Quite possibly one of the worst situations we face as pet owners is the loss of a dear pet companion. For pets, losing an owner can be every bit as devastating. This is particularly true when the animal has been in the care of the guardian for some time and the bond runs deep.
Pet grief is not something often considered. We’re used to identifying grief in humans, but recognizing how pets may experience and express grief can be elusive.
Do Animals Really Grieve?
The emotional lives of animals has been a focus of study for several decades. Overwhelmingly, evidence has shown that animals experience a range of emotions, including grief and loss.
Any owner who has witnessed separation anxiety or a pet’s exuberance when returning home can attest to their ability to miss someone. Although pets may not understand death, there is an understanding of loss when a loved one is no longer present.
The capacity of social animals to feel and express emotion is particularly strong, whether we’re observing canines or elephants. So when a beloved guardian dies, it’s highly likely for a companion animal to experience grief.
Common Signs of Pet Grief
While it may be difficult for grieving loved ones to be fully present for a pet who’s hurting, it’s important to never leave the pet alone. Knowing how the pet may respond to the loss is also important in determining ways to help.
In many dogs, grief can emerge as behaviors associated with separation anxiety, such as:
Howling or vocalization
Looking for the owner
Scratching or clawing at doors and windows
Attempts to escape the home or yard
Destructive behaviors, such as soiling, digging, or chewing
Sometimes, pets develop what we may recognize as depression: appetite loss, increased sleep, lack of interest in playing or interaction, and sullenness.
Cats can also experience symptoms of grief, which often include hiding, vocalization, changes to litter box habits, sleep disturbance, and lack of appetite.
Helping a Pet Cope With Loss
When a pet owner passes, it’s important for the family or loved ones to also consider the emotional and behavioral changes that will occur in the pet. It’s very important that the pet never be left alone, so plans should be made to accommodate daily care, interaction, and reassurance.
If the deceased lived alone, this can be particularly stressful for an animal whose sole companion was the owner. In an ideal situation, the pet may be adopted by a close friend or family member. If this is impossible, work with a rescue that understands and is sympathetic to the challenges that may accompany pet grief.
Additional ways to support a pet experiencing the loss of an owner include:
Acknowledge that grief is a process that requires patience and time for both pets and people.
Show additional affection and and provide extra TLC.
Maintain daily routines, such as walks to the park, mealtimes, etc..
If behavior changes dramatically or the pet does not return to normal daily habits, contact us for a consultation and examination.
Grief, it seems, is universal. Although it’s tough to witness our smallest companions in pain, there are ways to support and address pet grief.