Jan. 13, 2020
By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Grief is a natural response when a family member or friend dies. We know this for ourselves, but is the same true for our pets? The answer is “yes.” Pets can grieve, but just like us, each responds in his or her own way. The behaviors that you might observe vary based on how close the relationship between the individuals was and the pet’s temperament. But regardless of how grief is displayed, pet parents can do a lot to help. Here are five tips for helping pets deal with their grief.
Think of all the ways that you’ve seen people deal with loss. Some want to be left alone while others crave company. Some cry inconsolably while others are stoic. All of these reactions can be normal.
A recent study showed just how varied pets’ reactions to loss can be. Researchers in New Zealand and Australia surveyed pet owners regarding how their surviving pets reacted to the loss of an animal companion. The research involved 159 dogs and 152 cats. Take a look at this table that reveals some of the study’s more fascinating findings.
Percentage of Dogs Involved
Percentage of Cats Involved
More demanding of attention
Being clingy or needy
Seeking less affection from owners
Seeking out the deceased’s favorite spot
Increased duration sleep
Decreased amount eaten
Increased frequency of vocalizations
Increased volume of vocalizations
Other behavioral changes that were observed included avoidance of regular sleeping locations, aggression toward people and other animals, and changes in elimination behaviors (e.g., litter box use).
When dealing with a grief, owners should respect what the pet is trying to communicate. For example, if a pet seeks out more attention, give it to her, but don’t force yourself on a pet who wants to spend some quiet time alone in her friend’s favorite spot.
That said, trying to encourage a grieving and withdrawn pet to engage in some favorite activities is a good idea, just respect an answer of “not right now” if that’s what you get. Try taking your dog out for a walk around the neighborhood or break out your cat’s laser pointer. If your pet usually enjoys spending time with particular human or animal friends, invite them over for a visit. Food treats can also be used to encourage grieving pets to get involved with family activities once again.
On the other hand, if your pet’s grief is causing him to act in ways that are problematical (howling, for example), make sure that your attempts to console him aren’t inadvertently reinforcing that behavior. If possible, ignore the behavior while it is occurring. Only give your pet attention, treats, or anything else that he might be seeking when he is acting in the way that you want him to. While it may seem cruel to ignore a pet who is suffering, remember that these behaviors will pass with time, unless your pet learns that they are the way to get what he wants.
Be careful when it comes to attention-seeking behavior. As long as your pet is not being overly-demanding and doesn’t react poorly when you stop giving attention, it’s fine to respond to a gentle head on your knee or leap into your lap with affection. But if your pet is becoming too insistent, make sure you are the one to initiate your cuddle sessions, not the other way around.
Some pets will go through the grieving process quickly or not appear to grieve at all, while others may seem to get stuck. The study mentioned above found that for a typical pet, grieving behaviors lasted for less than six months, but this is still longer than many owners might suspect. In general, pets who are making their way through their grief in a healthy manner improve gradually as time goes on. The cat who didn’t want to play at all one week will bat around the catnip mouse for a few minutes the next, or the dog who would only eat treats for a few days starts nibbling at his regular food again.
Pets who stop improving, take a step backward, or develop symptoms like persistent loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea that are typically associated with physical illness should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Sometimes the stress caused by the loss of a companion can bring about serious health issues that need to be addressed. On the other hand, if your veterinarian gives your pet a clean bill of health, he or she may be able to prescribe medications or recommend other forms of treatment that will improve your pet’s outlook on life.
In conclusion, pets grieve the loss of a beloved family member in much the same way as we do and have many of the same needs during this difficult time. While it can be difficult to focus on your pet’s grief when you are in mourning yourself, doing so has a way of making everyone feel better in the end.