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Pets grieving for pets


Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement celebrates 25 years as a not-for-profit organization

Pets Grieving for Pets

As part of the APLB’s celebrating 25 years as a not-for-profit organization, we’re republishing some of the early writings of our founder, Dr Wallace Sife. This article on pets grieving for other animal family members first appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of our newsletter. We acknowledge that thinking and research on this topic may have changed since it was first published.

Pets Bereaving Pets by Wallace Sife, Ph.D.

We read that wolves, elephants and the higher primates bereave for their dead kin. So why should it be so surprising that dogs and cats also exhibit this awareness and emotion? It seems we are just learning how complex our dear pets are. In our Email and chat room we constantly receive inquiries by grieving pet owners who ask about surviving animals who may be showing signs of mourning, but they can’t be sure. In the past few years this behavior has become increasingly observed and appreciated. Just four years ago the ASPCA did a brief study on this, and presented the results at an international convention in Geneva. But because no information had been directly offered to pet owners, we feel it is important to introduce it here.

It has long been known that dogs and cats living for extended times in the same households form unique bonds to each other. We also now realize that sometimes when one pet dies, a surviving one will go into mourning. There are a few positive healing responses we can offer them, in helping to get over this. But first we have to be able to recognize the symptoms.

As with humans, there is a wide variation in behavior after a death in the family. Eating or sleeping habits are usually the most obvious ones to become affected. Usually, appetite is sharply diminished – but in some cases it could even increase noticeably. Often, bereaving pets sleep more than before, but again, there are those who react just the opposite way. In some rare situations a very upset pet will fast and starve itself. Many examples are reported in which they temporarily lose all pleasure and interest in life. They can cause their own death if this is not treated. Our companion animals are deep-feeling and loving souls, and are very much like their devoted human companions in this.

It is estimated that about one out of three dogs in bereavement will vocalize their grief, and one out of two cats will do this, as well. And in contrast, one out of three dogs were quieter than usual, with one out of five cats, also displaying these new characteristics. But these are only statistics on a page. Rather than trying to recognize any specific symptoms, the pet owner should look for changes in behavior.

Some surviving pets become more confident and loving, as their new roles in the household transform and they become more alpha. These individuals finally discover their true personalities after the dominant pet is gone. Now the whole house is their territory. And the attention of the loving owner is less diluted. They often hope that it is their turn to become the favorite. In general, most pets in bereavement will recover on their own, but this can take up to six months, in some cases. Of course, we should help them as much as possible. Some of the best things that can be done to help these mourners at this critical time are quite simple, but very effective.

First, as a preventative measure – if it is possible – plan ahead to allow all the surviving animals to view and sniff the deceased’s body. By doing this their innate animal wisdom will allow them to find rapid closure. We can learn from this, as well.

If a surviving pet is sad or obviously in mourning, give it lots of extra TLC. Try to get it to play with you or new and interesting toys. Although we are probably experiencing deep bereavement ourselves, we owe them this special love and care. Keep in mind that the remaining pet may also react to our tears, and that can cause a change in behavior, in itself.

Remove all items and toys that have the scent of the deceased pet. If you find this personally upsetting, wrap some and store them where they can not be detected by the survivors. At this time it can actually help in your own healing if you gave away or discarded most of them. The real reminders are in your heart, and you shouldn’t have to depend on mementos. Of course, a few pictures will not upset the surviving pets.

Dogs will usually benefit if walked more frequently and brought into contact with several other dogs they like. Try to arrange “play dates”. They are much more socially dependent than cats, and this can be a fine distraction, allowing them to recover their emotional balance.

The addition of occasional food “treats” may also help distract some pets from their melancholy. At this time they also need extra supportiveness – and to be talked to and fondled more readily. But on rare occasions, one may become so despondent as to turn away from normal pleasures and loving care, and want to be alone. Humans are not the only species to exhibit unusual behavior. You may need to ask for outside advice on how to deal with an extreme case of this.

It is important to be sensitive to the needs of the survivor, and not introduce a new animal until pet and owner are both ready for this. As with humans in bereavement, they also have to be prepared for such a change. Sometimes a new addition can be a wonderful thing, but there are conditions under which this can be destructive. Again, their individual personalities can be just as complicated and in need as ours.

Our companion animals have many complicated emotions, and can experience bereavement as grievously as we do. Fortunately, we can almost always help them recover. But if problems persist it is important to consult with friends or even a professional pet behaviorist. As we know all too well, grief and mourning for a loved one can be a very distressing experience, and our dependent pets may well need us all the more at this time.

During bereavement it is always good to express our own heartache with someone else who understands and loves us. This intimate (and safe) communication offers a significant healing experience for both human and pet. In sharing this common bond it becomes the start of the new cycle for everyone. Life can be so surprising. In just a short time this precious experience will become a treasured memory, as well.

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