Good grief: Helping your pet through the loss of a friend

July 25, 2018

When we adopt animals, they quickly become members of the family—forging special bonds with their human and fellow pet companions. Most days, this brings happiness to all involved. However, when there is a death in the household, dogs and cats (and rabbits, horses, and birds) are not only sensitive to the grief of those left behind; their own sorrow often is palpable.

“Pets can grieve to varying degrees when they lose a human or animal companion,” Kate Mornement, an Australian animal behaviorist and consultant, told The Huffington Post this month. “Our understanding of this used to be anecdotal, but now we have scientific evidence of grief in both cats and dogs.”

Of course, as the HuffPost reported on July 20, not all pets grieve—and the ways in which they mourn vary from individual to individual. Still, there are some common signs of grief. In many cases, they behave the way grieving humans do, according to Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of the book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do (University of Chicago Press).

“In general, an individual might stop eating or eat less, stop playing, mope around looking for their friend ― walking slowly, head low, tail down, for example ― and simply seem distracted and not interested in doing much,” Bekoff says. “One of the dogs with whom I shared my home went from being a hyper-playful social butterfly and nonstop eater to a laid back and lethargic dog who stopped eating for two days after his dog friend died.”

Much the same is true for cats. A survey fielded in 1996 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)—called the Companion Animal Mourning Project—established that:

  • 46% of cats experienced decreased appetite following the loss of a feline companion;
  • Many cats slept more than usual, while some suffered from insomnia;
  • Some cats changed the area of the house where they slept;
  • About 70% of cats exhibited changes vocal patterns (some meowed more, while others were quieter);
  • Surviving cats often were more affectionate with their owners and became clingy.

The study, which assessed many different behavior patterns, concluded that 65% of cats experienced four or more behavioral changes after the loss of a family pet which indicated grief.

 “They can also get ill,” Mornement warned.”Maybe all the tension will well up in their bladder, and they’ll start not using the litter box,” she added. “A lot of separation anxiety can really build up so that a behavioral or emotional issue can trigger a medical problem. Or if they already had an existing condition, that could intensify.”

Cat therapist Carole Wilbourn told HuffPost of grieving felines, “They can withdraw, they can take it out on a companion cat, or they can be aggressive with their caregiver.”

Wilbourn said she tells cat owners to focus on nurturing themselves through the loss and work to create a healing and happy atmosphere for their pets. “Frequently, a cat will mirror their person’s feelings and actions. You don’t have to necessarily pretend you aren’t feeling sad, but also do things to make yourself feel better, like play music, take a bubble bath, do yoga or meditate,” she suggested.

Wilbourn also recommended telling the cat that everything is going to be OK. “I’m not saying the cat understands words, but they pick up the body language and tone of voice,” she said.

Much of pet grief may be connected to a loss of routine rather than particularly deep-seated emotions. Wilbourn recommends taking a dog on a completely different route from the path it’s used to, and bringing it back to breakfast in a different part of the house.

“That way, the routine is different,” she said. “The space the other animal or person holds in the dog’s heart is oriented around a routine. So when you change the routine, they’re going to feel the absence of that dog or that person less. It’s not going to erase it, but they’re going to feel it less.”

If your dog lost a fellow dog companion, she also recommended getting a new dog bed so that the smells aren’t there as a reminder. Another important thing is to let your pet be with the dead animal, if possible.

“People can help their pets through the grieving process by being there for them and spending time with them,” said Mornement. “The passage of time will help to ease grief. However, engaging in activities your pet enjoys, such as walking or playing can also help. Losing a much-loved companion can be a big adjustment, and showing some extra care and compassion towards a grieving pet will help pets transition to life without their companion.”

Bekoff said, “Love them, comfort them, calm them down, make them feel safe and secure and let them know you care for them and love them and are there to support them.”

Research contact: https://www.aspcapro.org/research

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