They cannot tell us, can they? Their minds so alien, so faraway from ours; our ability to read body language, when hidden by cuddly fur, or feathers or scales, so rudimentary as to be laughable. If suffering were funny, that is, which it is not.
And so we watch, in mute horror, as symptoms we do not recognise distort the bodies of beloved pets, causing skeletal racking which has no place in the vocabulary of our own illnesses. We look into eyes of pain and cannot read their true message. We stroke dulled pelts and hope that the infinitesimal lifting of a much-loved head, the brief feathery flump of a tail against a sick-bed, is communicating small surges of comfort, of pleasure, of relief that we are there.
We watch, with utter terror, the untranslatable stance of inner dis-ease: The strange turning of an agonised body to the right – hopeless circles trying to outrun the cramping stab of poisoned muscles; the unfocused eyes, ears tuned only to the body’s mysterious screaming.
We see, as we sit or stand and wring our hands and dial the vet and knuckle back useless tears, that the creature we thought we knew so well has drifted faraway into a world from which we, with our spouting words and lack of sixth sense, are barred. The world of animal instinct. The world in which the demands of the body labouring to birth easement and cure, or death, are implacable as avalanche and twice as feared.
In the wordlessness of our pets’ anguish, there is no handy dictionary or English into Canine translation. We cannot ask them where the hurt is, or what it feels like. We cannot do anything other than bear witness, mop up the leaking liquids, force healing drafts back in again – and hold a space full of warm human love for these, our adopted babies.
All we can do is wait and hope that, one day, the named and tamed animal we have taken into home and heart will come back from that faraway cold land of pain and ice and fear, and will be our own familiar much-loved friend once more.