Losing a pet can be one of the most difficult events in the life of a pet owner. The perception of loss of the unconditional love, quiet companionship, and acceptance that a pet provides can be devastating. Pet owners grieve in many different ways, and sometimes other pets in the household may also grieve. How can you recognize the signs of grief and help alleviate the pain of a grieving pet?
A study by the ASPCA in 1996 found that over 50% of animals exhibit behavior changes that may be consistent with grief following the loss of another pet in the home. Possible signs of grief include changes in appetite, changes in activity level ranging from restlessness to being sluggish, changes in interactions with other house members ranging from avoidance to being “clingy”, and apparent disorientation or confusion. Some animals may seem to search for the lost pet in house. Changes in behavior may also reflect changes in the “pecking order” of relationships within the home after the loss of a pet.
What can be done to help a grieving pet? If the pet has lost its appetite, try warming canned food to increase the odor of the food. If prolonged inappetance occurs, consult with a veterinarian. Spend extra time with the grieving pet (this may also benefit the grieving pet owner). Provide distractions such as placing food inside a puzzle toy or engaging the pet with extra playtime. Be cautious of getting a new pet too quickly to “replace” the companionship of the lost pet. Acquiring a new pet too soon may lead the remaining pets in the home to view the new pet as an intruder. Although studies show that getting a new pet helps pet owners and remaining pets get through the grieving process, the time to take this step is a very individualized personal decision. If the grieving pet’s behavioral changes don’t seem to improve with time, consult a veterinarian to make sure that symptoms that are attributed to grieving are not actually signs of a concurrent medical condition.