Comforting a Grieving Pet After the Passing of a Housemate
Know what most influences the level of fear and behavior changes in the surviving pet, and 10 things you can do to help your dog deal with the grief.
A recently published study provides further evidence that dogs can experience significant grief after the death of a canine housemate
In the study, which involved 384 women and 42 men who had recently lost one of two dogs, only 13% reported no changes in behavior or habits in the surviving dog
The researchers also found that the more grief-stricken the owner, the more likely the behavior changes in the surviving dog
It’s important to watch for behavior changes in dogs who’ve experienced a loss of a canine friend; the most common changes involve affection and territory
To comfort a grieving pet, be sure to keep a consistent daily routine, distract her with fun activities and exercise, and provide natural grief remedies as needed
The study results show that 86% of 426 owners of two dogs, upon the loss of one, saw negative behavior changes in the remaining dog that lasted for months, including decreased interest in playing and eating, sleeping more, seeming more fearful, and whining and barking more often.
Measuring Grief in Animals Is Challenging
Whether or not these behaviors, given their timing, are indisputable scientific proof that dogs grieve the loss of other dogs, remains an open question.
"Overall, demonstration of grief in non-human animals is one of the biggest challenges facing science," explains study co-author Dr. Federica Pirrone, lecturer of veterinary ethology and animal welfare in the department of veterinary medicine and animal science at the University of Milan.2
Other social species, for example, dolphins, whales, great apes, elephants, and birds, have been reported to engage in death rituals that can be assumed to be expressions of grief. However, according to Pirrone, "emotions, particularly complex emotions like grief, are still a shady, and thus intriguing, side of the lives of domestic dogs. At least for us humans."
For the study, the research team used a questionnaire given to 384 women and 42 men who had lost a dog in the recent past. On average, those dogs had been in their owner's family for 10 years, and just over half the deaths were unexpected.
Most of the surviving dogs (over 9 in 10) had lived with the deceased dog for at least a year, and many of the dog housemates had slept together, groomed each other, and played together. Over half (54%) had never fought, just over 33% shared their food, about 60% shared their toys, and 86% shared resting areas.
Only 13% of owners saw no changes in the behavior or habits of surviving dogs after the loss of their canine friends. About 66% of the dogs displayed more attention-seeking behavior, 57% played less often, 46% had a decrease in overall activity level, and about a third slept more, ate less, and/or seemed more fearful. Three in 10 dogs also barked and whined more.
Another finding from the study was that the more grief-stricken the owner, the more likely the behavior changes in the surviving dog. According to Pirrone, "the level of fear in the surviving dog was positively correlated with [the] owners' level of suffering, anger, and psychological trauma."
Certified applied animal behaviorist and best-selling author Patricia McConnell reviewed the study results and concluded that all the cited changes are most certainly expressions of canine grief.
"I'm gratified that the study was done, because it frankly seems impossible that dogs wouldn't grieve," McConnell told HealthDay. "They are highly social, some of the most social mammals in the world. And as mammals, they share much of the same neurobiology and physiology that drives our own emotions."3
Earlier Study, Similar Results
A 2016 study also provided evidence that many dogs (and cats) grieve the loss of an animal companion.4 The researchers surveyed 279 owners following the death of a pet. The owners had a total of 311 surviving pets, including 159 dogs and 152 cats. They reported the following behaviors in their surviving pets:
Additional changes the owners observed included pets avoiding their usual sleeping spots, aggressive behavior toward both people and other animals, and changes in elimination behaviors.
There are certain limitations when using owner input to collect this type of data, in particular the potential for anthropomorphism (the tendency to attribute human characteristics to pets), as well as owner bias. As noted in the most recent study discussed above, there's also the possibility some pets react more to a change in their owner's behavior than their own sense of loss.
That being said, as a wildlife biologist and veterinarian, I firmly believe many species grieve. These types of studies help convince the doubters, not most pet lovers.
