Losing someone we love, whether that’s a family member, a close friend, or a beloved pet, is always hard. Loss affects everyone who knew the departed person or pet, including other pets in the household.
According to a study by Scientific Reports, our pets do in fact grieve. But how can you tell if your pet is mourning a loss, and what can you do to help them feel better?
Why Do Pets Experience Grief?
Many animals, including cats and dogs, experience grief for the same reasons we humans do. They form close bonds with the people and animals they see every day. So when that person or fellow pet is suddenly gone, they can feel like something important is missing.
And unlike most humans, who can distract themselves with careers, hobbies, and social lives, a pet’s life revolves around the family and the household. Their relationships at home are the center of their universe, which can make a loss or drastic change even harder.
Dogs, in particular, experience grief because they’re pack animals. This means that they not only mourn the loss of a pack member, but they can also pick up on our grief and sadness.
How to Tell if Your Pet is Grieving
If our pets could speak, we could ask them how they’re feeling after losing a close member of their pack. But because they can’t, we have to rely on their behaviors and demeanor to figure out whether or not they’re grieving. Here are some signs to look out for in your pets:
You’ve likely seen your pet “sulk” when they’ve recently done something they know is wrong or when a member of the household leaves the home for a period of time.
Sulking may involve walking more slowly than usual, ignoring learned commands, laying down more than usual, and hanging their head lower than normal.
If your dog is usually outgoing and friendly, you might notice her becoming more reclusive and spending more time alone or in her crate.
If your cat typically spends warm afternoons lounging in the back yard or basking in a sunbeam, you might notice him hiding in a dark room.
You might notice your pet vocalizing more, less, or in a different way than they usually do.
Many cats, for instance, have a specific vocalization that they use when they can’t find something or someone. Dogs might whine, howl, or even bark for seemingly no reason.
Disinterest in play
A common sign of grief in a pet is a lack of playful behavior. They might not feel up to playing fetch or scratching at their scratching post.
It’s important to continue encouraging physical activity during this time, so try to incorporate light play and walks.
Changes in sleep and appetite
One New Zealand study found that 30% of dogs and 20% of cats slept more when they had experienced a loss. The same study found that 30% of pets experienced a decreased appetite.
If your pet is eating less than normal, it may not be cause for concern. However, keep track of how much they’re eating to make sure they’re getting proper nutrition.
Another common sign that your pet is grieving is if they frequently seek out their lost companion. They might repeatedly visit the place where that person or animal spent much of their time at home.
How to Help a Pet Who’s Grieving
If you notice more than one of the signs listed above, there’s a good chance your pet is experiencing some degree of grief. So how can you help them through this tough time? Here are some ideas to try:
Spend extra time with them
Even if your pet doesn’t feel like cuddling or playing, you can comfort them by sitting in the same room as them and talking to them occasionally.
Engage in activities your pet loves
Taking your dog to the dog park to play with neighborhood friends, for example, can help take her mind off things.
Keep their routine the same
Some experts believe that the grief pets experience is more related to a change in routine than the type of mourning humans feel. It’s best to avoid changing your pet’s daily routine too much during this time.
It may be tempting to let your pet sleep with you (if you usually don’t) or reward them with extra treats. But these unexpected events can actually make pet grief worse.
Carefully consider bringing in another companion
If your pet was dependent on another pet for social interaction, bringing in a new pet can help relieve some of the loneliness they might feel.
However, keep in mind that bringing in a new pet is a change in routine, which might not be beneficial right away.
Pay attention to your own behavior
You might want to lean on your pet emotionally if you’re also grieving. But it’s important not to express distressing emotions in front of a grieving pet.
It’s perfectly fine to let your pet comfort you, but try to keep your tone of voice positive while speaking to them, and pay attention to their reactions to your grief behaviors.
Give it time
Just like human grief, pet grief takes time. Even if you do everything you can to help your pet during this period, only time can relieve some of the pain of grief.
What to Do If Your Pet is Stuck in Mourning
If you’ve done your best to help your pet through their grief, but they still seem to be mourning after a couple of months, or if they’ve stopped eating, drinking, or sleeping, it may be time to visit the vet.
Pet grief can be severe, especially if the pet lost their lifetime companion or a primary owner. It’s important to get your pet the professional help they need when this is the case.
The vet might want to run some blood and urine tests to make sure your pet’s health is stable. They might also prescribe dietary changes or even medication, depending on how grief is affecting your pet.
In most cases, however, your pet will recover from grief in their own time and enjoy their regular activities again.