Losing a pet is hard for everyone — including your remaining pet. Whether it’s a dog or a cat, both can show signs of distress after a pet friend dies. We may not know to what degree they “understand“ death but they definitely feel the absence. Some of them don’t show any signs of suffering, some display negative behavior and some show signs of depression. It is very important that you watch your surviving pet closely for any of these signs. That way you may be able to help them better.
Everybody mourns in a different way and that includes our pets. Some mourning signs you may see are lethargy, changes in their sleeping pattern, decrease or loss of appetite, lowered water intake, loss of interest in play or physical activities, clinginess and continuously looking for their lost friend. Some of these symptoms may disappear soon, but they may also increase over the weeks or months.
Here are some tips for you to help your dog or cat deal with the loss. It may also help you deal with your own grief.
1. Maintain your routine as normal as possible.
They like routines so it is important to keep their schedule as consistent as possible (mealtimes, playtime, walks, exercise, bedtime.) They just experienced a huge change in their lives so keeping the rest the same will help them with the transition.
2. Don’t change their diet.
Offer them the same amount of food and at the same time even if they don’t seem hungry. Remove it if they didn’t eat it and offer it again at the next mealtime. Use their hunger to help them regain their appetite. Don’t overfeed them with treats and don’t comfort them with human food—it’s less likely they will eat their food later.
If they are not eating at all for days, take them to your vet to avoid them getting ill. Cats in particular shouldn’t spend more than a couple of days without eating or they can develop hepatic lipidosis.
3. Don’t reward negative behavior.
You definitely have to show patience but try not to encourage unwanted behavior. Giving them attention when they are displaying unwanted behaviors will just reinforce them. So, even if you find it hard, instead of comforting your dog or cat when you see them sad, anxious or not eating, try to comfort them when they are calm or lying in bed.
4. Distract your pet.
Instead of comforting them when you see them sad, it’s more effective to distract them. Cuddle more, add more playtime, more exercise, and longer walks. The point is to give them more of your attention and your time, but use it in a positive way to keep them busy as much as you can.
5. Expect a change in their social order.
This one applies when you have a group of animals. In groups, each animal has its specific order and when one of them dies, the order suffers from instability. You will probably see “challenges” between them after that. But unless there is a potentially dangerous situation, it’s better to let them re-establish their new dynamic on their own and not interfere.
6. Take your time before getting a new pet.
There is no standard amount of time, it is a personal decision and you should just follow your gut on this. Just consider a few things. Everyone deals with loss at their own pace, so be sure everyone in the house is emotionally ready to move on. If you introduce a new pet during the transition time, it can just create confusion in your grieving pet— what they need at the moment is stability.
When you do get a new pet, avoid getting one that looks like the one that died and don’t expect the new one to be as your old friend— let him/her develop their own personality and don’t compare them. If you are indeed getting a new one it will be because you are ready to move on and build a new relationship, and not because you are looking back and still mourning your loss.
7. Minimize extravagant displays of grief in front of your surviving pet.
Animals are very sensitive to human emotions, so even if you are seeking comfort from your surviving pet, try to minimize your emotional displays in front of them so you don’t frighten them and cause them more distress.
8. Give it time but keep an eye on health issues.
Be patient and don’t push. Grief is a process that can take days, weeks and even months. Give your pet some time to mourn. But if you feel the grieving behavior is going on for too long, check with your vet to make sure there is no illness developing.
9. Let your dog or cat be present during their friend’s death.
It’s OK to let them see and sniff the body once death. They will have different reactions to this but there are many cases when it helped them stop looking for their friend. When one of my cats died years ago, I let the other one sniff her before I buried her in the garden. At first she completely freaked out and ran away but afterwards she watched me through the window digging. For weeks she went to sleep to the spot where her friend was buried— she was not looking for her anymore but it was as if she knew her friend was there. It was heartbreaking but I really think it helped.
As for yourself, don’t forget each dog and cat has its own personality. Don’t expect the surviving pets to act as the one you just lost. They may even become different from what they used to be. Let them be who they are and who they are about to become. Let them readjust to the change on their own way.
Also be careful not to go to extremes regarding your own attitude towards the surviving pets. Don’t become overprotective but also don’t stop bonding with them.