely devastating."
Perhaps, though, it's hardly surprising that one of TV's biggest villains has developed such an attachment to his dog as the UK is unreservedly a nation of pet lovers.
The nation spends £4bn a year pampering the 71 million pets that live in almost half of the households here and beloved pets, such as Greyfriars Bobby, have been immortalised in both literature and art.
Many of us have fond memories of childhood pets, from the dog that tirelessly played football with us to the cat that sat faithfully beside us as we've swotted over maths homework.
And, of course, as Revel Horwood is finding out, the prospect of losing such a faithful and kind friend hardly bears contemplation.
Many of those who have been through the experience say it is like losing a member of the family.
Here, two writers recall the day they had to say goodbye to a much-loved dog, while we also talk to three other well-known faces on how they coped with the loss of a pet.
Alex Kane's story
Rudyard Kipling nailed it in his poem The Power of the Dog:
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless, it is hardly fair, to risk your heart for a dog to tear.
Because giving your heart for a dog to tear is exactly what you do when one lollops through your house for the first time.
They will sniff, scratch, shed hair, knock over chairs with large and spectacularly carefree tails, bark in the middle of the night, fart, burp, roll in mud, shred slippers and unread papers and post.
They will uproot plants and turn a lawn yellow. They will burst a paddling pool with a crash landing of pure joy. They will play daredevil with a mower or hoover and scoff an unattended biscuit or lamb chop. They will sit at a front or back door for hours just to hear your foot on the gravel and welcome you like a returning prodigal. They will nuzzle a cold nose into your lap or steer their ear into your free hand. They will gaze at you with unadulterated love. They will guard your children like they were their own puppies.
Scruffy was that sort of dog. He chose us at a rescue centre (dogs mostly choose you, by the way: they know who they want) 12 years ago. He was a cross between a terrier and a haystack.
Bo also chose us that day - even though we had only gone for one dog. He looked at me in that odd, burrowing-deep-into-your-eyes way that dogs do when they want your attention and your friendship. It didn't require a second look.
They were great fun. Having been adopted (which is a bit like being chosen from a rescue home) I know the importance of security for any animal that has been abandoned or abused. I know the importance of making them feel at home. I know the Sherlock Holmes dictum: "A dog reflects the family life. Whoever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one?" They reflect those with whom they share their lives and love.
My daughter Megan, who was about four when they arrived, became a boon companion: wrestling with Bo (gentle as wool with her) and sharing a duvet with Scruffy when he went on a middle-of the-night wander. Lilah-Liberty turned up a few years later and they accepted her at once; their early curiosity followed by care and devotion.
A loved dog, a happy dog, is a great companion for children: a trusted friend they can share time with while learning the basics of responsibility for others. Something that doesn't require batteries and remote controls!
But the "moment" always comes: the moment when the dog passes on. It's heartbreaking.
And it's difficult for the kids because it is often their first direct experience of the death of someone who matters to them - someone with whom they may have shared every day of their lives. Shared their beds. And shared those conversations and secrets that children and ever-ready-to-listen dogs share. For many of us it's also the first time we have the "Where do they go, Daddy?" conversation, followed by "Will you go to the same place one day?".
Scruffy died in June 2013. Unexpectedly. Quickly. I knew something was wrong. He wasn't himself. It looked like a stroke. We settled him in his basket and just talked to him and petted him. I brushed him. Lilah-Liberty sat beside him: not quite sure what was happening, but aware that what was happening wasn't normal for the friend who tended to bounce around the garden with her. And then he stopped breathing. Just like that. Not a sound. Not a whimper. Just stopped being Scruffy.
We laid him out on a towel. Waited for Megan to come home. Allowed Bo to sniff and nuzzle. We wrapped him, buried him in the garden - in one of his favourite spots - and marked it with a headstone prepared by the girls. This wasn't a mere dog or pet or animal we buried. This was a much-loved and still missed member of our family.
This was a close friend. People who know me from politics and commentary will know that I'm neither sentimental nor particularly emotional: but a part of my heart is buried with every dog or cat (we lost Peanut a few months ago, too, and she's also buried in the garden) that has gone from my life.
I've had my heart torn a fair few times by a bizarre collection of mongrels and I've shed tears for each and every one of them. But each and every one of them has enriched my life and repaid over and over and over again the decision to open my home and heart to them.
When all else is collapsing around you a dog will still be there at your side, wagging that tail and waiting for your nod - faithful to the end. And yes, truly wonderful.
Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexKane221b
'Losing Kim was so awful, I never got another pet'
Julian Simmons is a TV presenter and lives in Belfast. He says:
Kim was a bit of a mongrel but looked like a smooth-haired fox terrier. He arrived with us when I was about 10. I was watching TV with my mother and we heard my father's car arrive. As dad came in the room something shot past me, then turned back and jumped up in my lap. It turned out that when my father had got into the lift in a department store, the lift man had Kim - as we called him - under his arm. He'd been looking after him all day after wandering in off the street.
To cut a long story short, dad decided there and then to bring him home and that whole weekend was a blur of taking Kim to the vet to get his injections, a trip which broke my heart because I didn't want the injections to hurt him.
Kim lived with us for about eight years. He was a really fun dog and great craic. The truth is, he ruled our house but at the same time he was never any trouble.
And then the awful day came when we lost him. I can remember it vividly - I was walking out of Methody with some friends and discovered my dad at the gate, sitting on the bonnet of his car. He had come to give me a lift home and to tell me that Kim had chased after a mobile library van, which had hit him. He died instantly.
I was desperately upset, but my mother was inconsolable. She had been at the garden gate talking to a neighbour when the accident had happened. It was an earth-shattering time and because it was so traumatic I've never had another animal since."
'We buried Koochie wrapped in her yellow blanket'
By Una Brankin
A cherished family pet cannot be routinely replaced when it dies. With time another cat or dog can be brought into the home. But for the owner, there's no denying that the lost one existed as a character, or even as a family member, in its own right, a loving companion to be mourned.
Our Koochie was one of a long line of well-loved dogs my parents have had on their farm near Sandy Bay, outside Glenavy. I've written before on how she died after an attack by two lurchers trespassing with their owner on my father's meadows.
Koochie was a particularly endearing and feminine Jack Russell, with a cute face and intelligent, empathetic eyes. She could be a right terror when she was after some poor fieldmouse; I'll never forget the growls and snaps of her at my husband when he had to pull her out of a hedge to save some prey she'd spotted. But that urge was in her nature.
It was in her DNA as much as it was in the lurchers who killed her, although, we suspect they had been trained to hunt other dogs for some twisted idea of sport.
When Koochie wasn't in hot pursuit of some quarry, she was playful and affectionate, and far more use on the farm than our ancient, eccentric sheepdog Rex, who barks at running water and would rather run after cars than cattle. Though, it has to be said, he is treasured too.
Koochie had been spoiled by her former owner, so she headed straight down to the bedrooms when she first came to our house, and wriggled comically up under the covers. My three nephews, who live up to the road, took to her immediately and allowed her to run about in the garden when they were playing football.
Unused to that much exertion, she came home exhausted after her first game, laid her head on my mother's chest and fell sound asleep like a baby. Mum began to take her on her regular Sunday strolls and soon she was clamouring at her to get out at the allotted time every week, knowing instinctively what day it was.
Her favourite, however, was my brother, Michael. Koochie slept in a dog basket, under a yellow Tommy Hilfiger blanket bought by my sister Claire, by the range in our kitchen, and every morning she would get up on the stroke of cow-milking time and trot down the hall to wake up Michael. She was better than an alarm clock.
She'd sit up in the tractor with him, ears cocked, and would be at a loss if he disappeared to go on holiday. When Michael built a house next door to home and got married, his wife Helen bought a dog basket and toys for Koochie so she'd feel welcome. Loyally, she paid her daily visits but always came home to curl up on Mum's lap before going to sleep where she always did.
Koochie was buried on an autumn day, wrapped in her little yellow blanket, in a grave between the two bungalows. We have a new Jack Russell now, TJ, a cheeky male with a brown face. It took my brother a while to let him into Koochie's place in the tractor, and for the rest of us to warm to him: he has butch, piano-stool legs and is not as adorable as our "Kooch". Everybody is now growing to love TJ for his own unique character. But there'll never be another Koochie.
'To me, Sparky was like the brother I never had'
Mark Simpson (47) is a BBC Newsline reporter. He lives in Hollywood with his wife Catherine and their daughters Grace (17), Holly (16) and Joy (10). He says
Sparky arrived one Christmas when I was at school in the mid-Eighties - he was a black Cairn terrier. He wasn't a Christmas present, just the family dog, but to me he was the brother I never had.
I took him everywhere with me and my friends and girlfriend all had to realise that Sparky (below) and I came as a package deal. If I was going on a weekend to Donegal with my mates then Sparky had to come along, too.
Sparky was named after the Manchester United footballer Mark Hughes, whose nickname was Sparky. This was at a time when Liverpool were winning everything so I taught him to growl any time someone mentioned Kenny Dalglish. But that wasn't entertaining enough so I then told him that the postman was Kenny Dalglish and each morning he would go ballistic at the window when he came. There was also never a dog who could catch a ball in the air like Sparky.
Sparky was about six or seven when he got knocked down. I was away from home - working in Londonderry for the North West edition of the Belfast Telegraph at the time. My mother phoned me to tell me what had happened and as my father was away I had to go home to help her. We just found him lying there.
There is, however, a silver lining to the story. I met my sweetheart at Queen's - a girl called Catherine Gamble - but after we left university, she binned me. It was my mother who kept in touch and used to send her a Christmas card every year. The year that Sparky was killed, my mum put a note in the Christmas card to Catherine, telling her that he had been knocked down. When Catherine read that she picked up the phone for the first time in two years and invited me down to Strabane for lunch. We were engaged within six months. So Sparky brought us together again.
My parents got another dog after Sparky - he was called Ryan, after Ryan Giggs, but Catherine and I have never had our own dog. I still have pictures of Sparky round my house and I honestly can't see us getting a dog to replace him."
'Zico would even come on the family holidays'
Stephen Clements (41) presents the Breakfast Show on Citybeat radio each weekday morning. He lives in Newtownards with his wife Natasha and their children Poppy (4) and Robbie (10 weeks). He says:
We got Zico when I was 10. We moved from Whitehead to Carrickfergus and my brother left behind a friend called David that he missed a lot. To make up for the fact that he could no longer hang out with David, my mum got Zico (below), a wee black Labrador pup, and he quickly became our best friend instead. He was pure black except for a white L-shape on his chest.
He was part and parcel of our family when we were growing up. He would come on the family holidays to Portrush, where he would play with us on the beach. He just started getting old eventually - there are steps from my parent's back door to the patio and in the end they got too much for him. Mum and dad had to take him to the vet who said there was nothing more they could do for him.
I was away at university at the time and when I came home I wondered where the dog was - they hadn't wanted to break the news to me over the phone. I was completely gutted when I did find out.
The funny thing is that my parents - especially mum - got annoyed at Zico when he barked or yelped. When he died my brother and I had already moved out of the house, and it only took about six weeks before a new pup called Duffy arrived. I was astounded when I found out mum was the instigator in getting a new dog - she thought it had been too quiet without Zico!
Natasha and I have our own dog now, called Cheeky, and she keeps slipping me down the pecking order at home. It goes my wife, the kids, then Cheeky, then me!"