In 1997, a forensic examiner in Berlin reported one of his more unusual cases in the journal Forensic Science International. A 31-year-old man had retired for the evening to the converted garden shed behind his mother’s house, where he lived with his German shepherd. Around 8:15 p.m., neighbors heard a gunshot from the direction of the shed.
Forty-five minutes later, the man’s mother and neighbors found him dead of a gunshot wound to the mouth, a Walther pistol under his hands and a farewell note on a table. Most of his face and neck were gone—and there were tooth marks around the edges of the wounds. A half-full bowl of dog food sat on the floor.
The German shepherd was calm and responded to police commands. On the way to an animal sanctuary, the dog vomited some of its owner’s tissue, including skin with still-recognizable beard hair.
No one tracks the frequency of pets scavenging their expired owners’ bodies, but dozens of such case reports appear in forensic science journals over the last 20 years or so, and they’re the best window we have into a situation dreaded by pet owners: dying alone and being eaten.
I’ve reviewed about 20 of these published cases, along with a 2015 study that pulled together 63 cases of indoor scavenging. Some of the patterns are surprising, and they open up fascinating questions about why pets might be motivated to eat the dead.
Here are some of the most common misconceptions about post-mortem pet behavior and what the available forensic evidence reveals.
It Must Have Been the Cat
Cats get a bad rap for being the most eager to eat their owners, and anecdotally, some emergency responders say it’s pretty common. When it happens, cats tend to go for the face, especially soft parts such as the nose and lips, says forensic anthropologist Carolyn Rando of University College London.