How Your Pet Grieves When She Loses Her Best Buddy

helping grieving pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • When two pets are closely bonded and one of them dies, a recent study confirms what we all know to be true — that surviving pets can and do experience grief and loss
  • Signs of grief in a dog or cat include changes in attention seeking behavior, eating habits and increased vocalizing
  • To comfort a grieving pet, be sure to keep a consistent daily routine, distract her with fun activities and exercise and provide natural grief remedies as needed

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently, researchers in New Zealand and Australia concluded what most observant pet parents already know, which is that many dogs and cats grieve the loss of an animal companion.1

The study was in the form of a survey of 279 owners following the death of a pet. The survey participants had a total of 311 surviving pets, including 159 dogs and 152 cats. The two most common types of changes the owners noticed in their surviving pets involved behaviors around affection and territory:

Behavior Change Dogs Cats

Demanding more attention than usual

35 percent

40 percent

Seeking less affection

10 percent

15 percent

Being clingier/needier

26 percent

22 percent

Seeking out the deceased pet's favorite spot

30 percent

36 percent

Sleeping more

34 percent

20 percent

Eating less

35 percent

21 percent

Eating more slowly

31 percent

12 percent

Increased vocalizing

27 percent

43 percent

Increased volume of vocalizing

19 percent

32 percent

Additional changes the survey respondents reported included pets avoiding their usual sleeping spots, aggressive behavior toward both people and other animals, and changes in elimination behaviors.

There are certain limitations when using owner input to collect this type of data, in particular the potential for anthropomorphism (the tendency to attribute human characteristics to pets), as well as owner bias. There's also the possibility some pets react more to a change in their owner's behavior than their own sense of loss.

10 Tips for Helping Your Surviving Pet Deal With a Loss

Closely monitor your surviving pet

The process of grieving isn't well understood in either humans or companion animals, so it's best to pay special attention to your surviving pet for signs of a distress reaction. Knowing what to expect, and how to react, can be very helpful during a time when everyone in the family is feeling a deep sense of loss.

Keep daily routines as consistent as possible

Pets do best when they know what to expect from one day to the next (this is true for all pets, not just those who are grieving the loss of a buddy). Try to keep mealtimes, exercise, walks, playtime, grooming, bedtime and other daily activities on a consistent schedule.

Keep your pet's diet and mealtimes the same

Your pet may not have much of an appetite in the days following the death of a housemate, but continue to offer him the same food he's used to, at the same time each day. Store what he doesn't eat in the fridge, and offer it to him again at his next regularly scheduled mealtime. Use his hunger to help him get his appetite back by resisting the urge to entice him with treats.

If his appetite doesn't pick up after several days or he's refusing to eat anything at all, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out a health problem. Cats, in particular, should not go without eating for more than a couple of days or they risk developing a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis.

Take care not to inadvertently reward your pet's depression

This is a tough one, because it's only natural to want to comfort your surviving pet. Unfortunately, especially in the case of dogs, giving attention to a pet who is displaying an undesirable behavior can reinforce the behavior. Obviously the last thing you want to do is reward a lack of appetite, anxiety, inactivity or other types of distress reactions in your pet.

Instead, I recommend distracting her with health-giving activities that provide opportunities for positive behavior reinforcement. This can be a walk, short training sessions, a game of fetch or engaging in exercise together.

In multipet households, allow surviving pets to establish their own revised social structure

When there are more than two pets in the family, each member of the group has a specific relationship with every other member of the group. When an animal dies, it creates temporary instability within the group. This can result in conflicts that are disturbing to human family members, but unless one of your pets is becoming a danger to the others, it's best to let them re-establish group dynamics on their own.

If there's a lot of growling, barking, hissing or attacking that isn't subsiding as the group settles into its "new normal," I recommend consulting either your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for guidance on how to resolve difficulties between pets.

Think twice before quickly adding a new pet to the family

Don't automatically assume that acquiring a new pet to "replace" the lost pet is the answer. Dealing with loss and grief is a process that is individual for each of us and each of our animal companions, and while some family members may be ready immediately for a new pet, others may not be. According to the Santa Barbara Independent:

"Although it may be tempting to run out and adopt another dog or cat after your pet passes away, most experts recommend waiting at least three months to give your pet time to adjust.

Adopting a new puppy or kitten may not be the best idea since a hyperactive animal can be physically and emotionally stressful on your grieving pet. Even an older, mellower cat or dog may cause your pet to become territorial. Be sure your pet is fully over his grief before you bring a new pet into your home."2

Take care not to further upset your pet with dramatic emotional displays in his presence

Our pets pick up on our emotions so encourage family members who are dealing with their own grief to be sensitive to your pet's state of mind. It's okay to seek comfort from your surviving pet as long as you don't frighten him or cause him additional distress.

Give it time

It's hard to know how long our pets' memories are, but based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that dogs in particular do remember companions for some time. Your pet's grieving process may take a few days, weeks or even months, but eventually most pets return to their normal lively selves.

If at any point you feel your pet is suffering unnecessarily or there is something more going on than simply missing his friend, I recommend discussing the situation with your veterinarian as a first step.

Consider having your pet present at his companion's death.

This may sound a bit morbid, but some pet guardians feel it helps to have the surviving pet present during or after euthanasia, or allow them to see and smell their friend's body once death has occurred.

Your pet may have no obvious reaction to his friend's body in death (most pets sniff and walk away), but it may help him to comprehend there is no need to search the house for the animal that has passed. I have found this to be very helpful for remaining pack members, especially if they have a very strong bond.

Use natural grief remedies, if needed

There are some excellent homeopathic and Bach flower remedies that can be easily administered to your grieving pet until you see an emotional shift for the better. Some of my favorites include homeopathic Ignatia, Jackson Galaxy's Solutions, the Bach flower remedy Honeysuckle and Green Hope Farm Grief and Loss.

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