Humans naturally grieve the loss of a beloved pet. However, surviving pets can react to the loss too. And the evidence continues to grow with case studies by animal behaviour experts showing “a wide variety of animals have been found to mourn the loss of their close companions.” *
There are many firsthand accounts of animals grieving also; you may have experienced this in your household? One example is referred to in the book ‘Buddhism for Pet Lovers’, where Author David Michie tells us of a parrot who had recently lost her mate and says “in the days and weeks since, she had pulled every feather out of her chest and even pecked into her own skin, such was her grief.” This anecdotal observation is quite common. It isn’t unusual that a client mentions to me that they now have a surviving pet that ‘just isn’t himself or herself’. That they find it distressing and heartbreaking to witness their grieving pet. This has been my experience also. Often people feel helpless and don’t know what to do, if anything to assist their surviving pet. So, if you have noticed your pet may be grieving the loss of a housemate, it can be a good idea to keep the following in mind….
- Behavioural changes in the surviving pet are usually noticed by the pet parent after the loss – despondency, searching, wailing, social withdrawal, pawing, sniffing, gathering, changes in eating and/or sleeping etc. with “most of the behaviors falling under the category of distress reactions,” says Katherine Pankratz, clinical behavioral medicine resident and American College of Veterinary Behaviourists resident at the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It can be because of the loss of their companion or the change in routine or the owners’ reactions.” +
- Just as the humans in the household will need time to adjust to their ‘new normal’, so too will the surviving pets. Remember no two pets will be alike, and some mightn’t show any outward signs. If you are concerned at any time about the welfare of your pet, a vet visit is recommended to rule out other illnesses.
- Stick to a routine with your surviving pet as much as possible, this can be particularly helpful if they are anxious. Keep to a familiar play time and feeding time.
- Don’t be too quick to add another pet to the household. The good intention you have of perhaps soothing and comforting your surviving pet with another, may exacerbate stress. If you are ready yourself to get another pet, then that’s great, but bringing another animal into the household can upset any equilibrium there might be at the time.
- Provide exercise and interaction, whether a gentle walk, or some ball throwing or other activities but mostly be respectful of your pet, don’t rush them to do anything, just as you can’t rush your own grief or that of another human being, it isn’t wise to do this with our pets either. Be patient with them.
- Some extra cuddles are highly recommended. Alternatively, if your pet wants some alone time, then respect that boundary also.
- Take care of yourself. Express how you feel with trusted family and friends and if you require support that is outside of your circle, a pet loss counsellor that understands the significance of the loss of a pet may be helpful too.
“We humans don’t own love or grief – these emotions are widespread in other animals,” – Dr Barbara J King.
* The Orca’s Sorrow. King, Barbara J., Scientific American, 00368733, Mar 2019, Vol. 320, Issue 3.