As pet owners, one of the worst situations we can imagine is the loss of a cherished pet companion and the ensuing grief and sadness we would feel. But what we may not consider is the impact of that loss on other household pets.
Certainly, the topic of pet grief is not new. From the heartbreaking story of the German shepherd who laid down in front of his fallen soldier owner’s casket to the folklore of Greyfriars Bobby, most of us accept that pets experience loss.
Still, there is some debate as to the complexity of this process in animals and whether or not they actually grieve.
Why and How Pets Experience Loss
Once we viewed animals in a Descartian way—as animated objects, incapable of complex emotions. However, we’ve since moved beyond this antiquated view thanks to the research of countless biologists and animal behaviorists. Even Darwin proposed “…there is continuity between the emotional lives of humans and those of other animals, and that the differences among many animals are in degree rather than in kind.”
Grieving elephants have been well documented by writers like Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson in his groundbreaking book When Elephants Weep. Jane Goodall’s observations of Flint, a young chimpanzee whose behavior mirrored that of deep grief when his mother died, also confirms that grief in animals (or some form thereof) is a very real concept.
Among dogs and cats, myriad emotions such as joy, jealousy, anger, and grief have also been well-documented. Just as in humans, it’s assumed that most mammals have the capacity to feel emotions derived from the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. So the question is, to what degree do pets experience loss?
Signs Your Pet May be Grieving:
The following are common indicators of grief/loss among animals:
- Loss of appetite/weight loss
- Disinterest in usual routine, such as walks to the park or play
- Sudden clinginess
Oftentimes, pet grief resembles separation anxiety, which can result in challenging behaviors, such as increased accidents, howling or barking, chewing, scratching at doors or windows, etc. These behaviors can also include disorientation, confusion, or “seeking out” the deceased pet or family member.
Of course, the severity of grief depends on the species (e.g., cats grieve but it’s more commonly witnessed in pack-oriented dogs) and the individual animal. For instance, one pet in the home may show signs of distress after a loss while another can seem minimally impacted or unaffected.
How owners and other family members behave around the surviving pet also influences how pets experience loss. This is because most animals are acutely attuned to our emotions and will mirror any upset or stress we feel.
Supporting a Pet Who is Grieving
Once you’ve determined that your pet is suffering from a loss, there are some ways you can help ease this pain:
- Maintain your normal routine as much as possible (daily walks, mealtimes, etc.).
- Do not leave your pet alone during the first few weeks after a loss. Enlist the help of other family members or friends or consider the services of a regular pet sitter your pet knows and trusts.
- New interactive games and toys, as well as treats, can act as positive distractions.
- Avoid running out and adopting another pet right away, as this can create more behavioral challenges in the grieving pet.
Also remember to take care of yourself, and understand that, with time, both you and your pet will begin to heal. If we can help in any way or if your pet is displaying signs of depression, please contact us immediately.