10 Tips for Helping Your Dog Deal With Loss
Closely monitor your surviving dog — The process of grieving isn't well understood in either humans or companion animals, so it's best to pay special attention to your surviving pet for signs of a distress reaction. Knowing what to expect, and how to react, can be very helpful during a time when everyone in the family is feeling a deep sense of loss.
Keep daily routines as consistent as possible — Dogs do best when they know what to expect from one day to the next (this is true for all pets, not just those who are grieving the loss of a buddy). Try to keep mealtimes, exercise, walks, playtime, grooming, bedtime, and other daily activities on a consistent schedule.
Keep your dog's diet and mealtimes the same — Your animal companion may not have much of an appetite in the days following the death of a housemate but continue to offer him the same food he's used to, at the same time each day. Store what he doesn't eat in the fridge and offer it to him again at his next regularly scheduled mealtime.
Use his hunger to help him get his appetite back by resisting the urge to entice him with treats. Use healthy treats for short and fun training sessions throughout the day or hide them around the house in interactive toys.
If his appetite doesn't pick up after several days or he's refusing to eat anything at all, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out stress-induced a health problem.
Take care not to inadvertently reward your dog's depression — This is a tough one, because it's only natural to want to comfort your surviving pet. Unfortunately, giving attention to a dog who is displaying an undesirable behavior can reinforce the behavior. Obviously, the last thing you want to do is reward a lack of appetite, anxiety, inactivity, or other types of distress reactions in your pet.
Instead, I recommend distracting her with healthy activities that provide opportunities for positive behavior reinforcement. This can be a walk, a gentle massage, a game of fetch, or exercising together. This can be an excellent time to try some new freeze dried all-meat treats and a brand new brain game or try one of these mind-challenging play sessions around the house.
In multi-pet households, allow surviving pets to establish their own revised social structure — When there are more than two pets in the family, each member of the group has a specific relationship with every other member of the group. When an animal dies, it creates temporary instability within the group.
This can result in conflicts that are disturbing to human family members, but unless one of your pets is becoming a danger to the others, it's best to let them re-establish group dynamics on their own.
If there's a lot of growling, barking, hissing, or attacking that isn't subsiding as the group settles into its "new normal," I recommend consulting either your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for guidance on how to resolve difficulties between pets.
Think twice before quickly adding a new pet to the family — Don't automatically assume that acquiring a new pet to "replace" the lost pet is the answer. Dealing with loss and grief is a process that is individual for each of us and each of our animal companions, and while some family members may be ready immediately for a new pet, others may not be.
Take care not to further upset your pet with dramatic emotional displays in his presence — Our pets pick up on our emotions so encourage family members who are dealing with their own grief to be sensitive to your pet's state of mind. It's okay to seek comfort from your surviving pet providing you don't frighten him or cause him additional distress.
Give it time — It's hard to know how long our pets' memories are, but based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that dogs remember companions for some time. Your pet's grieving process may take a few days, weeks, or even months, but eventually most pets return to their normal selves.
If at any point you feel your pet is suffering unnecessarily or there is something more going on than simply missing his friend, I recommend discussing the situation with your veterinarian.
Consider having your pet present at his companion's death — Some pet guardians feel it helps to have the surviving pet present during or after euthanasia or allow them to see and smell their friend's body once death has occurred.
Your dog may have no obvious reaction to his friend's body in death (most pets sniff and walk away), but it may help him to comprehend there is no need to search the house for the animal that has passed. I have found this to be very helpful for remaining pack members, especially if they have a very strong bond.
Use natural grief remedies, if needed — There are some excellent homeopathic and Bach flower remedies that can be easily administered to your grieving pet until you see an emotional shift in a more positive direction. Some of my favorites include homeopathic Ignatia, Jackson Galaxy's Holistic Solutions, the Bach flower remedy Honeysuckle, and Green Hope Farm Grief and Loss.
Also, in my experience, Applied Zoopharmacognosy has been one of the most helpful ways of helping animals over their grief.
Healthypets Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian or doctor. Dr. Karen Becker cannot answer specific questions about your pet's medical issues or make medical recommendations for your pet without first establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Your pet's medical protocol should be given by your holistic veterinarian.