by Janet McAfee
Have you noticed one of your pets appearing to grieve upon the death of another pet? Science confirms that you are not anthropomorphizing your cat or dog. Scientific studies confirm that animals have feelings, and in fact have a wide range of emotions including grief. Dogs may become lethargic and stop eating. Cats may retreat into hiding places and also refuse food.
Many years ago, one of my two bonded cats became ill and stopped eating. Heather was put to sleep on a final visit to the vet when it was discovered she was ridden with incurable cancer. When I pulled up outside my house with the empty pet carrier, I heard blood curdling screams coming from somewhere in the neighborhood. Initially I thought it was a human in distress. However, I soon realized it was Isis, my lovely remaining cat. The screaming stopped as I approached. My grief was momentarily set aside by my amazement. How did Isis know that Heather was gone before I arrived home without her? Isis quit eating for awhile, and moped around the house in a listless state for about a month.
You may have heard the story of the famous grieving dog, Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who traveled to his owner’s grave daily for 14 years until his own death in 1872. The loyal animal held a daily graveside vigil, and the entire town followed his tribute. A granite fountain with a replica of Bobby stands his memory in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Recently, the photo of Hawkeye, a Labrador Retriever who refused to leave Navy Seal Jon Tumilson’s coffin, went viral on the internet. Mourner’s at Tumilson’s funeral were amazed when Hawkeye followed the funeral procession, and then dropped with a moaning sound in front of the flag draped coffin.
Animals also exhibit symptoms of grief when their companion animals die. In 1996, the ASPCA released the Companion Animal Mourning Project. This project studied the grief response in dogs, whose pack mentality and social nature makes them vulnerable to mourning. Their study showed that upon the death of a companion dog, 36% of dogs ate significantly less, 11% stopped eating completely, 63% showed extreme changes in vocalization (some becoming more quiet, others becoming significantly more vocal), and over 50% became clingy with their humans.
With the passing of one of their members, the remaining dogs may have lost their leader or follower. These pack animals need to readjust their position in the social order.
How can you help your pet get over the mourning period? Helping the remaining animal adjust to the loss is helpful to ease your own mourning. Give the remaining animal extra time and attention. Take longer walks with a dog. Give your grieving cat more time playing games or grooming them. Lamb baby food spread thin over his food may encourage a reluctant cat to eat. Baked chicken without the skin will entice some dogs to resume eating. Purchase a new type of training treat. Give your pet a light massage. If your pet continues to refuse food or shows other serious symptoms, a trip to the vet may be needed.
This is a good time to undertake some positive obedience training with your dog if you have not already done so. Training creates a deeper bond between the two of you, creating a way for you to better communicate. Take the grieving dog on more outings to his favorite places that might include dog parks, outdoor cafes, and shopping in pet friendly stores. Any addition to his routine, even a joining you for a simple trip to the mailbox, will lighten your dog’s mood. Outings deepen the bond between dog and human.
Dogs with separation anxiety will have a more difficult transition time upon the death of their human. If he loses his home as well, this obviously adds to his distress. However, after rehoming hundreds of shelter animals enter new homes, I have observed the vast majority joyfully form new bonds when they enter a loving environment.
Writer Scott Latham wrote about the unceasing loyalty of dogs, “From man’s best friend’s unceasing loyalty, mankind should master.”