Updated: Jun 21, 2020
It is so difficult when our cherished pet crosses over rainbow bridge, we feel numb, weak, perhaps guilty, angry, hurt, and a whole plethora of emotions. It is also a difficult time for our living pets (their fur buddies) that are left behind – they grieve too.
Our pets form intense bonds with us and their fur buddies, and when one leaves it changes the dynamics of their social structure.
You may notice our living pets seem more distant or absent, he or she may just sit in one spot, do nothing, seem lethargic and sleep more. They may whimper or cry out or on the opposite end of the scale they may be very clingy, insecure and follow you around everywhere not leaving your side. He or she may even search for their buddy. They may appear to act out of character and may also go off their food for a few days and may also be more destructive. Cats especially may over groom to the extent of pulling their fur out leaving bald patches and urinate outside of their litter box.
Pets typically feel a sense of anxiety and stress when they suffer loss and a change in their usual environment. They may even take on the passed pets behaviourisms (which can be a comfort to us and them). This is normal behaviour but if concerned seeking a veterinarian’s professional opinion is always a good idea.
There is no right or wrong way for your pets to grieve but knowing and understanding that they do is important. Pets form close bonds just as we do, they are sentient beings and feel a range of emotions. Dogs for example feel more than they understand. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions and it is bigger than ours so they can sense more, their feelings are deeper than ours, but their cerebral cortex is much smaller so they cannot comprehend, process, or ration why they are feeling the way that they do.
A recent study in Australia showed how surviving pets reacted to the loss of their companion. This research involved 159 dogs and 152 cats, please refer to chart.
Grief occurs as a result of the sudden, unanticipated or even expected (terminal illness) severing of attachment. But there is good news we can help our pets to cope better with their loss, but we must not push our grieving pets, let them lead, they will tell us, and we will know.
There are some opinions that say it is a good idea and is helpful to let your living pet see their deceased family member whether the family member is human or another animal, but it is a massive topic of debate with little evidence to support the view.
Some believe that animals cannot comprehend the notion of death being permanent (and they liken it to two-year-old child’s perception of death) and may still search for their deceased buddy. Others believe that they totally do understand the concept of death and by showing them their deceased buddy they will stop searching for their companion and it will help bring a sense of closure to the living animal allowing him or her to mourn their loss (being mindful that if they died of an infection the living pet cannot contract the illness).
We must also be aware that the body will smell differently, and your living pet may not react in a way that we may expect them too. Maybe let them sniff the ashes or visit the grave instead….
If the pet was not ill and it was a sudden death, then this can be more stressful for the living pet so perhaps it may be helpful to let him or her see the body of their buddy… It’s a very personal choice and a tough one.
Whether animals view death as we do is open for discussion. We do know that they are sentient beings and feel a range of emotions. I personally believe that animals know and understand (maybe not in the same way that we as humans do) when death is close for a loved one.
In the wild we can observe elephants mourning the death of another elephant, and visiting past elephants’ grave sites, this is well documented, and it is worth doing some research.
Chimpanzees give support to each other by placing their hands on each other’s shoulders and stay very quiet, when a death of a loved one is close.
Magpies have been seen to lay grass by the corpse of another magpie and then stand still for a few seconds looking at the corpse before flying off.
However, it is much different when a pet goes missing, the other pet is left wondering where they are, and this can lead to much confusion for them. It’s an idea to let the other pet help search for their missing companion wherever possible (more on this in a later blog).
So how can we ease the suffering of our surviving companion animals?
Fuss them when they want fussing. Try not to be tempted to fuss them when they do not want it, wait for them to come to you.
Engage more often in the things that your pet enjoys doing, but don’t force them.
Perhaps spoil them a bit with more of their favourite healthy food (be mindful that they may expect this all the time going forward!). If they do not want to eat do not force them. But if it lasts for more than a few days please go to your vets especially if your pet is not drinking.
Buy them some new toys and engage in different enrichment activities, something new for them to learn and focus on. If they do not want to play do not force them.
It is important that you let them take the lead, they will show you when they are ready to engage with games and training.
If your pet is feeling down they may not even want to go out for their regular walk – be mindful and if they do not want to go out for a walk do not force them, allow them to mourn their way, just as we do.
It is important to stay calm yourself as our animals pick up on our emotions so try not to shout or raise your voice as this will upset them more and lead further to avoidable stresses. Make the atmosphere as comfortable as possible so they feel safe. Be kind to yourself also.
You may find that they may sleep in the area where their deceased buddy used to sleep, perhaps in their bed. They may also take on some characteristics of their deceased buddy (they can find security in doing this).
Your living pet may discover comfort if you place the collar of their deceased buddy next to them (especially dogs) but, if they show no interest or move away then remove the collar.
With cats it is especially important to restrict the access to the outdoors for a little while as he or she may stray off into a different area and get lost in search of his missing companion. Instead offer new toys, treats and enrichment activities.
Remember though we must allow them time to grieve in their own way.
Time does heal and it can take from a few days to six months for grieving to dissipate.
There are other things that you can do to help with your pets’ grief.
Energy healing such as Reiki really does work and it helps them to relax more, restores energetic balance, helps promote well-being and releases trauma. Energy healing can be delivered remotely at a distance and usually lasts between 30 to 60 minutes. It is also helpful if you receive the energy healing at the same time. Please get in touch for reliable contacts.
Why not try Bach flower remedies? These work on a vibrational frequency and helps to restore harmony and balance on an emotional level. Rescue Remedy is good - you add 4 drops to the drinking bowl or on a treat or add to their food. You can even rub it on their ears and paws. Repeat as needed. If you want a more specific remedy that is unique to your pet’s behaviour consult a professional Bach Flower practitioner. Please get in touch for reliable contacts.
Zoopharmacognosy (self-selection) is useful too. It works on the theory that animals know what to take for their needs – they can self-medicate. For example, eating couch grass to make themselves sick. Please get in touch for some reliable contacts.
Essential oils can help, but please be mindful that our animals have a much, much stronger sense of smell than we do, and certain oils can be toxic and an irritant. Never use neat on skin and consult a specialist animal aromatherapist or an animal essential oil practitioner. You can try placing a bottle of unopened cypress, sweet marjoram (avoid with animals that have low blood pressure), neroli and yarrow at a few feet apart from each other. Let your dog or cat sniff out the one/s that he or she feels that is needed. You may find that they want you to open the bottle (just let them sniff the lid), you may then find that they relax next to them. Remove when they show no interest in them. This can be repeated twice daily until they no longer show an interest. Please get in touch for reliable contacts.
We must remember that our animals are very resilient and given time to mourn the loss of their buddy, they will return to their old routine, they may develop new rituals, and once again have the contentment that they previously enjoyed.
If at all worried or concerned about your pet’s behaviour, please speak to a veterinarian for professional advice. Even if your animal is grieving, they may be suffering ill health that may go unnoticed.