Pet Grieving: How Pets Mourn the Loss of a Companion
by Gary Le Mon

Dog by master's casket

You may have seen the photo* taken at the funeral of Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson who died recently in Afghanistan.

TODAY.com contributor Scott Stump wrote, “Tumilson’s Labrador retriever, Hawkeye, was photographed lying by Tumilson’s casket in a heart-wrenching image taken at the funeral service in Tumilson’s hometown of Rockford, Iowa, earlier this week. Hawkeye walked up to the casket at the beginning of the service and then dropped down with a heaving sigh as about 1,500 mourners witnessed a dog accompanying his master until the end, reported CBS.”

The loss of a beloved pet is painful for any owner. But for a pet, the death of a person or other animal companion can be just as traumatic. Pets, like people, form strong attachments to family members whether canine, feline or human. If grief can be described as a huge sense of loss combined with the anxiety of trying to come to terms with that loss, then yes, pets do grieve.

Signs of grief in your pet

Pet grieving can be expressed both physically and psychologically. Bereaved pets may show symptoms similar to those of grieving adults or children. As every human reacts differently to grief, so every animal will react differently.

Both cats and dogs can suffer loss of appetite, disturbed sleep or a change in sleeping habits. They can appear lethargic, listless or withdrawn. Dogs may lose interest in activities such as walks or play. Cats may groom excessively. Some animals become overly clingy, not wishing to be separated from their owners, while others may distance themselves from family members.

Ways to help a grieving pet

  • Stick to your pet's usual routine. Keep normal meal and walk times if possible.
  • Try distracting your dog by taking him on outings, or for walks with other dog friends.
  • Give your dog or cat lots of affection. Stroking or massaging can help soothe your animal.
  • Make grooming a part of your dog’s daily routine; it will be comforting for both you and your pet.

If your pet has lost her appetite, provide some favorite foods to encourage her to eat. Offering the occasional treat is fine but don’t use treats to replace the extra cuddles or attention she might need.

Also avoid offering treats to quiet a cat or dog who barks, whines or meows excessively. It may reinforce the unwanted behavior and could result in the development of a new bad habit. Only praise desirable behaviour. Be patient; your pet is just expressing his emotions.

Consider aromatherapy or homeopathy for your pet. Although there is no cure for grief, some essential oils or homeopathic remedies can improve your pet’s emotional wellbeing. Always seek qualified advice on which oils or remedies are safe to use.

Waiting for a companion to return

When the owner or animal companion dies outside the home (for example, in hospital or by pet euthanasia), it will seem to the remaining pet that the animal or person has simply disappeared. A pet may then begin to search for his deceased companion or wait for his return, not understanding where his friend has gone.

Some animal behaviorists believe that in these cases, an animal’s comprehension of death is similar to that of a young child. He feels the loss, but if the absence is unexplained, he doesn't understand the permanence of the loss. As we can’t explain to our pet what has taken place, this 'waiting' may only add to the animal’s anxiety.

Should you allow your pet to see the deceased?

This is up to you. Anecdotal evidence shows that pets (cats in particular) that have seen the body of their owner or animal companion, do not wait or search for their missing friend. It seems that being allowed to smell or nuzzle their deceased friend can help start the grieving process. The animals may instinctively understand that the companion is dead and cannot return.

Consider bringing the body of a euthanized pet home to allow other pets to see it. Obviously this is not always possible. Allow the remaining pet to observe the funeral, if there is one. Some owners have reported cats that continued to sit on their feline companion’s grave years after the burial.

Getting another pet

Introducing a new pet into your home is an upsetting experience in itself for an existing pet. At a time of grief it may cause additional anxiety and detract from the healing process.

Dogs and cats may eventually adjust to the loss of their companion. They may even be happier on their own instead of having to compete with a new pet. If you eventually decide to get another pet, try to choose an animal who will best fit in with your remaining pet. A new pet should be a joy when the time is right.

Time heals

As with human grief, every animal will mourn for a different period of time. Some bounce back quickly. Others may slide into depression or illness. It’s important to monitor your pet. Look for signs of pet grieving, but also check that the symptoms of grief aren’t masking those of another illness.

When a pet dies it can be hard to be mindful of a remaining pet's grief while simultaneously dealing with your own grief. Caring for your pet and helping him through his grief can also assist you (and other family members) with the healing process.

* Photo credit: Lisa Pembleton/Facebook

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