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Grief in Pets: How to Help a Surviving Pet Cope With Loss

When one pet passes away, the remaining pets may experience feelings of grief and loss. Here are some tips on how to support a pet that is grieving

Dr. Karen Whala

June 22, 2023

Losing a loved one, human or animal, is an experience that causes such heartache and sorrow. The loss of a pet leaves a hole that can be debilitating. People often ask: "Does my dog or cat feel the loss in the same way?", "Are animals able to grieve for each other?", "How can you tell if they are grieving?"

These are all excellent questions, and when you have been in a situation where one pet loses another, you may have noticed some changes in behavior. We will discuss some of these changes, what to look for and how to help your pet during this difficult time.

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Do pets mourn the loss of another household pet?

It has been shown that animals do grieve both their animal and human friends. By analyzing behavior, we can see some changes that signify grief. Sometimes it is challenging to identify, as not all animals grieve the same. Just like humans, pets have a vast range of grief patterns and behaviors.

When a pet friend dies, it can be difficult for a dog or cat to understand what has happened if all they know is that their friend is no longer present in the home.

Many people wonder if they should have their remaining pet present during in-home euthanasia or show them the deceased pet's body after their friend has passed. While it can be helpful for the remaining pet to see the body and understand that something has changed, it's important to be aware of their body language and not expect a specific reaction.

If they withdraw and choose not to be present, allow them this space with understanding. If they become highly anxious, remove them from the situation and try to engage them in an activity that brings them comfort.

Related content: How to help children grieve the loss of a pet?

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How do I know my pet is grieving?

There are a lot of factors to consider when analyzing the behavior of pets who have lost a loved one. The relationship the pet had with the deceased, their own health, the environment they are in, and the support they receive can all impact how they handle the situation. It's important to take these factors into account when analyzing their behavior.

Once your pet has passed, the other animal in the home may withdraw and seem uninterested. Others may be extra clingy and need more attention. The following are other signs you may notice:

  • Increased anxiety – may manifest as barking, excessive energy, digging, etc.
  • Decreased appetite
  • Seeking out the other pet's commonly visited spaces (bed, couch spot, etc.)
  • Change in behavior – increased aggression or destructive behavior
  • Accidents in the house when previously not a problem
  • Acting depressed – laying around a lot, moping, decreased energy
  • Withdrawing from the owner or clinging to the owner
  • Vocalizing in a new way

In case your pet presents these symptoms, we recommend visiting your regular pet to rule out other illnesses that could be causing these symptoms. If there is no specific diagnosis, your pet is most likely grieving.

Some pets, however, might not show any symptoms. Just like with people, some animals are stoic and show no emotions.

How to help a surviving pet cope with loss?

Give your pet the space they need, or offer extra attention if they want it. However, try not to force your own ideals onto them. Let them dictate their own needs and respond accordingly.

You may try some distraction techniques to draw them out. If they enjoy a long hike, make that a priority. If your kitty needs some extra catnip toys, allow it, and enjoy the peace it brings them.

Make sure you are watching for symptoms that your pet may be unwell. There are times when stress can cause our pets to get sick. A cat may break with a herpes virus upper respiratory infection, or a dog may have a flare-up of a managed condition. A dog with heart failure may have an episode despite being well-controlled. Monitoring for changes in behavior, such as inappetence, lethargy, inability to rise, etc., will help you determine when to consult with your veterinarian.

Just as the reaction to loss is varied by the animal, so is the length of time they may mourn. Some pets will bounce back quickly and seem to have moved on. Other pets can grieve for much longer and may need more care through the process.

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Should You Get Another Animal as a Companion for Your Pet?

Many people will consider adding another pet to the home, which can often help reengage a highly social pet that is struggling. There are some things to consider, though, when contemplating adding that additional pet:

  • Your remaining pet's age and health. If your remaining pet is aging and has medical issues, bringing another animal in may cause more stress on both you and your existing pet.
  • Additional responsibilities and challenges. Be sure you are ready to take on the additional responsibilities that come with acclimating a new pet. Behavioral concerns and training issues can arise, and you want to be prepared to take those on.
  • Each pet is unique. Do not expect a new pet to fill the shoes of the beloved pet you have just lost. A new pet brings a unique personality and new needs. Be sure you are mentally ready for that, and allow yourself the time to grieve your loss.

Dealing with grief

Grieving is such an individual process and it can be challenging to understand the full extent of these emotions. We can interpret our pet's behavior and try to understand their feelings. Still, dogs and cats don’t necessarily have the same emotions that we do.

If you are concerned about your pet's behavior, don't hesitate to reach out to a veterinarian for advice.

It's also crucial to take care of yourself during this difficult time. If you are struggling with the loss of a pet, there are several resources available to help you. Here are some organizations and support lines that you can contact for assistance:

  • The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB): A nonprofit group with resources and dedicated volunteers designated to help you through this difficult time.
  • National Suicide Prevention Life Line: (800) 273-8255
  • Fee-based Grief Counselor: 855-PET-LOSS (855-738-5677)
  • UC Davis Client Support Counselor: (530)-752-7341

Dr. Karen Whala

Fresno, CA

About

Dr. Karen Whala has always had a soft spot for the older pets she’s treated in practice and saw a need for these beloved pets to pass peacefully at home rather than in a clinic setting. To that end, she started Peaceful Passing in 2018 to help families assist their terminally ill, injured, or suffering pets as they transitioned from life in the Fresno and Clovis areas. She finds that pets are so much more relaxed and peaceful when they pass at home, and it is truly a gift owners give their furry friends. Dr. Whala grew up in the Eastern foothills of Fresno County in the small towns of Dunlap and Miramonte. She obtained her Bachelors of Science degree in Animal Science and Management at UC Davis. During her youth, she operated a children’s petting zoo and traveled to schools, birthday parties, and library functions educating children on animal care. Her animals included everything from iguanas and ducklings to lambs and frogs, and it was during these formative pet-owning years that she decided to become a veterinarian. In 2006, Dr. Whala graduated with her veterinary degree from UC Davis. She began practicing at a local area mixed animal practice and worked with dairy cattle, horses, dogs, and cats and later transitioned to small animals exclusively. She took a few years break from private practice, during which she earned a Masters in Public Health and Board Certification in Veterinary Preventive Medicine. When Dr. Whala returned to private practice, it was to start Peaceful Passing. Dr. Whala lives in Fresno and keeps busy working at a local clinic part-time, helping families assist in the peaceful passing of their pets, volunteering with Pathfinders (a boys and girls club), backpacking, and hosting friends in her home. ‍ Read More

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