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How Do I Explain to My Pets That I Broke Up With My Partner, Who They Absolutely Loved?

Advice from an animal psychologist, a bioethicist and a cat-loving comedian

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

Well, it happened: After three years together, my boyfriend and I are calling it quits. I don’t want to get into why we’re breaking up — hint: He’s an ass — but we decided that I’ll be the one keeping our dog and cat, and I’m a little worried about how they’re going to make it through all of this. They really loved their dad, so I’m sure they’re going to miss him like crazy now that he’ll never be around.

Basically: How can I explain to my pets that daddy’s gone, and what can I do to keep them happy without him?

The Expert Advice

Cherith Fuller, a comedian (with a cat) who just released her debut stand-up album, Cool, Chill Girl, about dating in the modern age: My ex loved my cats. My cats loved my ex. He’d come over, and we’d all lounge on my bed in a giant cuddle puddle. Often, I wondered if they loved him more than they loved me (probably). 

Our breakup was difficult, messy and complicated. I worried about my cats. How would I explain to them that they’d never see Mark again? How would I let them know that everything would be okay? 

It was only while I was sobbing, holding Nimbus and replaying our breakup to him that I realized… I didn’t need to explain these things to my cats. My cats, though anthropomorphic to me, are fucking cats. They barely care about anything, besides laying on that one fuzzy coat and eating three square meals a day. They didn’t understand who Mark was or that he wouldn’t be coming around anymore. They knew everything would be okay, because I was still there. I’d be there to answer when they begged to be fed at 5-fucking-a.m. or when they demanded to be held like big babies (despite me needing to finish writing this).

The person I was really worried about was myself. How would I let myself know that everything would be okay? How would I be able to look myself in the eye and tell myself that I’d probably never see him again? Those questions are scary. It’s a lot easier to project our fears, our anxieties and our insecurities on creatures that poop in a box than to demand accountability and answers from ourselves. 

But I’d be okay, too. 

Even when I didn’t want to get out of bed, even when I didn’t want to eat, I knew that I had two giant beasts depending on me for everything. I had to keep going. I focused on taking care of them. They needed me! I couldn’t just waste away in self-pity: I had to go scoop their litter boxes! 

I found solace in the routines they established for me. I was so worried about how to tell them they’d be okay, when the whole time they were the ones telling me that it would be okay. I’d be okay. They’d be okay. I’d probably fall in love again, and I’d probably go through another breakup again.

But to quote another famous Atlantan, “God is my witness, I’m going to live through this, and when it’s all over, I’ll never [have to explain my breakup to my cats] again.”

Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy: If your pet loves your now-ex partner, it’s possible that they’ll miss them. If they come to you for reassurance and comfort, feel free to give it to them. In general, pets like routine, so try to keep their routine the same, as much as possible. If your ex was quite involved in helping care for your pet, then obviously, you have to take those responsibilities back. For example, if your ex used to often play with your cat with the wand toy, you can do more of that yourself. Or if your ex used to sometimes take your dog for a walk in the evening, you can do that instead. 

In some circumstances, if you’re on friendly terms with your ex, they might still come to visit from time to time, but that’s not always a good idea from your perspective. Your pet might miss your partner, but they’ll get used to the new situation, and they’ll still be very glad to be spending time with you.

Jessica Pierce, bioethicist and author of numerous books about pets, including Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets and The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives: A breakup or divorce may be experienced by a companion animal like a death in the family. The person to whom they were attached is now gone, and they may grieve over the loss. Some signs of grief include decreased appetite, decreased energy, becoming clingy, increased nervousness or a change in their normal routine. That said, not all animals will show outward signs of loss, but this doesn’t mean that they haven’t noticed anything.

In addition to the loss of an important person in their lives, animals may also notice an overall change in the family, or “pack,” dynamic and changes in daily routine. Adjusting to these changes can take some time. Ritual and routine is important to our animals, and when these are thrown off, it can be hard on our companions. Here are some things people might do to help their animals after a loss:

  • Recognize that your animal might be grieving or may be faced with a shift in patterns of daily life. 
  • Give your animal time to adjust to the new normal. I don’t have any research to back this up — there isn’t any, as far as I know — but my educated opinion is that it can take animals anywhere from several weeks to several months to adjust to new patterns. 
  • Offer your animal extra kindness and patience.
  • Provide extra sources of enrichment, including cognitive challenges, like training, if that’s something the animal enjoys; treats (but not too many!); puzzle toys; adventures; and new social experiences. 
  • Create new daily rituals.
  • Be patient and let new patterns emerge.