Animals and Grief
Whenever I talk to owners about the death of a pet, I always bring up the topic of grieving and mourning as it applies to other animals in the household. Yes, pets do grieve. We are witnessing it in our own house right now.
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I recently had to euthanize one of our two cats. (Thank you for all the kind remarks you sent in response to that post.) Keelor’s death made us a one cat household, and Vicky has been affected by the change. She and our dog Apollo have a good relationship (she tolerates him licking her head, he lets her sleep in his dog bed), but it’s obvious that she misses Keelor.
She is a lot needier than normal. She has always wanted to be petted when we’re trying to read the paper and drink some coffee, but her demands have been taken to new levels recently. (Someone needs to study how a seven pound cat can generate so much power behind a head butt.) She is also yowling — a lot — in the wee hours of the morning. She is a sleep-all-day kind of girl, and I think she misses having a comrade to prowl the house with at night.
In hindsight, most of these new behaviors actually started while Keelor was very sick and intensified after his passing. This is not unusual. I think animals understand a lot more than we give them credit for, especially when it comes to end-of-life issues. After all, death is a natural part of life and I think it’s reasonable to assume that social animals (yes, cats are social, at least to a degree!) have the ability to comprehend the basics behind serious illness and death.
My five-year-old daughter was concerned that Vicky’s changed behavior indicated that she was sick, just like Keelor. That’s not unreasonable since many of the symptoms of grieving in pets — withdrawal or clinginess, lack of appetite, altered sleep patterns, litter box issues, vocalization, even vomiting and diarrhea — certainly can be associated with illness, which is why I always recommend a check-up if a surviving pet’s symptoms are especially severe.
I gave Vicky a physical and she checked out just fine, which in addition to the fact that in every other way she’s seems perfectly normal, convinced me that "all" that is wrong is the loss of her companion of over 13 years.
In 1996, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) conducted a study looking into mourning behaviors in dogs. It found that 66 percent of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after the loss of another pet in the household. For example:
- 36 percent ate less than normal, 11 percent stopped eating altogether
- About 63 percent vocalized more than normal or became quieter
- Many changed where and how much they slept
- More than half became more affectionate and clingy
In general, it took affected pets between two weeks and six months to return to their normal behavior patterns. It looks like Vicky is right on track. She’s certainly not her old self yet, but she only woke me up once last night, so at least we’re heading in the right direction.
Dr. Jennifer Coates