Helping Your Grieving Pet

When a beloved family member dies, the survivors mourn the loss. Individual pets and people experience and express their grief differently. While dogs and cats may not fully grasp the significance of death, many pets exhibit behavioral patterns that suggest that they have been affected by the loss.

Why do pets grieve?

Pets develop relationships. They bond with human and non-human family members alike, and they depend on their social group for their safety and well-being. When a member of the family is lost, the group dynamic changes. If the pet that died was a leader, the remaining pet may experience vulnerability. If the pet that died was a good friend, the remaining pet may be distressed at the loss of companionship and comfort.

Furthermore, most dogs and cats are exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of their social companions. As household people grieve and adjust to their own loss, dogs and cats can sense their sadness and may experience distress or anxiety. Grieving people often change their daily routine, which in turn creates unpredictability for the remaining pet. This lack of predictability can also contribute to distress.

How can I recognize if my pet is experiencing grief?

Our pets don’t verbalize their thoughts, so how do we know they are grieving? We observe their behavior changes. A study conducted by the ASPCA showed that over 60% of pets experience four or more behavioral changes after losing a companion.

Here are signs that your pet may be grieving:

Change in appetite. According to a study in New Zealand, about 30% of pets have decreased appetite after losing a companion. For many dogs and some cats, eating is a social experience and they do not eat well without companionship.

Change in vocalization. Cats and dogs may bark, meow, or howl more than usual. Watch for an increase in plaintive vocalizations - sad sounds that may be directed toward you or may occur in locations that the deceased pet favored.  On the other hand, if your dog or cat is uncharacteristically quiet, that may also be a sign of emotional depression.

Change in habits. Grieving pets may sleep more than usual. In a New Zealand study, about 30% of grieving dogs and 20% of cats napped more. Other pets pace restlessly. Your pet may even hide or rest in unusual locations.

Change in social interactions. The New Zealand study found that about 60% of dogs and cats clung more to humans after the loss of a companion pet. They may experience distress when left home alone. Other pets become withdrawn and refrain from engaging in previously enjoyed social interactions with the remaining household people and pets.

Change in grooming or bathroom habits. If your normally fastidious pet soils the house or misses the litter box, this should raise a red flag. If your cat or dog doesn’t groom himself, take note. He could be grieving.

Seeking behavior. Approximately 60% of pets repeatedly look for lost companions in their normal napping spots. If your pet constantly returns to his deceased friend’s favorite sleeping or resting place, he may be experiencing grief.

How can I help my grieving pet?

As a valued member of your pet’s social group, you can provide emotional support to help your pet recover from his loss.

Provide closure. Pets have a limited understanding of death as finality. Some behaviorists think that a dog’s grief response may be reduced by having an opportunity to investigate the deceased. It could be helpful to let your pet see the body of his deceased friend. He may not totally grasp the situation, but one last visit may help him understand that his pal is gone.

Express your grief privately. It’s instinctive to lean on your pet for comfort as you process your own grief, but try not to become too emotional in front of your pet. Your pet is sensitive to your feelings and your grief may add to his distress. It’s fine to allow your pet to snuggle, but try to be aware of his response to your emotions. Talk to your pet in an upbeat voice even when you are sad.

Allow time for adjustment. With the loss of a family member, the household dynamic will be temporarily unstable. In multi-pet households, if there was a clear social hierarchy, the remaining pets may try to create a new social structure. Be alert for signs of aggression and seek professional help immediately if you notice overt threats or other signs of conflict. If your remaining pet is a sole survivor, she may be lonesome, but in most cases, it is not advisable to immediately adopt a new pet. Your pet may not be ready for a brand-new relationship. This is particularly true for cats. Cats that have been very attached to a special companion do not readily accept a new “stranger” into their home. If you feel that your pet would benefit from having a companion, consult with a behavior specialist who can help you weigh the pros and cons and can facilitate the introduction.

Spend quality time with your pet. Engage in interactions that you and your pet have always enjoyed. Provide opportunities for reward-based training and play. Bring your dog on daily walks, and if your cat enjoys being brushed, schedule regular brushing sessions. If your pet is pacing or vocalizing excessively, try helping him settle in a bed by feeding him some tiny treats.

Provide enrichment. Introduce new toys. Food-filled toys can serve as a favored distraction. If your dog enjoys walks, explore new trails. Give your cat some boxes to explore or add a window perch to provide a new view.

Provide a consistent routine. For most pets, predictability is positive. Keep daily schedules as consistent as possible despite the disruption. Regularly scheduled mealtime, exercise time, play time, and bedtime will help your pet feel more secure.

Seek professional help. If your pet is not eating well, call your veterinarian – there could be a physical cause. Cats and small dogs cannot afford to miss meals and, in some cases, medication may stimulate their appetite and avoid a major health problem. Healthy pets with persistent signs of emotional depression or anxiety should be evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist who can provide medical and behavioral treatment to help your pet through her grief.

You are not alone.

Losing a pet is difficult for the entire household. Grieving yourself while watching your surviving pet grieve can feel unbearable. If you are overwhelmed, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a grief counselor.