A lot of people, and I'm one of them, believe that the perfect number of pets is two. That is, two is the ideal number of pets of any one species - two cats, two dogs, two guinea pigs, two budgies. Two is right for friendship, exercise, grooming, manageable fun, even cuteness. But as with couples of any kind, there's an inbuilt time-bomb.
One of the two will die first, and one will be left behind. For the pet that survives, years of companionship is suddenly replaced by inexplicable loss and loneliness, and it can be hard for us humans to witness it. What can we do about it? Should we get our pet a new companion, and start the cycle again, or wait for the bereaved animal to regain its resilience and learn to live without its friend?
Seven years ago, my partner and I visited a pet shop and fell in love with a pair of dwarf rabbits in a crate on the floor. They were tiny and dazzlingly cute, one black and smooth and the other fluffy and grey. As we bent to get a closer look, they stood up on their back legs and craned their necks to reciprocate. We bought the rabbits, two sisters, on the spot and took them home. We named them Dusk and Nugget.
After a while they were joined by a third rabbit, Hef, whose story I've told before. Hef was a shabby old guy with poor manners when it came to females, but soon the girls' grooming had him looking smooth, and castration improved his manners. Hef died after a few comfortable, companionable years, leaving the sisters by themselves again.
Then last Thursday night, Dusk seemed weak but was still moving round her run.
In the morning, her dead grey-furred body lay in the run with Nugget sitting next to it. Next day, I took Dusk to the local vet for cremation.
So Nugget's now alone, rattling around in a luxurious new hutch built for two, and it's impossible to tell what, if anything, she's thinking or feeling. She must know her sister is gone; every day must seem a strange experience with all the old routines gone.
My partner and I also have a pair of dogs. Phoebe and Connor are almost the same age, almost the same size, and they've lived most of their lives together. They're rarely out of each other's company, and are great friends and playmates and packmates. But one day that time bomb will go off.
Lots of pet owners have faced that situation. I know of some who have adopted a new pet that soon bonded with the bereaved one, creating a new perfect number. But sometimes the bonding takes a long time, and sometimes it doesn't happen - who ordained, after all, that two creatures of the same species must always get on together?
And is it a good idea to adopt a younger pet to be companion to an elderly one?
I suppose it comes down to the question, do you take the step of making a connection knowing that one day it'll end? If the answer for you is always "no", then I suppose you'll never get a pet. Or fall in love or marry, for that matter.
What would you do? What have your experiences been when that time-bomb goes off?
And it's another of those unanswerable questions: does a pet remember its companion - at all, for long, or forever? I've read about animals in the wild that show an awareness of death and kinds of ritual behaviour. Here's a clip showing elephants encountering the remains of another elephant, and strangely altering their behaviour:
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