Anyone who has ever looked into their pet’s eyes at a moment of sadness, worry or fear has no doubt that our pets are capable of experiencing empathy. You need only one quick glimpse of dog who has his owner’s sole attention while playing a game of fetch to know that dogs are capable of joy. It should be no surprise, then, that pets can feel grief at the loss of a loved one just as we do.
Grief has been observed in many wild species following the death of a mate, offspring or pack-mate. Chimpanzees and gorillas (our fellow primates) have visibly grieved the loss of a companion or child by crying out, rejecting food and refusing to leave their dead companion’s side. Similar behaviors have been seen in elephants, who appear to shed tears as they caress the bones of lost friends in elephant graveyards. Whether primate or pachyderm, animal grief is real.
If you need proof of companion animal grief, you need only look to Hawkeye, the faithful Labrador Retriever who lost his beloved owner, Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson. If you have seen the image of Hawkeye lying at his owner’s casket through the night, I’m sure that, like me, you shed a few tears in response to Hawkeye’s grief.
It is clear that pets grieve, whether they lose a human companion or a fellow pet companion. But just as with any other personality trait, different pets will grieve in different ways. The death of a family member – whether human or animal – causes stress to both you and your pet, and seeing your pet grieve can cause extra heartbreak on top of the grief you already feel having lost a companion yourself. Try to remember that the grief will eventually lessen for you both as you struggle to get through your days together.
Your pet’s loss is stressful to him. Not only has his environment changed in the loss of a favorite companion, but the whole family dynamic has shifted. He may have lost a pack leader, and this will likely make him feel uneasy on top of his grief.
Here are a few tips to help your pet get through his mourning period:
- Keep the schedule as normal as possible. It will lessen stress if your pet knows what to expect for the day. This includes feeding times as well as the times when your pet will be alone. If the amount of time the pet spends alone will change drastically, consider doggy day care or some other form of companionship during the day to give your pet a sense of security during this difficult time.
- Emerge as a new pack leader. Dogs need rules and boundaries, and it is up to you to enforce these rules to allow your dog to feel confident. Now is the time to brush up on your simple commands and practice training with your pet each day.
- Allow for extra bonding time between you and your pet. Take your dog with you on errands, or make time for extra walks. Spend a few minutes at the end of each day with your cat (if he’ll allow it), grooming or petting him. These trips and petting sessions will take your pet’s mind off of his grief and will allow the bond between the two of you to strengthen.
- If your pet has lost an animal companion, resist the urge to go out and try to find a new dog or cat to replace the lost pet. Just like us, our pets need time to get over their grief.
- Support your pet, both emotionally and physically. Address medical concerns like changes in appetite or sleep patterns with your veterinarian. While it is not uncommon for our pets to go off of food in response to their grief, it is not healthy for that to continue, especially in cats. If you become concerned about your pet’s physical health, bring it up with your veterinarian immediately.
- Nip behavior problems in the bud. Bad behaviors that go unchecked can easily become the new normal.
If your pet is grieving, it is likely that you are, too. Perhaps the two of you will end up helping each other find your way out of grief and into a new stage of your lives together.