The death of a companion animal is recognised as a significant life event for owners. It causes emotional pain, loss of role, altered routine and can lead to loneliness and even affect our health. Fortunately, this is an area that is becoming better understood, with resources available to validate and support us as we grieve. Less understood, however, is how our pets grieve when they lose an animal companion. Amidst our own sadness, this is something we should be aware of so we can help our surviving pets through their own grieving.
How animals deal with grief
There is no doubt that animals grieve, but more research is needed about how they grieve. In general, the more social the species, the more they express grief through their behaviour. These expressions are also more intense when the animals have shared a close bond. And as with humans, animal grief is highly individual in terms of reactions, even within the same species. Owners often ask whether animals grieve the loss of another pet in the household and the answer is that they may, and it's up to us to be aware of the signs - animals can only tell us how they feel through their behaviour.
A 2016 research study surveyed 279 Australian and New Zealand pet owners after the death of a pet in the home. Owners were asked to observe their other dogs and cats for any behavioural changes and the results are fascinating. The most common changes listed below occurred regardless of whether the remaining pets had lost a companion dog or cat:
- An increase in affectionate behaviour in dogs (74%) and cats (78%) such as asking for more affection or becoming more attached to owners, although a minority showed less affection. These changes lasted from 2 to 6 months.
- Increased or unusual territorial behaviour in dogs and cats (60% and 63%) that included seeking out the deceased pet’s favourite spot. These changes lasted for 2 months or less.
- Altered sleep patterns in dogs (42%), with most sleeping for longer. These changes lasted from 2 to 6 months.
- Eating behaviour in dogs, such as the amount of food eaten (42%) and how quickly they ate (34%), with most eating less and more slowly. These changes lasted 2 months or less and were more likely to occur when the dogs had lost a companion dog, rather than cat.
- Vocalisation in cats was found to increase by 46%, with 43% of cats vocalising more often and 32% vocalising more loudly. These changes lasted for 2 to 6 months.
How to identify a grieving pet
Based on the study above and previous findings, we know that many dogs and cats will show overt signs of grief, although some pets show no changes or possibly even positive changes, such as in households with animals who did not form any particular bond with the deceased pet. The key point is that unless we are alert to behavioural changes that may occur, we risk overlooking the impact of grief on our pets. This grief is no doubt complex and is a reaction to the loss of their animal companion, but also to the impact on their human family and to changes in routines.
If you have lost a pet, these are some signs to look out for in your other dogs and cats:
- Changes in affection seeking
- Seeking out the favourite spots of the deceased pet
- Changes to sleeping patterns or location
- Changes in eating patterns, especially eating less or refusing to eat
- Changes in vocalisation
- Changes to toileting or litter box use
- Signs of separation anxiety towards you or towards the deceased pet (including active ‘searching’ behaviours)
- Loss of interest in play or other normal activities
- Appearing depressed or listless
Tips for helping a pet through their grief
If you notice any changes in your dog or cat’s behaviour following the death of another pet, even if this occurred some months ago, these are some ways you can support them:
- Maintain household routines as much as possible.
- Encourage your pet to engage in their usual activities such as games or walks. Use food rewards if this helps, but accept there will be times they may prefer not to join in.
- Involve them in visits from human or animal friends whose company they enjoy. This helps fill the gap in their social structure at home.
- Provide the attention and affection your pet seeks from you but do this on their terms. If a pet seeks out more attention, give it to her/him, but don’t force yourself on a pet who wants to spend some quiet time alone in their old friend’s favourite spot. Allow grieving animals to initiate this contact as they may find unusually high levels of attention stressful if they have not sought it out.
- Avoid rewarding problematic behaviours such as howling (or other behaviours arising from separation anxiety) with attention. It’s best to either ignore these or redirect your pet’s behaviour.
- You may notice changed relationships between your surviving pets. This is normal due to the disrupted social structure, so allow your pets to work this out themselves and reward desirable behaviours.
You should also be wary of the following, often unhelpful, advice:
- Be wary of well-meaning advice to buy another pet to replace the lost animal companion. This can make matters worse by increasing stress for your remaining animals (and you), particularly if the new pet is not compatible with your remaining animals. A common mistake is to introduce a boisterous puppy or kitten whose energy may be unwelcome while you and your pets are grieving. Like us, pets take time to grieve, and we need to respect this and their individual needs and ways of grieving.
- Another piece of unhelpful advice is to present your pet with the body of the deceased pet. There is no evidence that this practice reduces the behavioural reactions of grief in cats or dogs, who continue to show searching behaviours for a period, even after sniffing the body of their passed companion. While we don’t know what this actually means, it has been interpreted that dogs and cats, like young children, do not understand the permanence of death. Also, some animals may react negatively to unusual smells from the body of the deceased pet.
When to see your veterinarian
It’s always important to check that any behavioural changes in your pet are not due to an underlying medical problem. If your pet shows signs of stress such as excessive grooming, changes in vocalisation, changes in urination (particularly difficulty urinating) or destructive behaviours, you should seek veterinary advice. This also applies if your pet is not eating (which is serious and can be a medical emergency, especially in cats) or has other gastrointestinal symptoms (such as loss of appetite, diarrhoea or vomiting). Behavioural changes and medical conditions can produce the same signs, so it’s always best to be on the safe side. Your veterinarian can also advise you on how to support your pet during their bereavement.
Pets do grieve the loss of animal companions, but like us they vary in their expressions of grief and in how long they take to settle. Some pets may appear to be unaffected, but we still don’t know enough about animal grief, so being aware of even small changes in behaviour can alert us that they need extra care.
If you feel concerned or if your pet shows signs that could suggest an underlying health problem, seek veterinary assistance. Having pet insurance can give you peace of mind knowing you can seek veterinary care for injury or illness without worrying too much about the cost. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards the RSPCA’s work to help animals.
8 Sep 2021