Our pets need us to be their advocates and to ensure we are doing all we can to support them, especially when they too are feeling grief. Just like in humans, not all pets will deal with grief the same, and some may not be affected at all.
It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way for your pet to grieve, but in this article we will list some of the more common things you may notice and give some suggestions on how you might be able to support them. You know them best, so your awareness and observation is going to be most helpful in making sure they are supported and dealing with their loss appropriately.
You might notice behavioural changes
Pets can be more demanding, clingy or needy, or on the other hand could seek less affection from you. They may return frequently to the deceased’s favourite spot, or the spot the pet passed away. There may be a period where normal daily activities are noticably different, such as; increased duration of sleep, slower eating, increased frequency/volume of vocalisations, avoidance of regular sleeping locations, aggression toward people/other animals, or changes in elimination behaviours.
Ignore unwanted behaviour and reinforce positive behaviour
Although these changes in behaviour can be normal, it is still important to maintain training standards and not let unwanted behaviour become acceptable out of sympathy. For example: if your pet is scratching at the door as you leave – this behaviour is unwanted, so don’t say anything or comfort them. Instead, give lots of praise and comfort when you return home and any other time, that they are behaving in positive, usual ways.
Don’t rush the process
Some pets may seem to get stuck in their grief, while others will go through the grieving process quickly or appear to not grieve at all. Typically, a grieving pet’s behaviours last for less than six months, but this is often longer than many pet owners may have thought. Generally, pets who are making their way through grief in a healthy manner, do improve gradually as time goes on.
Keep your routine as similar as possible
Routine provides stability and comfort for our pets, so even though it may be sad for you, try to keep the same treat, walk, feeding and bedtime routines.
Expect a change in the social order (if you have more than one surviving pet)
The remaining pets in your household may vie for Alpha status, and you may see more challenges between them such as eating the others food or stealing their treats.
In some instances, when a pet leaves the family you will notice personality changes in the remaining pets, and it’s important to remember that these may not necessarily be unwanted behaviours. With the change in the household dynamic, your pet may find new ways of expressing themselves. You may find it interesting and enjoyable to get to know their new personalities.
Keep your pet busy
This is particularly important when your pet is left alone. Invest in some toys that stimulate their mind, such as snuffle mats or treat hiding toys/kongs.
Here are some wonderful reference videos for some ideas from our very own Dr. Eloise:
Food Toys and Brain Games for Dogs DIY
Food as Play for Cats – DIY Cat Toys
A few things to remember:
Be mindful that your pets grief reaction can be very different to that of their human family members. Your pet’s reaction may be delayed and some may show no grief reaction at all. You may also have a pet who grieves more than his or her human family members. All of these possibilities are completely okay.
Be aware of projecting or putting your own feelings onto your pet. e.g. you may comment “he/she looks sad” when in fact they are just resting or concentrating on something.
Give your pet attention and comfort whenever you can, remembering, not at times of unwanted behaviour though.
The most important thing to remember is that your own grief is just as important as your pets. In some cases, the loss of a pet can affect your ability to bond and spend time with the other pets in the family. If you feel this might be happening for you, try to ask for help from family, friends or your Veterinarian, or contact Sunset Vets for information about our pet loss support services.