Helping Pets who Have Lost A Companion
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Losing a pet is hard on the entire family and can be especially hard on your other pets since we cannot express to them what has happened so they are often confused on top of grieving the loss of their buddy. Oftentimes they will wander aimlessly around the house or yard trying to find their companion and may even stop eating, drinking, or interacting with us normally. The good news is that there are some things that you can do to help your pet through this difficult time. Sometimes when highly attached pets are separated, even for a short period of time, we see what is called a “distress reaction” and this can be markedly worse when a pet has passed away. Signs of a pet’s distress often resembles human grief, with signs such as changes in sleeping and eating habits, disinterest in usual activities, and a reluctance to be alone or away from human family members. There have been multiple studies conducted to see if allowing surviving pets to be present during euthanasia or to see and sniff their friend’s body after death helps the pet to better understand what has happened and decrease their distress, but none of the studies have shown that this helps change the reaction of the surviving pets.
Steps that have been shown to help in cases of distress include keeping your routines as consistent as possible, even though it is very natural to want to alter your behavior, especially towards your surviving pet(s) after such a profound loss. Although it is human nature to want to comfort your pets if you notice that they seem distressed, you want to try to only spend time with them when they are behaving in normal and desirable ways. If pets receive more attention from you when they are depressed, inactive, or destructive, your pet may learn that these behaviors are a way for them to get more attention from you. You want to preserve the activities that you and your pet engaged in before, not only to have their lives disrupted or changed as little as possible, but to continue to be able to create opportunities to provide positive reinforcement when your surviving pets are participating in their normal activities. Exercising together may help both of you feel better and allow both of you to focus on the special bond between you.
You also want to keep your pet’s diet and mealtimes the same as they were since pets often take comfort, especially in times of change, in being able to count on the familiarity of their normal feeding routines. Some pets will have a decreased appetite after losing their companion and it is never healthy for a pet to go for too long without food. With cats you can see serious medical consequences within 24 to 48 hours of not eating at all, though with dogs you generally will not start to see issues unless they have not eaten anything in several days. If your pet has not been interested in eating following the death of his or her buddy, it is tempting to offer table scraps and treats. However, if pets learn that not eating results in being fed human foods (that are not good for them) or an excess of treats, they may become less likely to eat their regular meals and hold out for something better! It is better to make their regular diet more desirable if you do have to intervene. This can include adding a small amount of low-sodium chicken broth to the regular food (and even heating it up a little to increase the smell) or mixing in some healthy options with the regular food (such as fruits or vegetables – like green beans, canned pumpkin, or carrots) so your pet thinks they are getting something special but it is an option that is good for them. If these tricks do not work, you can add a small amount of white rice and boiled chicken to the food and see if that helps. White rice and boiled chicken are easy to digest, so it is unlikely to cause vomiting or diarrhea, and is low in fat so it is less likely to cause pancreatitis (a common disease pets develop if fed other, non-vegetable, people food). Fruits and vegetables are good options since they are low in calories and fat, which also makes them safe to use with weight-loss plans, but you want to avoid grapes/raisins, avocado, and anything in the onion/garlic family.
If you have multiple surviving pets, there is often a shift in power and it is critical to allow your surviving pets to work out their own relationships and then respect the new hierarchy that they establish. When several animals live together, they often form very specific relationships and each one understands his/her place on the totem pole. Therefore, when a member of the group dies, the group can become temporarily unstable. This might result in conflicts involving growling, hissing, barking and even mild attacks. If this happens in your household, it is best to not get involved as long as everyone is safe. If the situation becomes so intense that you are concerned that one of your pets may be harmed, it is best to talk to your veterinarian about what you can do. It will take time for your surviving pets to redefine their relationships with each other and what role they will play in the household. What is most important is that the two-legged members of the family respect the new roles. For example, if there is a new “top dog” in the household and the others pets are submissive to that animal but the people in the household keep greeting a different dog first (or feeding it first, letting it outside first, etc.) the pets will continue to try to show the new pecking order to the owners through conflict.
Everyone responds to grief in a different way and this is as true in animals as it is in people. It is important to understand that it will take time after a loss so great for all of you to adjust. Be mindful of signs of distress in your surviving pets and try to provide them with as normal of a routine as possible so that they will feel more secure. Spend time enjoying each other and know that we are only a phone call away if you need anything.