Experts say that pets grieve after the death of another family pet, and helping them through the transition proves healing for everyone
Flickr photo by Anders.Bachmann
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, "...it 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
- 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.
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.
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.
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 VeterinaryPartner.com.