Every pet lover knows that pets’ relationships with each other are almost as diverse and complex as human relationships. Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other social animals can be deeply affected by the loss of another pet in the home. Pets can also be affected by the sadness that their human companions have during a time of illness and loss.
As with every other aspect of animal awareness, it’s hard to know what pets truly know about death and dying. Most animals clearly know that something is very strange or wrong with an ailing companion. The smells and behaviors of a sick pet are obviously different, and these changes may evoke various responses from the other pets in the home. Emotional and behavioral changes in the healthy companions may include: fear or avoidance, aggression or changes in hierarchy, and even compassionate behaviors such as grooming and guarding. There may be a combination of these behaviors.
It’s hard to know whether pets can comprehend death the way adult humans do - as a permanent existential change from living to not living. Children under 5 often have trouble with this concept; they may seem to understand that a loved one has died, but then ask when that person or pet is coming back. Perhaps we’ll never really know what animals know about death, but it does appear that they can be confused about illness and loss. Most pets who are present during euthanasia do not seem to understand what is happening, or at least few show any outward signs. It isn’t clear whether being present for the death of a companion, or seeing/sniffing the body afterward, will help other pets understand or process the loss. Even pets who witness the passing of another animal may search for their lost friend afterward.
Regardless of what pets understand about death, it is clear that many will grieve. (It’s also clear that some pets do not grieve, and a few may even seem pleased if a rival has departed.) Grief in animals likely includes feelings of deep sadness, yearning for the missing companion, and worry about the sad people in the home. Signs of mourning or distress in pets may include:
A change in appetite
A change in energy level or a decreased desire to engage in favorite activities. Some pets will seem less interested in their surroundings
A change in sleeping patterns; this may include when, how much, and where a pet sleeps
A change in how they engage with their human family. Some pets may withdraw or hide, others may seek increased human connection, even to the point of becoming clingy
Some pets will cry or look for their missing friend
Physical signs of stress, especially in cats, can include vomiting, diarrhea, house soiling and over-grooming
If your pet is losing weight, seems lethargic, or has physical signs like vomiting, a veterinary exam is a good idea, just to be sure there isn’t a health problem other than grief.
As with human mourning, there is no way to make your pet immediately recover from the loss of a friend, or to take away the sadness they feel. The best support you can give is to offer love when it’s wanted, encourage favorite activities, and to give them time and space apart if they need it. If you are ready to seek a new pet for the home, make sure your other pets are ready for this too, and introduce a new pet slowly and with care.
As with people, some pets will need more time than others. For most pets, grieving will last for a few weeks, but it can last for several months. The most important thing is this: all of us, humans and animals alike, have both the ability to mourn and the ability to heal from grief.