The loss of a family member — human or animal — can have a traumatic impact on the lives of pets too. As with people, dogs and cats grieve the absence of someone they love so it's beneficial to know how to help them.
Furry friends experiencing a significant loss can show signs of confusion, fear or depression. If it's the loss of their owner, you may notice them trying to figure out where that person has gone. If it's another pet who has passed away, your dog or cat may spend more time in their bed, favorite spot, or near doors and windows, often with the hope that their friend is going to return soon.
Heartbreak is Not Exclusive to Humans
A September 2019 METRO news story highlighted this sad truth when a dog owner shared heartbreaking images of her dog regularly returning to the bed they once shared with another canine companion. The dog left the same space for his deceased friend to sleep in night after night, despite him passing away a year before. Tugging on the heart strings of many, it created a discussion around how pets grieve.
Since we associate dogs with pack behavior and think of cats as more solitary, I want to retire these assumptions in relation to how they grieve. I have witnessed members of both species show visible signs of grief following the passing of a furry sibling. For example, when one of my two cats died, the surviving one would sit on the spot in the backyard where the deceased was buried. She also lost her appetite and required medication to restore it.
I think it’s fair to say that as with humans, the closer the loving bond is, the deeper the grief for the bereaved pet. Heartbreak is heartbreak is heartbreak…
How Can You Tell They’re Struggling?
- To begin, trust your intuition and pay close attention. You know your pet's expressions, behaviors and habits, so watch them closely for changes – big and small. The loss of a strong social attachment will likely challenge their ability to cope and function so you’ll see the signs.
- As with people, grief is very individual so each pet will have their own distinctive response to separation from a close relation of any species. You’ll likely see notable variations from day to day as the reality of the loss settles into their awareness.
- Keep in mind that your furry companions are sensitive to and dependent on your patterns as well so they will be responding to your grief signals as well. A significant loss tends to disrupt routines and the resulting unpredictability can further exacerbate the difficult experience for all involved.
- Look for indications of depression and anxiety – agitation and irritability, increased destruction behavior or aggression, loss of interest in playing or cuddles, more or different vocalizations (crying, whining, whimpering, howling, meowing or barking), clinginess or withdrawal, changes in sleep and eating habits.
- Persistent searching, pacing and wandering, especially in places the deceased tended to frequent.
- If your grieving pet already tended to struggle with being alone, this may worsen following the loss. They may be reluctant to let you out of their sight.
What Can You Do to Help Them Cope?
- Again, trust your intuition. Try to attune your responses to each particular pet’s unique character and tendencies.
- Give your pet extra attention and perhaps a new toy or special treats.
- Provide them with an item that still has the scent of their friend that's gone.
- Be especially kind when they seem to be struggling and be sure to reward positive behaviors.
- Recognize that you are having a difficult time too, so be patient and gentle with yourself as you reel from the effects of the loss. Do your best to maintain normal, supportive routines and supplement them with extra care and interventions as suit their needs.
- And finally, be sure to take the surviving pet to the vet if you have any concerns about their grief response to the loss.
Additional Pet Pointers
- It helps the members of the pet’s family and community to plan a ritual that memorializes and celebrates the pet’s life. Create and share experiences that pay tribute to your special bond.
- Sometimes people reflexively respond to the death of a beloved pet by recommending or wanting to “replace” them quickly. Keep in mind, this simply isn’t possible since each pet is unique, so it’s best to avoid this temptation.
- Be patient and postpone making any big decision about whether to bring a new member into your family circle. You all need time to heal so take the transition slowly. Allow yourselves to fully grieve.