There remains a prejudice among scientists against the idea, that animals and birds both wild and domesticated, feel real grief or respond in complex ways to death, possibly due to a fear of anthropomorphism, however there have been many studies that show that animals do exhibit specific behaviours that are similar to the stages of grief that a human experiences.
Regardless of what stance you take on this subject, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that animals do understand and acknowledge death by their related behaviours and for the purposes of addressing the most effective way to help our pets, we will call it grieving.
Like humans, pets show their feelings in a manner of different ways. If there is more than one pet in a home and one dies, the other pet may express their feelings by stopping eating and playing, or become withdrawn. There are two possible explanations for this behaviour: either the surviving pet is simply adjusting to its new position in the household; or the pet is truly experiencing a loss of its own. We must also remember that the surviving pet will be able to sense their owner’s sorrow.
If we are to take the middle ground and accept that there is no easy way for us, as humans, to properly understand the emotions of a pet at the time of a loss we can watch out for signs and behaviours in surviving pets -
A surviving pet copes far better by being afforded some time with the body of its companion. Seeing the dead body of its companion may give the surviving pet some sort of acceptance, or at least some explanation as to what has happened to its companion. There are many accounts where a pet carer took their dog to the vet to be euthanised leaving its companion at home and simply returned with its leash – not knowing where its companion is, what happened, or when it is coming home must be heart-breaking.
Although surviving pets do tend to cope better in the longer term if they see their companion deceased, in some cases, this may not always be possible, owing to the nature of the death, or location that the companion pet was euthanised.
The length of time a surviving pet may grieve will vary from pet to pet. For some, it may be a matter of hours, while for others, the grief could last for a few days, weeks or in some cases months. The important aspect from a pet carer’s point of view is that they don’t inadvertently do anything to lengthen the grieving process.
If a surviving pet seems depressed or is not eating, it’s important not to inadvertently reinforce or reward their behaviour by giving them too many additional ‘titbits’ or attention when they do not ask for it, as it may actually cause them to continue with their negative behaviour as a means of receiving
more attention. This of course goes against the pet carers’ natural desire and need to lavish more attention on the surviving pet, especially as a way to cope with their own grief.
In some cases a vet may prescribe medication to help the surviving pet and there are now a number of pet-care products on the market which may help the pet through its own grieving process; for example, a DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) diffuser or Pet Rescue Remedy may calm the pet down and make it feel better. CBD oil can treat anxiety in our pets, however this should only be administered following the advice from a qualified practitioner.
Keeping to the same routine as closely as possible during this time is also important for the surviving pet or pets as they will be used to being fed, groomed and walked at around the same time each day. This may be difficult to achieve, particularly if the pet carer is grieving deeply, however, changing a routine at any time can be upsetting to a pet, but will have a more significant impact during a time when the pet is also grieving.
A pet carer should, however, bear in mind that a surviving pet may have a genuine medical condition. If a pet has not eaten for a few days, or if a pet carer is in any doubt over the health of the pet, then the pet carer should seek veterinary advice.
There may also be specific behavioural issues which surface following the loss of a pet for example: a sole surviving dog, unused to being left alone, may develop separation anxiety; or a dog not used to being walked alone may develop fear aggression towards other dogs. If any behavioural issues persist, then the pet carer should be encouraged to seek the help of a qualified pet behaviourist.
The sense of loss or the depth of the grieving may be reduced greatly if the home contains three or more animals, thus ensuring that there is never a single surviving pet that is left to grieve by themselves. The sense of loss, however, may be greatly increased if the surviving pet is a sibling, or if the surviving pet had an extremely close bond with the deceased pet.
Being forewarned that a surviving pet may grieve may not be enough to reassure the pet carer. We must remember that their entire thoughts may be consumed by the deceased pet. If a surviving pet seems unwell, it may make the pet carer feel worse; subconsciously believing that if the surviving pet is ill it may also be close to dying, whereas in reality, the pet may be grieving.
Regardless of the level of grieving a surviving pet goes through, the pet carer should be made aware that there will be, in some cases, significant changes within the household unit. The pet carer will find that the dynamics may change between them and the surviving pet or pets, similarly, the dynamics between any surviving pets will also change.
Many animals however may not show any outward signs of loss, and many in fact, enjoy their new found position within the family unit.
Dawn Murray's new book 'An Introduction to Pet Bereavement Counselling' is now available to buy on Amazon. This is a must have reference book for anyone who supports or counsels others through pet bereavement.