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Posted on Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Experts say that pets grieve after the death of another family pet, and helping them through the transition proves healing for everyone

By Lorrie Shaw


Flickr photo by Anders.Bachmann

This is been a year of change for a lot of people in my social circle who share life with animal companions.

For most of them, they knew that the inevitable was coming: an aged pet gracefully navigating twilight time, with the accompanying bumps along the way.

For others, death came unexpectedly or early.

None of us who share their life with a pet is immune to seeing them through their final transition.

As one client remarked a few days ago when I shared that Bruiser, our 13-year-old Labrador was recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer, " never seems right that our dearest loved ones live for so short of time." The fact that we all grieve the loss of our animal companions is evident.

But there's more to the equation.

In my experience as a caregiver of varying species of animals, I know that the dynamics among the non-human members of a family change noticeably when a pet dies — or throughout the process of navigating a grave illness.

In my own tribe, I'm already seeing subtle changes as time goes by. Though I wouldn't characterize my two dogs as playmates — not so uncommon — Gretchen seems to defer to her ailing canine housemate a bit more. Having a very strong personality, that's not something that she would normally do.

The need to pay close attention to not just the changing needs of Bruiser has been obvious, and I also feel that it's as important to recognize Gretchen's (and our cat, Silver, who has been more of a buddy with Bruiser) — and our own.

I've previously chronicled the experiences of two families with losing their pets, and one thing is clear: it's not easy, nor the same for anyone in the household.

As the end — which at this point seems at a long arm's length away — looms closer, I find myself honing in on how the animals of the family are behaving.

Experts are exploring what many of us already know: some pets grieve the loss of one of their own, and may exhibit their grief in different ways.

The notion isn't so surprising. Pets have a myopic social structure compared to humans. We have our jobs, day-to-day interaction with people outside of the four walls of the house; things that broaden our periphery.

Even with the availability of ways to enhance a dog's social element, like dog parks and play dates and agility outings, their social periphery is far more condensed than ours. The majority of their time is limited to the day-to-day interaction with the other pets in the household. When you consider the amount of time that our pets spend in each other's midst over the course of years — even a mere few months in some cases — when one animal is gone for good, a huge void is left.

That prospect, coupled with being witness to the showing of grief that humans can't help hide when a pet passes, can contribute.

“We know with dogs, they’re so tuned in to our gestures and facial expressions,” says Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at Virginia’s College of William & Mary.

"There’s fascinating research that they’re more attuned than chimpanzees are, and chimpanzees are supposed to be the end-all and be-all of cognition. The problem comes in when some animal grief gets dismissed (on that basis). … The depth of an animal’s response and the length it lasts seem to go beyond responding to people in the home.”

King is author of “How Animals Grieve", published in March of this year.

“I don’t want to say dogs grieve, cats grieve, horses grieve,” adds King, who specializes in animal behavior.

“I say some dogs grieve. Sometimes people contact me and say (they) had two dogs and one died and the other didn’t grieve — why not? It’s animal individuality … the survivor’s relationship to the dead, the survivor’s personality. Sometimes animals recover quickly or do not grieve at all.”

Those who have had a pet experience that sense of loss after an animal friend dies have undoubtedly seen a couple of these responses to the event:

  • Eating less (a marker widely-noted by pet owners in a study done in 1996 by the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)
  • Restlessness or sleeping less
  • Lethargy
  • Increased vocalizing (barking, howling, meowing)
  • Becoming clingy

Some pets even seem a bit disoriented or confused, or avoid contact or play with other family members.

It's important to note that these changes in behavior can also indicate an illness, so it's wise to have an examination by the pet's clinician to be sure that there's not an underlying medical cause.

Helping a pet navigate through the process of grief doesn't differ that much from the way that we find it to be helpful for humans.

Time well-spent

Shore up more one-on-one time with your pet. Walks and outings (especially to new areas or routes), playing games, even brushing them can help. The physical interaction promotes a sense of joy and connectedness, and also releases oxytocin, a hormone that increases a sense of well-being and bonding in mammals.

Happy distraction

Providing new things for your pet to do and learn can help occupy his mind and give him a much-needed boost.

Consider hiding new toys that they'll find interesting in a favorite place — even pets love happy surprises.

Foraging toys, like stuffed Kongs and the like are ideal, especially when you need to be away. You can even make them for cats.

The process of learning something new, like a trick (even for senior dogs), or even more involved asstarting agility classes, can help increase a sense of happiness.

For cats, perhaps bringing in a new cat tree for them to perch on can be helpful. Placing it in an area that can give them an exciting vantage point of the outdoors is a good idea. Click here for more considerations with cats.

Don't forget the power of catnip when it comes to your cat. The joyful effect of catnip on a feline — even though it's for a brief period — can provide a lasting emotional boost.

These kinds of things have a secondary benefit: they help us as well. Nurturing our pets in seemingly more intentional ways is healing and reinforces the bond with them.

Just like humans, quite often the appetite can suffer during a difficult time. For dogs and cats, offering an enhancement, like a little warmed canned food or healthy addition like some cooked, bite-size chicken mixed with their usual food can pique a pet's interest. Try a new, safe fruit or vegetable or serve things in an unexpected way for a feathered friend.

