Do Dogs and Cats Grieve?

Leslie Gillette, DVM
Written by:
Published: November 17, 2022
Do Dogs and Cats Grieve?

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As pet parents, we will all experience the heartbreak of losing a beloved companion. After such a loss, people often work through personal grief by taking comfort in memories, photos, and physical reminders of the pet that we so dearly loved.

While we understand that death is an inevitable part of life, do pets also make this connection? How do dogs and cats understand and react to death? Do they grieve when they lose a beloved person or another pet in their family?

Do Dogs and Cats Grieve Their Loved Ones?

While it is unlikely that pets grasp the concept of their human companion being gone forever, there is definite evidence to suggest that they grieve the loss. This is shown through behavioral changes after a pet experiences a loss, likely in response to missing the company of their companion and the change in their shared daily routine.

You may have personally witnessed or heard stories about dogs that are closely bonded to their owners, or military and law enforcement dogs, that have shown behavioral changes consistent with grief and depression after a loss.

There have been numerous photographs and videos of dogs waiting patiently by the front door, sitting at the end of the driveway, and even resting near their owner’s gravesite that have been shared as proof that these animals miss their owners or handlers and are grieving their loss. 

Cats can also show signs of grief, and although you don’t see as many media representations, there is plenty of evidence.

Signs of Grief in Pets

Several surveys and studies have revealed some common signs of grieving in cats and dogs.

Researchers in New Zealand reported in 2016 that dogs and cats exhibit signs of stress and grief over the loss of their canine and feline companions, and their behaviors were similar to those of young children who grieved the loss of a family member:

Behavioral ChangePercentage of Dogs InvolvedPercentage of Cats Involved
More demanding of attention3540
Being clingy or needy2622
Seeking less affection from pet parents1015
Seeking out the deceased's favorite spot3036
Increased duration sleep3420
Decreased amount eaten3521
Slower eating3112
Increased frequency of vocalizations2743
Increased volume of vocalizations1932

 

In 1996, the ASPCA conducted a survey of cat owners to better understand whether cats grieve, and if so, what the most common signs of grief were.

Results of the survey revealed that most cats experienced a change in vocalizations following the death of their companion, and this sign was more common than any other physical or behavioral manifestation.

Other signs of grief included a loss of appetite, a notable change in sleep patterns (some cats slept more than they normally would, while others experienced insomnia), a change in the areas of the home where they preferred to spend time or rest, and an increase in physical affection or clinginess toward their human companions.

How Long Does Grief Last in Pets?

Just like with humans, there is no finite period for grief, as every animal responds differently to a loss.  Many experts suggest that animal grief will run its course in weeks to months, but studies of other species of animals recognized grief in closely bonded wild animal communities that lasted for years.

How Does Our Grief Affect Them?

A 2019 study from Duke University reported elevated cortisol levels in the hair of humans who indicated they were suffering from significant stressors in their lives. The study also found that pets living with humans under stressful conditions had elevated cortisol levels in their fur, suggesting that pets do sense our emotions and may exhibit similar physical stress responses.

This can certainly translate to stress brought on by grief or loss, so it’s safe to say that your pet is also affected when you are grieving a loss.

How to Help Grieving Pets

After the death of a pet, there are several ways you can help other pets during their time of grieving:

  • Stick to daily routines. Maintain a consistent mealtime schedule and continue any daily walks or other outdoor activities as well as playtime.

  • Offer extra attention and affection to help pets recover emotionally from the loss of their friend.

  • Try calming aids such as music therapy or Adaptil and Feliway diffusers and calming collars.

  • Nutritional supplements such as Composure treats or Calming Care probiotics for dogs may also help alleviate your pet’s anxiety.

  • Provide new, mentally stimulating toys and chews for dogs. For cats, you can offer new cat trees, interactive toys, or access to a safe outdoor enclosure.

If your pet begins to show behaviors such as house soiling, destruction of toys or furniture, or excessive vocalizing and whining, it is important not to punish or discipline them. This will only teach them to fear you and may increase their anxiety and make these behaviors worse.

Talk to your vet or ask for a recommendation for a behaviorist in these cases. Pets with more severe behavioral changes may also benefit from antidepressant medications.

The amount of time that a dog or cat grieves will vary individually, but eventually they do recover and will usually fall back into their daily routines at some point.

However, if your pet continues to decline physically or emotionally, consult with your veterinary team to be sure there’s no underlying medical condition that’s causing symptoms that you initially thought were related to grief.

Cats in particular should be closely monitored if they stop eating, as prolonged anorexia in cats can quickly develop into a life-threatening condition known as hepatic lipidosis.

Should Pets Be Present When You Are Putting Down Another Pet?

The decision to allow pets to be present for euthanasia of their dying companion should be made on an individual basis. Some experts suggest that allowing pets to witness the euthanasia process and to see and smell their companion after they have passed will allow them to understand the finality of the situation.

Some pets may linger for a while or curl up beside their companion after they have passed, while others may give a brief sniff before walking away or leaving the room. Regardless of the intensity of the response, the remaining pets will know that their friend is gone, which may allow for an easier grief and recovery period than if the pet suddenly disappeared from the home. 

Will My Pets Be Upset if I Get Another Pet Soon After a Death?

Another consideration is finding the appropriate time to bring a new pet into your home after a loss. This will depend on your feelings and also the temperament and adaptability of your other pets.

Bringing a new pet into the home too soon may cause increased stress and anxiety if your existing pets have not had time to process the absence of the companion that has died. This will inevitably disrupt the normal daily routine while the new pet becomes acclimated to their new surroundings. This increase in stress may result in some temporary undesirable behaviors, including house soiling or destruction of toys, bedding, or other household items.

For dogs, a good compromise may be to schedule playdates with other dogs that they have already met and like. You could also plan regular trips to a dog park to allow them to interact with other dogs, which might benefit them both physically and emotionally.

Cats may benefit from an increase in cuddling or physical affection from you as a means of distraction from the absence of their companion.

Featured Image: iStock/ArtistGNDphotography

References

  1. Should other pets be present | Home Pet Euthanasia of Southern California
  2. Do Dogs Grieve Over the Loss of an Animal Companion? | Psychology Today
  3. Do Dogs Grieve the Loss of a Canine Housemate? | Psychology Today
  4.  Owners’ Perceptions of Their Animal’s Behavioural Response to the Loss of an Animal Companion | researchgate.net
  5. When Our Cats Grieve - Tufts Catnip
  6. Grief in animals: It's arrogant to think we're the only animals who mourn | Psychology Today

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