Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is hard. Grieving is hard. When pets lose a companion pet, they grieve too. Though dogs and cats don’t fully comprehend dying and grieving, there’s no question they grieve. And just like humans, our pets process grief in their own way. When a beloved pet, who is also a companion to other pets dies, it is important to be aware of the impact their loss can have on those who remain.
This fact was made all too clear for my family only recently. Almost eight years ago, we brought home two Great Pyrenees puppies. We named them Lola and Bear. Brother and sister never more than six feet apart their entire lives. Wildly different in personality yet devoted to each other, Bear and Lola were not only wonderful companions to us, they were best buddies to one another. Sadly, Bear developed an aggressive cancer that all too quickly forced us to make the hard decision for compassionate euthanasia.
Throughout his life, Bear hated needles but on the evening we said goodbye to our Prince, he laid on his bed docilely while my husband administered the euthanasia protocol. Stronger than his family, Bear was telling us it was time. Lola, of course, was there too. Initially she was wagging her tail trying to encourage Bear to get up and play. But then suddenly her demeanor changed. As Bear’s sedative took effect, Lola stood solemnly next to Bear offering him one last kiss.
Since Bear’s death, Lola is much more subdued. Usually loud and jolly, she is now quiet and pensive. There is no question she is grieving the brother she adored and the most important member of her pack.
Because our pet’s environment is mostly centered around the home, the family relationships they share are hugely important. They view family members including other pets as part of their pack. Their pack is important providing them with a sense of safety and comfort. When a member of the pack dies, the surviving members lose their equilibrium. Stability of the pack is disrupted. The natural response to this disruption is grief.
Pets respond to the loss of a pack member much like we do. They may not completely grasp the separation as permanent, nonetheless they feel a sense of loss. How do we know? Their behavior tells us. In 1996, the ASPCA conducted a study titled Companion Animal Mourning Project. The results showed more than 50% of dogs and cats demonstrated at least 4 behavioral changes after losing an animal companion. These behavioral changes are similar to those suffered by people who are in mourning. The study found many behavioral changes which included eating less, sleeping disruption, sluggishness, increased vocalizing, avoiding play or contact with others, clinging more, and seeming bewildered or puzzled.
When mourning, a cat’s behavior can change in several ways. The ASPCA study found 65% of cats experienced 4 or more behavioral changes. Cats become depressed. Their appetites decrease. They play less and sleep more. Their movements become slower. They hide under the bed to be alone. Separation anxiety can build up in cats causing existing emotional or behavioral issues to become a medical problem. Since many of these changes could also indicate illness, scheduling your pet for an exam by a veterinarian to rule out physical health ailments is appropriate.
Just like humans, the way pets grieve vary from one individual to another. Though the impact of grief in your pet will lessen over time, there are several things you can to do to help your pet through it. If your pet isn’t eating normally, make their food more palatable. Spend more time with your grieving pet. Take her on a walk, brush her coat or play her favorite game. Try changing your pet’s normal routine. Doing so may help him feel the absence of a companion pet less. If your pet that died had a favorite toy or blanket, consider keeping it around for awhile. This may help other pets understand he or she is not returning.
Remember to pay attention to your own grief. Our pets are sentient beings. They sense when their humans are sad. Giving more time to your pet will be soothing and healing for you both. Showing your pet more love, giving her more comfort and being more calm will make both of you feel safer and more secure. It will also help ease the transition to life without the companion pet. Do not be quick to replace a pet who has died. A new pet may be viewed as an intruder by your grieving pet. This can create an entirely new set of hurdles. Give yourself and your other pets time to grieve and heal.