With all those wagging tails and peaceful purrs, pets can seem unshakably happy. But in truth, our furry family members have very complex emotions. Just like us, they grow extremely attached to the people and other pets in their lives.
When a familiar presence is no longer around, dogs can get depressed and so can cats. Humans have a word for this: grief. Pets can grieve any kind of loss, whether it’s due to a death or a simple relocation. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to help them navigate this trying time.
What causes grief in pets?
The person who feeds, walks, or plays with a dog or cat can become integral to their comfort and security. When a pet loses the companion they shared these rituals with, the disruption to their daily routine can be profoundly jarring.
At the same time, pets can form deep attachments that aren't tied to specific routines. For dogs and cats, stability and companionship come in many forms; the person who sits beside them on the couch every evening can feel just as indispensable as the person who walks them or fills their food bowl. Simply losing someone who was around the house consistently can be deeply upsetting.
All of this extends to their relationships with other animals. The loss of a furry friend can be just as disruptive as the loss of a human caregiver.
Signs your pet is grieving
Your pet can’t always distinguish between the death of a loved one and, say, a family member leaving for college. Yes, dogs and cats are highly empathetic; if someone has passed away, your grief might emotionally impact your pet. But broadly speaking, a dog or cat can feel grief, whether a familiar person, or pet, has passed away or simply left home.
Once you spot the signs of grief, you can take steps to support your pet. Here are some common indicators:
Changes in appetite
A shift in eating habits is often an early indication that your pet is grieving. They might start eating less, or they might start eating more to comfort themselves. This change in appetite could lead to weight loss or weight gain, either of which can exacerbate dog or cat health issues.
Altered sleeping patterns
Grieving pets often experience significant changes to their sleep routines. Some pets may sleep more, while others may feel restless and begin to sleep less.
Less interest in play and exercise
Grieving pets often become lethargic or lose interest in their favourite activities. Your dog might stop wagging their tail at the sight of their lead, or your cat might stop batting at the laser pointer dot on the wall. Something else to keep in mind: A decrease in either canine or feline exercise can lead to declining physical health over time.
Changes in vocalisation
What to do when your pet is grieving: First steps
If you've noticed any of these signs of grief, there’s plenty you can do to help your pet adjust and recover.
Maintain their routine
Consistency can be extremely comforting for a grieving pet. Try to keep feeding times, walks, and playtime on a regular schedule. Even the little things, like giving them a treat at the same time every day, can be reassuring. If your pet was previously used to specific routines, try to keep them the same. You can always feel free to reward them with treats for any good behaviour.
Now, what should you do if the person or pet who's gone was a crucial part of their routine? Well, you’ll have to adapt. You, or another person, may have to step in and fulfil those duties, whether that means feeding them or taking over their daily walks. Just be sure to introduce these changes as gently as possible. For instance, you might start with shorter walks or play sessions and gradually build up to their previous activity levels.
Give them extra attention
Adding in some extra cuddles or playtime can be just as important as maintaining a basic routine. Don't smother them, but do make yourself more available for interactive play, belly rubs, and basic companionship. You can take your dog on a special outing to their favourite park or set up a cosy nook for your kitty with their favourite blanket and cat toys.
If your pet is hiding, avoiding interaction, or getting agitated when you approach them, you’ll need to respect their wish to be left alone—at least to some extent. You can still sit quietly in the same room as them, allowing them to come to you if they wish. Or you can leave a piece of your clothing near their hiding spot, comforting them with your scent without invading their space.
Offer them distractions
Interactive toys or puzzle feeders can be a great distraction for a grieving pet. These can entertain them, stimulate their minds and even help them feel a sense of accomplishment. Even in normal times, dogs and cats can get bored. Just remember to introduce items slowly, especially if your pet is showing decreased interest in activities, so you don't overwhelm them.
Providing distractions can also serve another purpose: you’ll be able to observe how they’re coping. Watching how they interact with new toys or challenges can give you valuable insights into their emotional state and let you know how they’re adjusting.
Long-term solutions for grief
Grief is a long-term process for pets, just as it is for humans. As time passes, you'll need to consider some long-term strategies to help your pet.
Introducing new companions
It may be tempting to make sweeping changes to distract your pet or fill their emotional needs, but gradual adjustments are often more beneficial. If you're thinking about adopting another pet to replace one who just passed away, give it some time, even if your pet seems lonely. A sudden change could cause more stress than it alleviates.
At the same time, introducing a new pet can be a positive step, when the time is right. The process just needs to be handled with care. Remember, a new pet is not a replacement for the old one and may not meet the same exact emotional needs.
When introducing pets, take it slow. Allow them to get accustomed to each other's scent before they meet face-to-face. Don’t rush the bonding process!
Start new activities
Sometimes a change in activities can help your pet move forward. If a family member who's no longer around used to take your pet on long hikes—and your pet seems averse to accepting you as their new hiking companion—perhaps you can start a new tradition of beach outings.
The key is to introduce new, positive experiences that can help your pet form fresh associations and memories.
Help with separation anxiety
If your dog or cat was used to spending lots of time with a person or animal who’s no longer around, the sudden absence can lead to separation anxiety. While canine separation anxiety is especially common, cats can experience separation anxiety as well.
Separation anxiety can lead to destructive behaviour, excessive vocalisation, or even attempts to escape the home. You can help by offering your pet comforting items, like a toy or a blanket that smells like you. But this might not be enough, especially if your pet is suddenly spending much more time alone. You might have to consider taking them to a pet daycare or enlisting a pet-sitting service.
Monitor their emotional health
Grief doesn't have a set timeline. Give your pet the time it needs to heal. You might find that they slowly return to their old selves, or you may notice a permanent change in their behaviour or preferences. Either way, be patient and continue offering them emotional support.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on your pet's behaviour as time passes. If you notice any persistent signs of depression or anxiety, it might be worth consulting a veterinarian or a pet behaviourist.
When to seek professional help for your pet's grief
Grief can wreak more than just emotional havoc. Prolonged anxiety or depression can lead to a weakened immune system, digestive issues, and even chronic conditions like heart disease, especially if your pet’s exercise or eating habits undergo major changes.
If you've tried the steps outlined in this article and haven't seen any improvement, or if your pet's condition declines, it’s time to consult a professional. Look out for persistent loss of appetite, extreme lethargy, or symptoms of pain. A veterinarian will conduct tests to diagnose or rule out health issues, while a pet behaviourist will closely observe your pet's behaviour to provide targeted recommendations.
In the end, your pet's well-being is the top priority here, and getting them insured can help.
While ManyPets pet insurance doesn’t cover behavioural treatment, unless as a result of illness or injury and referred by your vet, it may help cover unexpected vet fees if your pet is poorly or has an accident.
This may offer you peace of mind, leaving you to focus on the best treatment for your pet, not the cost of the vet.
Get a ManyPets pet insurance quote today.