GRIEF IN PETS WHEN LOSING A COMPANION
Our pets can’t talk to us to tell us what they’re thinking. Because of this, we have to base their emotional status on their actions and behavior.
An animal that loses a companion animal or human may react similarly as when a person experiences the death of a loved one. People are able to communicate how they feel in their grief, but many times it’s the actions that really tell us that they are suffering. A grieving person may become disoriented, listless, confused, and lose their focus even with regular daily activities. Sometimes they won’t eat, become disinterested in what’s going on around them, cry often, and sleep too much or too little.
Monique D. Cretien, MSc, AHT, Animal Behavior Consultant says, “Some animals can actually become depressed when they lose a loved one. They show symptoms similar to humans such as loss of interest in their favorite activities and sleeping more than usual. However, sometimes dogs and cats hide and sleep more than usual when they are ill, so you should consult with your veterinarian before seeing a behaviorist if your pet exhibits symptoms such as these.”
Your pet may become less interested in food or playtime, or act more clingy. Sometimes, if their companion was taken to the veterinarian to be euthanized, or passed away in a hospital, they may spend days watching and waiting for their return. Veterinarians and behaviorists call this highly emotional state separation anxiety.
In 1996, the well-known American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, performed a Companion Animal Mourning Project with cats. The study established that 65% of cats grieving for their lost companions showed four or more behavioral changes. In appetite, 46% ate less and, in very extreme cases, the cat even starved to death. Around 70% of cats changed their meowing habits and were more vocal or less vocal. Most cats changed their amount and location of sleep and more than 50% became more clingy with their care givers.
Try giving your pet more affection and attention if you notice they are taking the loss of their friend, human or animal, hard. “Try to take her mind off it by engaging her in a favorite activity,” recommends Chretien. If your pet is a sucker for the company of humans, invite friends they are comfortable with and spend time with her. You could also try environmental enrichment techniques like treat filled balls to keep her busy, or even hide treats and toys around the house for her to find.
We all know the saying “Time heals all wounds.” Sometimes it takes a while for your pet to become okay enough with her loss to respond to activity. “Time is one thing that may help,” Chretien says.
If your dog is becoming more vocal after the loss, like barking and whining to extremes, be careful not to reinforce the behavior. If you give her treats to distract her, she thinks her vocalization is acceptable and even encouraged. “Giving attention during any behavior will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behavior that you don’t like,” says Chretien. “Give attention at a time when your dog is engaging in behaviors that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or watching the birds. As the pain of the loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing as long as it is related to the grieving process.”
Chretien also advises consulting with your veterinarian about drug therapy to help decrease your dog’s anxiety.
It’s very important to wait until you and your surviving pet have adjusted properly to the loss of a companion before adding another pet to the family. You pet is already anxiety-ridden and emotional. Having to get to know a newcomer will only add to her distressed state. Please be patient with a grieving pet. She may miss her loving companion as much as you do.