The death of a pet can herald a challenging time when you’re trying to anticipate everyone’s needs and emotions. As well as your own grief, your children may need support or you could have a partner who shares your overwhelming sense of loss.
For many people, another consideration is the well-being of a grieving pet.
How can you help them? Is there anything, in particular, they need from you? Is their grief impacting on their health in some way?
These are all common concerns.
How to tell if your pet is grieving
Animals express grief in different ways and it seems to have a varying impact, depending on the species and individual nature of the pet.
Across species that pine for their companions, signs of grief include:
- Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping more than usual or disturbed sleep)
- Changes in eating habits (typically eating less)
- Lack of interest in normal activities
- Reluctance to be alone
- Wandering the house or their enclosure searching for their lost friend
If you have a surviving pet who’s showing any of the above changes in behaviour, they may well share your grief for their lost companion.
Tips to help your grieving pet
If you do feel that a surviving pet is grieving, there are a number of ways that you may be able to help them cope:
Watch your pet closely
When an animal has lost a companion, it’s important to monitor their health and behaviour closely. Given time, many animals – like humans – find a new rhythm to life and begin to move forward.
However, there are some cases where changes in behaviour due to bereavement should be taken very seriously.
One example is with herd animals like guinea pigs. These vocal but gentle little creatures tend to thrive in company, showing social behaviour in pairs or small groups that you may not see when they live alone.
Guinea pigs tend to form a close bond with their companions and may become depressed, disinterested in life and lose their appetites when a cage mate passes away. Because they have such fast metabolisms, just a short space of time without eating can have catastrophic consequences for the remaining guinea pig.
If you do notice that a bereaved guinea pig has stopped eating, you may need to see your vet straight away for advice or liquid food that can be syringe-fed.
Of course, you should always consult your vet immediately if your departed pet died of a contagious illness that could affect his or her surviving companions.
Stick to your usual routines
Although you may feel like you need some downtime following the loss of a pet, it’s important to try to stick to your usual daily routines as much as possible.
With so much having suddenly changed in their life, your surviving pet will benefit from the predictability of keeping to their normal routine. You may even find that it helps you too.
Even if your pet has lost their appetite, try to stick to their usual mealtimes to remind them to eat and to ensure food is available.
If your pet is still refusing to eat after a few days, you should seek veterinary advice.
Ignore unwanted behaviour
It can be heart-breaking to watch a bereaved dog cry at the door or window for their lost friend but you should think twice before rushing into comfort them as you may inadvertently reinforce the behaviour.
Instead, try to offer comfort to your dog when they’re quiet and laying down or cuddling up with you.
Build positive activities into your day
Your surviving pet(s) may need reminding about the good things in life. Positive activities such as walks, games and puzzles, and training activities with plenty of treats may help.
Lots of cuddles and interaction will help bereaved cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and other small animals feel like they still have companionship. You may even want to give them a soft toy to cuddle up to for comfort.
Let your surviving pets work out their new social structure
If you live in a multi-pet household, the death of one animal can impact on the whole hierarchy/social structure of your surviving pets. You may find that there are some skirmishes and disagreements as your animals regroup and figure out where they now sit in the social order of their group. Unless there’s a risk of one of them getting hurt, it’s usually fine to step back and let them sort it out amongst themselves.
Be open to your surviving pet’s attention
If you are struggling with your own feelings of grief, you may feel like you want to close yourself off from future hurt. Many pet carers see their surviving pets in a different light – that one day they will feel the same agony over losing them – and this can make people want to withdraw.
However, pets can sense this change in your mood. If you seem sad all the time, they may want to comfort you and become clingy, wanting the reassurance that everything will be okay. They may also misbehave as an expression of their anxiety and double loss (their friend and now you).
It can be incredibly hard but it’s important to be open to your surviving pet’s love and affection. It will help you as well as them – animals have a rare gift of making the world better just by existing.
Give your pet time
Just as you need time to mourn your loss, your surviving pet may need time too. Anecdotal evidence suggests that animals such as dogs and cats remember and miss their past friends for some time. As helpless as it may make you feel, all you can do is provide a loving and secure environment in which to grieve.
Be aware of projecting your own feelings
It’s tempting to view your surviving pet through the lens of grief, seeing sadness in every pose and facial expression. However, in some cases, pets aren’t strongly affected by grief or experience their grief but gently move through it. It’s important not to project your own feelings and not to be hurt if your pet doesn’t appear as devastated as you thought they would.
Beware of being overprotective
If your deceased pet died in sudden or traumatic circumstances, you may feel protective of your surviving pets, wanting to shield them from harm against all costs.
While this is completely understandable, it’s important to think about their quality of life and mental wellbeing. For example, is it reasonable to always keep your surviving dog on their lead in the park because your other dog ran out in front of a car outside your house?
Should you let your surviving pet(s) see their deceased companion?
Although it isn’t always possible for surviving pets to spend some time with their deceased companion, many people feel it is advisable in some cases if circumstances allow it.
With rabbits, for example, many experienced carers feel that a rabbit should be given between three and six hours alone with the body of their companion. At first, the surviving rabbit may try to rouse its fallen friend but, as the hours pass, people often notice a shift in the surviving rabbit’s demeanour as they realise their companion isn’t truly present.
Guinea pigs benefit from seeing their deceased cage mates too. They may push, lick and even gently nip at a friend that has died but only in an attempt to wake them. With time, they begin to realise that their companion isn’t moving and seem to feel less distressed when the body is removed from their habitat.
People with several dogs often like to give the remaining canines the opportunity to see their deceased companion, feeling that it’s helpful. Other dogs take comfort from being able to sniff their lost friend’s bed or favourite blanket.
Should you get a new pet?
This is a question that a lot of pet carers wrestle with, especially if they have a surviving pet who isn’t used to be the only animal in the house.
However, this can be a very emotional decision. If you are thinking about a new pet, you may feel guilty that you’re trying to ‘replace’ the one that has died.
You may feel too emotionally drained to bring a new pet into the house.
For dogs and cats, it can often be very stressful to introduce a new companion immediately following a bereavement. A new puppy, for example, may be too hyperactive for a grieving older dog to deal with while they’re feeling low and vulnerable.
There is no right or wrong answer but it’s important that you feel ready to bring another pet into your home before you do.
There are some exceptions though. Going back to guinea pigs, many need a new companion as soon as possible for their emotional wellbeing. Guinea pigs can go downhill quickly following the death of their bonded friend. They live in the moment and do not always do well alone.
Again, only you will know what’s right for your animal. Some guinea pigs, like other species, cope fine alone but many need a new friend straightaway and long before you might feel emotionally ready.
In these more extreme ‘life and death’ cases, you may feel you have to put the needs of your pet before your own. You may not feel a bond straightaway but, as you discover your new pet’s personality, you’ll probably find a love just for them that doesn’t diminish what you felt for your past pet.
If you need support with pet bereavement or any of the issues discussed in this article, you might find it helpful to reach out to a pet bereavement counsellor. There are always lots of friendly and understanding people in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group too.
As always, know that you are not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support