When a family pet dies, naturally the humans in the household grieve the death of their beloved companion. However, surviving animals in multi-pet households may also react to the loss in a variety of ways.
If grief is measured by changes in behavior, then grieving is common throughout the animal world.
In her book “How Animals Grieve,” Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, defines grief like this: “When a survivor animal acts in ways that are visibly distressed or altered from the usual routine in the aftermath of the death of a companion animal who had mattered emotionally to him or her.” King cites studies and observations that show that animals in the wild, from elephants to birds, exhibit grieving behaviors, as do household pets.
The Companion Animal Mourning Project, a study conducted by the ASCPA, found that more than 60 percent of both dogs and cats exhibited four or more behavioral changes after the death of a fellow pet in the household. Changes include eating less or possibly not at all, craving more attention from their owners, changes in vocalization (barking or meowing more or less than usual) and changes in sleeping places or other habits.
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I’ve seen this happen in my own household over many years. Each time we’ve lost a cat, the surviving cats have responded to the loss in different ways, but they’ve always reacted. In one case, the cat wandered around the house, seeming to look for his lost brother, and picked at his food. Another time, I was surprised to see the surviving cat notice the loss at all because the two hadn’t gotten along well, but she moped and found no joy in her usual toys.
Cats mourn dogs, dogs mourn cats
Experts say that there’s no question that grief behaviors can occur.
“Most of the behaviors fall under the category of distress reactions,” says Katherine Pankratz, clinical behavioral medicine resident and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists 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.”
Companion animals are attuned to owners’ moods, so they can pick up on the sadness the humans are experiencing. The death can also cause a break in the social structure among the pets.
Pankratz says dogs often have relationships with each other that can be disrupted by a death. “If the lead animal, a pet that initiated meals or activities, is lost, the surviving pet may show signs of distress such as decreased appetite, because they have lost the leader to those activities and are now adjusting to a new routine without the leader pet,” she says.
The reactions can occur even if the pets are from different species, says Molly Stone, pet behavior specialist with the SPCA of Wake County.
“Their social experience is small compared to ours, and their time is spent with the other pets in the home while we’re at work,” Stone says. “Should that companion suddenly be gone, it should have an effect on the whole household. Cats mourn when it’s the loss of a dog, dogs when it’s a cat. I’m not sure it makes a difference what species.”
How to help
As with people, every pet’s grief reactions can be different (or there may not be any, which can be normal, too). The keys for owners are in understanding their pets and giving them time to adjust to the new situation. Pankratz says that it may take from a month to six months for grieving pets to adjust. She advises that owners monitor behaviors and consult a veterinarian if they become prolonged or extreme, particularly if the pet stops eating for a length of time. If the pet develops vomiting, diarrhea or, in the case of cats, poor litter box habits, see a veterinarian to rule out any underlying disease. Illnesses can have symptoms similar to grief reactions.
Avoid extra treats or attention: Pankratz says owners should resist the temptation to console their pets by giving extra treats or other special food because the pet will continue to expect those extra calories later. She similarly cautions against offering too much extra attention, again establishing a pattern that pets might expect owners to continue.
Calming activities: For pets that seem anxious, exercise can often help. Also, according to the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, calming pheromones are available in collars or sprays for dogs and cats.
Establish a new routine: Particularly for anxious pets, establishing a routine is a good idea.
“Try to develop that new routine,” Pankratz says. “For pets, consistency and predictability is really important. The previous routine can no longer continue, so developing a new routine can help them be less anxious.”
Offer distractions: Depending on the pet, offering some distractions may help, Stone says.
“You could provide some species-specific distractions, such as extra trips to the dog park, new chew toys, maybe walking in a different area can distract them, give them something else to think about and cause their brains to start making happy hormones. New toys for cats. Or get a kitty harness and go outside,” she says. “Some animals may be anxious about the loss. You just have to pay attention and adjust accordingly. No one knows your pets as well as you do.”
Don’t get a pet for your pet: And don’t get a new pet solely out of a desire to help the surviving pet.
“You should only get another pet if you yourself want another pet,” Pankratz says. “To get pets for pets is usually not the best route to go. You can’t replace the one you lost, and it’s the same thought with the surviving pet.”
Stone agrees. “The humans may not be ready for a long-term relationship with another pet,” she says. “People should wait until they’re ready rather than get another pet for the pet.”