When Other Pets Grieve
When we lose a beloved animal, they can leave behind a hole in our lives that is felt by all members of the family, not just the human ones. Sometimes this loss is experienced as simply confusion or disorientation over the changes in their life; sometimes it is sympathetic distress over the grief and distress coming from the humans in the home; and sometimes, it seems, it is a personal grief, a deep sadness and depression over the loss of the individual. The later happens most often when there is an exceptionally strong bond between animals, as in siblings or mother/daughter relationships, but it can be seen in animals who are unrelated. It can look a lot like grief in humans. They can mope, sleep a lot, lose their appetite, and lose interest in toys and play. Sometimes they frequent places the deceased animal liked to sleep or rest.
Allowing other pets to be present in the home at the time of death, whether through natural death or home euthanasia, may make it easier for them to understand the loss. If a home euthanasia wasn't possible, consider bringing a blanket or cloth with the deceased pet's smell on it home for your remaining pets to smell. Dogs and cats have exquisite olfactory systems and can detect the differences between living and deceased individuals easily through scents.
One thing to keep in mind: many of our grieving companion animals are also older, and the signs of grief can look a lot like illness or diseases common in older animals. So make sure you get your pet examined by a veterinarian if they are showing any of the signs of grief.
You can support and comfort your grieving animal in a number of ways:
1. Maintain a routine as much as possible. Some of the behavioral changes we see after a loss are likely due to confusion and disorientation over the change. Routine and familiarity helps the pet find their way and feel comfortable again.
2. Try to take regular walks, and engage in play and outings. Getting out of the home can distract them momentarily from their loss, and exercise also releases endorphins and improves mood.
3. Allow them to cuddle, sit, or sleep with you. They need companionship and friendship just like we do.
4. Give them time to work out their new place or role in the family.
5. Consider leaving bedding, blankets, or toys of the deceased pet in one or two locations in the home. Some pets seem to find comfort in visiting these places and smelling their toys and bedding. Watch closely to see if they are actually avoiding these areas, in which case putting the old belongings away may make them more comfortable.
6. Consider adding pheromones to your home for a few months. Adaptil or Feliway help to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs and cats. Sometimes supplements such as Zylkene, Composure, Solliquin, or Anxitane may be helpful in calming their nervous systems without sedating them. These products contain different combinations of amino acids, L-theanine, and/or botanical oils shown to reduce fear and anxiety in animals. Talk to your veterinarian about trying one of these supplements if you think your pet would benefit.
It may be tempting to get another animal, and this can be a wonderful way to bring fresh joy and energy into the home. But proceed with caution-an older grieving animal may not be ready for a rambunctious puppy or kitten, or the stress of a new addition. Consider fostering an animal or spending time socializing with other pets to gauge your pet's readiness for a new family member.
When we experience a loss in the family, it takes to adjust. Be patient and give your other pets the same time and compassion you would give yourself. Don't overlook signs like loss of appetite, lethargy, depression as just sadness-make sure you have ruled out any medical reasons for these signs first. Even after a very painful loss, we can find new balance and joy in our life.