When Pets Grieve

posted August 10th, 2017 by
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When Pets Grieve

By Cindy Webb

When Pets Grieve

Turns out, Isabelle wasn’t dying, but she was a mess. One veterinarian recommended immediate euthanasia. Unwilling to give up on the little cat, Kathryn took Isabelle to another veterinarian who found that most of Isabelle’s teeth were bad. After dental surgery and a few weeks on a gluten-free diet, Isabelle blossomed.

Scarlet, however, was not happy with the newcomer. Growling, spitting and even slapping were common occurrences over the next three years that the cats shared living space. Yet, when Isabelle suddenly and tragically passed away one night, Kathryn and her husband were shocked to discover that Scarlet seemed to share their grief.

“She seemed depressed and was clingy,” said Kathryn of the usually aloof cat. “She became very needy and wanted to cuddle all the time. We have lots of pictures of her from that time because it was so unusual.”

“It might surprise people that pets grieve just as we do,” said Lindsay Benson, M.S., LPC, and certified pet loss and bereavement therapist. “But there’s actually a lot of scientific evidence to support that fact. In the wild, and in the home, animal behaviorists see definite changes in behavior when there’s been a loss.”

According to Benson, people often don’t realize their pets are grieving because they are so caught up in their own grief.

“I’ve had many people come in after they’ve lost their pet and say, ‘My other dog is being so bad. He peed in the house, and he’s just being so annoying.’ I try to help them understand that the dog they lost, and the dog they still have, were best friends.”

Signs of Grief in a Pet

“Grieving animals might display anxious behaviors, much like a human would,” said Benson. “In humans, anxiety is a huge marker of grief. Another common indicator that an animal is grieving is pacing or going to the preferred spot of the animal that died,” said Benson. “It can be comparable to separation anxiety.”

Additional behaviors that are common in grieving animals include:

Loss of appetite: You may notice there is still food in the bowl after feeding them.

Lethargy: You might find them hiding under the bed, taking longer naps, or just not having the zest for life they once had.

Anxiety: You might find that they can’t sleep because they are searching, pacing, and whining. They might seem restless, checking the windows and doors.

Excessive clinginess: Following you from room to room, or wanting to be cuddled and petted.

Negative behaviors: chewing, digging, and housetraining accidents.

Supporting the Surviving Animals

“Your pet grieving the loss of another pet is normal. This is very important to understand,” said Benson. “You can’t stop it from happening, and it needs to happen. But you can do certain things to support them and make the transition easier for them. First,” she said, “you need to own it, and be aware that it is happening: ‘I’m grieving the loss of my pet and so are my other pets.’ Your next job is to support yourself and your pet through the journey of grief.”

Here are Benson’s suggestions for the journey:

Maintain a normal routine: Routine is the biggest indicator to the animal that everything is going to be OK.

Support them nutritionally: Loss of appetite is normal, but if it goes on for days, try putting some favorite treats in their bowl along with their food to entice them. But don’t get excessive with treats, because you don’t want to set a new standard of expectation from your animals.

Increase bonding time: This can be as simple as petting, grooming, or giving them a massage. Touch is calming for them and for you.

Increase exercise: You may want to add more walks and games for dogs or more play time for cats. Exercise can be especially helpful for animals that are anxious and searching. Greater activity tires them out and allows them to rest.

Set boundaries on negative behaviors: Be consistent in discipline. Even though you can acknowledge that their acting up behavior is probably a sign of grief, you can’t just let it go, as it can easily become the norm.

Benson does not recommend medication for the grieving pet but suggests that essential oil compounds “specifically blended for animals” might help calm them. Pheromone sprays can be helpful for cats. When a cat smells a pheromone from its own species, the endocrine system releases a calming chemical.

Remember that your pet’s grieving behaviors won’t last forever. “These behaviors typically last for a few days to a few weeks,” said Benson. “Animals’ recovery time from grief is definitely faster than for humans.”

Sharing in the Experience

According to Benson, there is evidence to support the idea of allowing the other pets in the home to be present for the euthanasia of a furry family member when possible.

“Researchers have found that around 80 percent of the time, the surviving pets will come over to the deceased animal and smell, nuzzle and investigate. They then seem to understand that their companion animal has died,” said Benson. She added that when the other pets are present for the passing, they show less anxious, searching behavior.

“They might search for a few hours, and then it subsides,” she said. “When they are not a part of the passing, it can be days and weeks that they continue that behavior.”

Benson suggests discussing home euthanasia with your veterinarian. Many veterinarians now offer that service. “You can also take your other animals with you to the vet if you don’t feel comfortable having it done in your home,” she said.

Our family opted for having our other pets present for the passing of our 14-year-old Springer Spaniel, Cubby. His hind legs had been failing him for almost a year, and the day came when he simply couldn’t get up. His pleading eyes told us all we needed to know. When our veterinarian arrived at our home, she encouraged us to have our other animals present for the euthanasia. Our surviving dog, Roxie, and cat, Agatha, watched motionless and tense throughout the procedure. Our vet said they would know when Cubby was gone by a change in his scent.

I was concerned that Roxie would have anxiety issues after Cubby’s passing, as she always did when separated from him. Yet, maybe because she was present when he died, she didn’t express the anxious checking and whining behaviors she showed when he went to the groomer or the vet.

Getting a New Pet

According to Benson, the first thing you need to do when you are tempted to get a new pet after a pet dies, is ask yourself: “Why?”

“If you think that it’s going to end your grief, or heal the hurt you are experiencing, that is not the right reason,” said Benson. “Grief is a natural journey after loss, and there is no escaping it. No cute, fluffy kitten or puppy is going to make it go away.”

She recommends that people wait at least 30 days before making any decisions about getting a new pet. “After the 30 days, you will be in a better mental state for making a decision,” said Benson.

Benson“Give yourself time, and make sure the reasons behind getting the new pet are appropriate. You don’t want to get a new pet to replace the lost animal or to stop yourself from grieving. What I find when people jump the gun, is they start feeling resentment toward the new pet because it isn’t just like the pet they lost,” said Benson. “The new pet never stood a chance.”

She said that postponing getting a new pet is also important for your surviving pets. “The grieving pet needs to process its grief before being introduced to another new pet,” said Benson.

“Bringing a new pet into the household is a big transition no matter what the circumstances. You may see an increase in acting out behaviors and accidents if you bring in a pet too soon. Everyone needs to be as emotionally stable as possible before getting a new pet.”

Be Patient with the Process

“While you want to support your pets through grief, there is no magic wand that will make it go away,” said Benson. “People want to hurry through grieving, but that is not realistic. You can’t do that for yourself; you can’t do it for your pet… But,” she added, “the more supportive and aware we are about our surviving pet’s grief, the more kindness we are probably showing to ourselves as we also grieve.”

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