The fact that pets, like humans, have the choice of burial or cremation at the end of their days came as complete news to me when I watched a television programme on the subject last week. I had seen pet cemeteries, with gravestones dedicated to the memory of Fluffies and Fidos, whose days had prematurely ended on a car bumper, but never miniature urns storing what amounts to little more than a teaspoonful of ashes.

The crematorium featured in the programme also had a chapel of rest, where a dead dog lay on a frilly cloth and the owners were invited to spend their last moments with the him. It was all rather upsetting and I found myself rocking with tears for all the birds, dogs, fish and other creatures who have hearsed their way through my various households over the years.

Pet bereavement is often a child's first experience of death, and it introduces an element of confusion and sense of unfairness the child's protected world has not yet encountered.

Take Horace. He was my goldfish. My brother and I had been taken to the fair and somehow managed to persuade my father to win fish rather than coconuts. My brother called his fish Fred, and we carried the prizes back to the pub owned by my grandparents and made plans for an aquarium.

Unfortunately, Horace's bag burst, and he spent the first minutes in his new home struggling for life on the sticky Guinness patches of the pub floor. He managed to survive and even outlive Fred, who, if the truth be told, died of an oxygen overdose when my mother tried to revive him by placing eight oxygen tablets in his bowl. Horace passed on shortly afterwards, probably of grief at losing his soul-mate, and it felt like the most terrible moment of my life. I was nine years old and inconsolable.

After this, my family protected me from the horrors of animal death. When George our budgerigar died, my mother told me he had flown to a hot country because he was sick. I thought it was a pretty rash thing to do - wouldn't it have been more sensible to go to bed with a couple of aspirin? - but accepted the explanation.

The next trauma came when I went to see Ring of Bright Water and had hysterics when Mij the otter was sliced in two by an axe. My mother told me it was Mij's cousin who had died. Somehow the idea of Mij's cousin suffering a terrible and painful end wasn't as traumatic as the thought of a split Mij. I was quite happy until the following day at school, when Christine Wyman told me that it was Mij who had been killed.

My mother recently sent me the book and, sure enough, there it is on page 149: "the instrument of its death", "the body of the beast", "the head, which was all bashed in". I'm glad my mother protected me. If ever I meet Christine Wyman's children, I'm going to tell them that Ninja turtles are really people dressed up, that Father Christmas doesn't exist, and that their mother flushes their dead fish down the toilet.

There was more trauma to come. We had a toy poodle called Emma, who was the softest, sweetest brown creature in the world. She survived being run over, but met a premature end at the hands of carbon monoxide poisoning. Our chimney flue, which hadn't been cleaned, released the poisonous gases and that was that. Mind you, my parents had been wondering why my brother had been sleeping rather a lot, so better the dog than him, they reasoned.

Emma was replaced by Sally the chihuahua and Tara the poodle. They both lasted a long time. Sally was blind and incontinent at the end of her life. "Sally! What are you doing behind the sofa!" my father would call. Poor old Sally didn't know she was behind the sofa because she couldn't see the damned thing, but she would wet herself with terror at the accusation. Then, when she was dragged out from behind the sofa, she would be told off for having gone behind it with the sole intention of weeing.

At the end of their lives, Sally and Tara had two eyes, one womb, six working legs, one tail, two working ears and no working bladder between them, yet we held on until the very last moment before plucking up the courage to take Sally to the vet, where she was put to sleep. Given that this was the state in which she had spent most of her life, this was probably less of a bad deal to her than it was to Tara, who ultimately suffered the same fate. When Sally had gone, Tara genuinely seemed to lose the will to live and deteriorated fast.

These were the pets who travelled with me from childhood to adulthood, and the grief I feel for them today is no less than that I felt for Horace, Mij and Emma in the days when the Grim Reaper first appeared on the horizon.

As we encounter more human death, in our own lives and around the world, animal death looks unimportant by comparison. There is no one to protect us from it because everyone assumes that we can and do accept it as part of living.

But really, I still want my mother to phone me up and tell me that the vet sent Sally on vacation, that Tara met a mate and boarded a ferry to France, and that Bambi's mother was resurrected on the third day.

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