Usually, pets bounce back as time passes. But these ideas can help you be proactive during the transition and assist in gracefully settling into the changing dynamic that most often occurs in a multi-pet household after the loss of an animal member of the family.

Click here for more on pets grieving pets, on

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.



Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 2:22 a.m.

I hate to say it but I totally agree with this. We saw this first hand. When our one dog died due to a freak accident our other one mourned terribly. To the point of where she died one year later. I mean literally she died from heart break we think. I had never seen this before and was like awed. We did adopt almost immediately afterwards thinking to adopt quickly to ease her heart ache actually killed her killed me too. Now that we have learned from these experiences we now have seen jealousy, heart ache and a whole host of emotions I have never seen before in a dog. So I have to say this to everyone. If you have one die? Do not adopt immediately. Give it some time and then introduce. She died as we were adopting another. Now there are two again and we worry how the young one will react. Wow. Nothing new here. I think after being a pet parent for over 20 years I have seen it all. Thanks for bringing this to like. Other pet parents do need to know this.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 3:17 a.m.

Jns131, that's a great point that you make. One of the other things that experts note is that very notion: it might be better to wait to bring another pet into the family. It can take a bit of time for a pet to process and adjust to their old buddy being gone. I know that it's going to be quite a while before I consider welcoming another pet into the household. I'll need time to process everything (all of our pets are 13+) and I want to honor my own needs -- and certainly everyone else's in the house. Thanks for sharing your experience.


Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 7:41 p.m.

I hope that the more we learn about the intelligence and real emotionality animals possess will change the way many people treat their pets/ wildlife. They experience the whole range of emotions that we humans feel, and my heart breaks when I think about the way animals are objectified and thought of as possessions. My sweet Baboo is more like a drooly room mate who never pays his part of the mortgage, and I like it like that.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 3:08 a.m.

Matt1027, it's amazing, the misconceptions that have been held with regard to animals and their capacity to feel physical pain and emotions. Descartes, I believe it was, said that pets didn't feel pain. I'm glad that we know better these days and can do so much to mitigate suffering of all kinds when it comes to our pets. I appreciate your comments. They are certainly heartfelt.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 5:28 p.m.

Thanks for this, Lorrie. Good advice here. And I am sorry to hear about Bruiser's cancer.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 3:04 a.m.

Thanks, Jessica. I appreciate that.


Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

As I have for awhile now, when I have to put down a terminal pet, I bring the deceased animal back home and let my other pets sniff the companion that is gone. They carefully sniff and it's all over. I take the body on to the crematorium and my remaining pets seem calm and at peace with it. I used to just take the dead one away, but saw that the remaining pets looked for and were anxious about the absent one. With letting them see & smell the deceased, they quickly "know" what they need to and move on quicker.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 3:03 a.m.

I agree, dfossil. We're hoping that each of our pets can transition at home (not always possible, if an unexpected situation arises), and have arranged for home euthanasia when/if it's needed. It's a time of transition for everyone in the family, and I think allowing the other pets the opportunity to approach the deceased pet after they've passed is important. Pets need autonomy regardless of the situation. Thanks for sharing your experience. Much appreciated.


Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 2:23 a.m.

Thats interesting because our vet would not let us take her home. They cremated her at their place and we still have her remains with us today. The body of the other one is buried out back. Need to put the other in the ground but just have not as of late.

Jack Gladney

Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 12:54 p.m.

And let us not forget about non-human companions of divorce. They suffer through the same grieving process, even when there is a shared-custody or visitation arrangement. Your feline survivor of divorce may be thinking, "I love daddy more, but I only get to see him every other Saturday. Mommy just doesn't want daddy having the joy of being my human companion. Anyway, she just wants to spend all of her time with her new boyfriend Brad." People really need to consider their pets' emotional welfare when making life decisions based solely on their own self-serving human wants and needs. Or at least get your pets into therapy so they can deal with impact of your decisions.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 2:52 a.m.

Oh yes... that life change is harsh on pets, too. That's a topic in itself, certainly! We need to be mindful of how our choices impact pets. After all, they have no choice in most matters. Thanks for your comment, Jack Gladney.

John of Saline

Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 6:03 p.m.

A relative of mine went through a divorce. When she picks up her son at the former husband's residence, the dog REALLY wants to get out and greet her, but the ex is such a jerk he won't let the dog see her. (That was after he messed up once and the dog vaulted a fence to greet her, madly happy. Apparently that really wasn't something the ex was thrilled with.)

Guinea Pig in a Tophat

Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 12:52 p.m.

My guinea pigs grieve after losing a piggy friend. They don't eat as much and spend more time in their pigloos. Treats help, along with extra attention. We suddenly lost a guinea pig just a couple of weeks ago and his piggy friend, Gruden von Squeakycheeks, was very sad over losing his buddy. We've since adopted another piggy and, happily, this has perked Gruden quite up a bit.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 2:49 a.m.

Oh, no... I'm so sorry to hear about your piggy. :( I've enjoyed seeing Gruden and his housemates on the Pet Photo Friday slideshow. I'm glad that your little guy is feeling happier! Thanks for sharing... No matter that species, animals like connection.


Wed, Aug 28, 2013 : 12:29 p.m.

Very good info, thank you Lorrie.

Lorrie Shaw

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 : 2:46 a.m.

Glad that you found it useful, disponini!