When a loved one passes away, it is a very difficult time for us. Pets of many species form close bonds with other household pets and their parents, so it is not surprising that they, too, display signs of grieving. Even wild animals such as elephants and dolphins seem to display mourning rituals and behaviors.
Animals can grieve not only the loss of their own kind, but also the loss of their significant human. A study conducted in the United States in the late 1990s found that most cats and dogs showed behavioral changes after a loss, including lethargy, loss of appetite and less interest in playing. Dogs may become anxious when left alone; cats can have toileting troubles and birds can start plucking their feathers. Animals can also sense your grief and this might upset them further.
There are some things that you can do to help your pet through this period:
If at all possible, let your pet see and smell their deceased companion. This seems to help them to understand that they are not coming back. Dogs in particular do not look for a lost pet if they have seen them after they have died. This may not be possible, depending on the circumstances of the passing.
Stick to routine as much as possible. This will give your pet security, and show them that in spite of the huge change they have experienced, many things in their life are still familiar to them. Continue your dog’s walks as usual and give them dinner at their regular mealtime.
If possible, try and increase their physical and mental activity level. A fast walk or a run will release endocannabinoids in their brain, which have a calming, feel-good effect. Cats are a bit more difficult to exercise, but you may find they will enjoy chasing a laser or a feather. Use a treat-dispensing toy to make them work for their food, and consider teaching them a new trick to encourage them to think about other things for a little while.
Do not worry too much if your pet goes off their food a little. Stress can affect appetite in this way in both people and animals. Try smaller meals or offer something a bit tastier to see if that makes them interested in food. If you become concerned about their lack of appetite, speak to your vet for advice.
Feliway for cats or Adaptil for dogs can help to reduce anxiety and make your pet feel less stressed. They are chemicals that mimic a pheromone produced by nursing dogs and cats, and their purpose is to make the puppies and kittens feel calm and relaxed. They have a similar effect on adult dogs and cats, and are easy to obtain and very safe to use.
Spend time giving your pet some positive attention. Gently massage their skin or brush their coat; touch can reduce stress levels in us, so it might do the same for them.
There is no time limit to grief so you cannot hurry your pet through this period. However, if you feel that they are not moving on and are still finding the change difficult, it is time for a visit to your vet. There are medications that can be prescribed to help them, and a veterinary behaviorist can guide you on how to manage their behavior so they start to feel better.