Pets are a lot like humans, and just like their human counterparts, pets feel grief when they suffer a loss. If your pet is acting differently after a human or animal companion disappears from their life, you might not realize at first that your pet is in mourning. However, a study published in the journal Animals found that pets exhibit specific behaviors when they're grieving, some of which mimic the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
"The most common behavioral change recognized and reported by owners was a change in the remaining animals’ affectionate behavior," the study revealed. "The majority of both dogs (74 percent) and cats (78 percent) displayed a change, with 82 percent of these dogs and 97 percent of cats demanding more affection from, and/or, becoming more clingy/needy toward the owner."
It's no secret that the bond between humans and their companion animals is strong, and humans sometimes feel a greater loss after losing a pet than they do after losing a human loved one. For pets, the feeling is mutual, and the grieving process is similar. It's common for both humans and dogs to lose their appetites while they're grieving. Additionally, just like people, dogs and cats tend to sleep more than usual after suffering the loss of a human or animal friend.
If your pet has recently lost a human or animal companion, you might not know how to best comfort Fluffy or Fido. It turns out that, just like humans, animals need time to work through their grief, but there are some things you can do to make your fur baby more comfortable while they're mourning their loss. For example, some pets might react to videos or voice recordings of their dearly departed humans, like actor and author Carrie Fisher's dog Gary did while watching the trailer for The Last Jedi after his mom's death. Other pets may want to sleep on their loved one's clothes or bedding.
"When dealing with a grief, owners should respect what the pet is trying to communicate," PetMD advised. "For example, if a pet seeks out more attention, give it to her, but don’t force yourself on a pet who wants to spend some quiet time alone in her friend’s favorite spot."
When you see your fur BAE suffering, it's hard to keep yourself from trying to fix it, but Fluffy and Fido need to come to acceptance in their own time. Generally, the process could last up to six months, according to the study. If your pet is overly lethargic, PetMD suggests taking Fido for regular walks and engaging in a little extra play time with Fluffy. Because, while everyone needs time to mope, wallowing 24 hours a day isn't healthy.
If your pet's mood hasn't improved after six months, PetMD advises that it might be time for a trip to the vet. "Pets who stop improving, take a step backward, or develop symptoms like persistent loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea that are typically associated with physical illness should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Sometimes the stress caused by the loss of a companion can bring about serious health issues that need to be addressed."
If your vet can't find anything physically wrong with Fluffy or Fido, medication — including antidepressants — may be prescribed to help your pet bounce back. What's more, while you might consider introducing a new pet into the household, bringing home a new dog or cat while your pet is actively grieving could backfire.
"Don’t automatically assume that acquiring a new pet to 'replace' the lost pet is the answer," Dr. Karen Becker advised on the website Healthy Pets. "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."
If you have a multi-pet household, it's not out of the ordinary for each pet to react differently to the loss of a loved one. One pet might seek more attention while another might want to be left alone. Your cat could be in denial and your dog could be depressed. This is totally normal. Try to give each pet what they need, but be careful not to reinforce negative behaviors, Dr. Becker warned.
"This is a tough one, because it’s only natural to want to comfort your surviving pet. Unfortunately, especially in the case of dogs, giving attention to a pet who is displaying an undesirable behavior can reinforce the behavior," Dr. Becker noted.
"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 health-giving activities that provide opportunities for positive behavior reinforcement. This can be a walk, short training sessions, a game of fetch, or engaging in exercise together."
If your pet is mourning the loss of a human parent or fur sibling due to a separation, consider continuing to co-parent your dog or cat with your former partner if it's healthy for you both to do so. My ex and I decided to share custody of our cats because they both exhibited signs of depression when separated. While this works out great for us, it's up to each couple to evaluate what's best for their fur family.
The bottom line? There's no one-size-fits-all approach for comforting a grieving pet. Obviously, you know Fluffy and Fido better than anyone else, and in time, this bond will help both of you get through the loss and emerge on the other side stronger than ever.