Can dogs and cats grieve after the loss of a loved one? I have seen some interesting and sad cases recently where this does seem to be the case and when you think about what’s important to dogs and cats, it’s obvious that the loss of an animal companion, or of a human companion, can evoke ‘emotions’.
However, when it comes to an animal’s perception of grief, the emotions stem from different origins than grief in humans. Humans have the ability to think and reason at a level much higher than that of animals so we are able to conceptualise aspects about the loss of a loved one that are just not possible when pets experience a loss.
As humans, when we lose a loved one, the feeling of grief is overwhelming. We experience disbelief, anger, guilt and that cavernous sense of emptiness. Much of our grief involves memories of the little things that our loved ones use to do and the fact that such joys will never be experienced again in the future.
Pets have difficulty with the concept of ‘future'. To conceptualise a sense of 'future' requires a level of cognition that pets are incapable of. Thus, their sense of loss when loved ones pass on is very different. To pets, the present and to a lesser extent the past is more important.
So, how do pets grieve?
The most important aspect of a dog's life is its attachment to its social group or 'family', which includes its owner and other valued companion animals. Therefore, for a dog, one of the most dramatic effects of the loss of an owner or another companion pet is the decrease in social stability and loss of social contact.
If the deceased owner or companion pet was a 'leader' in the pack, a dog can be like a rudderless ship with the engine on 'full steam ahead'. Thus grieving dogs lack direction and become 'mentally lost' or, in other words, anxious. For such pets, if another person, or sometimes another animal, steps in to provide consistent, reliable and predictable leadership, grieving pets often improve.
Another effect of the death of an owner or in-contact animal is the dramatic break in established routine that the pet is used to. Dogs recognise repetitive events easily and therefore, changes in expected routines are often upsetting for them.
For instance, if a dog is used to a nightly walk with an owner, the time-tabled daily joy leads to a strongly reinforced habit. The dog has an expectation of the set event at the known time. If that doesn’t occur, because of the death of the owner, the dog can become anxious or confused.
Similarly when a dog shares it life with another dog, the games they play and the continual companionship they share are essential joys that disappear when this in-contact dog dies.
What effect does the mood of the grieving owner have?
Dogs are also very perceptive of their owner's moods. Naturally, a dog's owner will grieve, very visibly, when a loved one passes on and also when a beloved pet passes on too.
This grief will certainly be visible to the pet and it has a variety of effects on it.
Many dogs will move close to try to comfort the owner, but some dogs show other behaviours. Some will shun the owners and become less affectionate, and I have seen several dogs that, because of their 'confusion' at the owner's grieving behaviour and the stress-related effects of loss of a mate, have become aggressive towards their owner. In other cases, dogs and cats have become quite introverted, reclusive and depressed. Grieving cats will often wail and meow mournfully as if calling their mate to them.
What can be done to help pets that are grieving?
There are many things that can be done to help a pet through the grieving process.
1. Establish Strong Leadership
Providing leadership gives the animal direction and purpose. Practice some gentle obedience routines by looking for opportunities where you can give your dog a gentle command. Use the 'Pay Up Pooch' routine where, for instance, you ask your dog to 'sit' when it wants to come inside or go outside. Do the same when you are feeding it and even when it seeks your affection. Then be much more demonstrative in rewarding your pet responding to these commands.
If you see your dog becoming anxious or slipping into an introverted mood, distract it by asking it to respond to some obedience commands.
2. Establish New Routines
Within reason, change your daily routine with your dog by adding more joyous interactions. Take the dog for walks at different times of the day. Feed it at different times and change the type of food. Give the dog part of its daily food when you are not going to be home with it by placing the food inside a Kong Toy or Roller Treat Ball or a Giggle Ball when you are leaving the dog.
Keeping to routines is also important for cats, as well as providing them with somewhere safe and secure to hide, as they are not a social species like dogs and don't crave excessive hugs and kisses like humans and canines do.
3. Increase the Joys of Life
Play 'brain games' with your pet in and around your house, your yard and out on the street. Consider taking your dog to dog parks for exercise with other dogs.
Try teaching the pet a new trick or two. 'Hide and Seek' is a useful game. Put your dog in a STAY position, sneak off to another part of the house and yard and command COME. When your dog finds you, praise it enthusiastically and romp around the yard for a short while before repeating the game.
It is likely that the therapies listed will help your pet with its grieving. However, if your pet is so upset that it cannot respond then low side-effect anti-anxiety medications could be considered. Please see your vet for advice.
By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated