By Matthew Kearns, DVM
I recently read an article in Time magazine entitled, “The Mystery of Animal Grief” and found it fascinating. The author, Jeffrey Kluger, referenced evidence that crows and elephants hold “wakes” for their fallen mates, and female chimpanzees have been known to carry their dead young sometimes as long as two months. This forced me to ponder the fact that as much as I know how people feel about their pets dying, how do pets in the household feel? And how can we get them through the grief?
Yes, it is proven that dogs and cats grieve after the loss of both another pet and a human owner. However, dogs and cats see this loss as more of a change in the dynamic of the pack or pride. If we can understand that concept, it will make it not only easier to tolerate their behavior but help them through this difficult time as well. Remember, we are grieving also; behaviors that do not make sense to us might make us less patient during these stressful times, as well as create lifelong behavioral issues for our pets.
The biggest mistake made in interpreting (or misinterpreting) any animal behavior is anthropomorphizing. Anthropomorphizing refers to giving human characteristics to things not human. Dogs and cats are not furry little humans, and we should not expect them to act as such. When dogs and cats grieve, it is usually for a much shorter period of time (sometimes as little as 3 to 5 days), and, in some cases, they do not grieve at all. If the pet that has passed was the dominant partner, the surviving pet may have been repressed (and now suddenly thrives). Do not resent this lack of remorse but rather realize what stress this pet was going through up until this time. Also, the more dominant pet may show no grief and this is normal also.
What to do? In the immediate aftermath, let the pet grieve. If your dog or cat is still eating/drinking normally and somewhat active, give him or her 3 to 5 days to adjust to the change in the “family” dynamic. In cases of severe grief, positive training may be the release he or she needs.
Positive training is really just setting aside some time for activity or interaction at the same time every day either with the guidance of a certified trainer or just the two of you. Positive training could be long walks, trips to the park for off-leash exercise, playing with toys (if your pet is more active), short walks to the mailbox or grooming/massage (if your pet is less active). In rare cases, medications like anti-depressants are necessary.
What about adding a new pet? It is recommended to not replace a deceased pet immediately. Many dogs and cats are just as happy to live out the rest of their lives with just humans, so it may not be necessary to get a new pet. If you do decide to get a new dog or cat, make sure that you know the new pet will get along with the existing one. Consider getting a new pet of opposite gender even if the previous one was of the same. This will help to reduce the risk of fighting.
It is never easy to lose a member of the family, but I hope this article gives some general information on both the way that pets grieve as well as how to help them through this difficult process. Remember, each case is different, so consult your veterinarian for specific questions or concerns.
Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 17 years.