When Pets and Owners Grieve
There was a time when scientists didn’t believe that animals felt emotions.
It was commonly believed that all animals did was react to what was happening to them. We know better now, of course.
We see the joy on our dog’s face when we come home from work, and feel the vibration and hear the purr when we cuddle with our cat. Thankfully, the scientific community has changed its mind and realizes that humans are not the only ones to feel emotions.
One emotion that still baffles the scientific community, however, is grief. We suffer from grief when someone we know passes away but it has been hard for many to understand that animals could feel the hurt and sadness that comes with grief. After all, if one feels grief that means one would also have to have some understanding of loss and death, and the question appears to be, “Do animals understand life, death, and loss?
What is Grief?
Grief is the reaction to the loss of someone or something important to you. The strength of the connection to that someone or something seems to be the key to the depth of the grief. When a child passes away, the grief is overwhelming as it can also be when a spouse, parent, or close friend dies. When treasured dog, cat, or horses passes away the grief can be just as painful.
There are typically several stages of grief which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although many people go through all five stages in various degrees it’s not unusual for someone to skip one or two of the steps or to add in a unique step. For example, some people add in a stage of false happiness or faked normalcy. “I’m all better now!” In other situations, there may be anticipatory grief if a loved one has a long term, terminal illness. The stages of grief, no matter what they are, are normal and to heal, they must be dealt with as they occur.
When Animals Grieve
A number of years ago, I remember seeing a documentary on elephants that had a brief segment on grief. One of the herd’s matriarchs, an older female elephant, passed away. Each member of the herd visited with her, touching her body with their trunks, standing over her, swaying, and vocalizing. It was a revelation to me, not that they felt grief, but the obvious extent of their grief. It looked like a family gathering, a wake, that I had experienced with my own family members.
Elephants aren’t the only animals who grieve, however, Barbara J. King, author of the book, How Animals Grieve, has researched the subject significantly and found horses, dolphins, birds, and primates all grieve, as well as dogs, cats, and rabbits. Mourning is, in fact, more common than not.
My Personal Experience With Bashir
Although I’ve written about grief previously, it all came back to me when my 13-year-old Australian Shepherd, Bashir, passed away on July 7, 2016. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about his passing. Bashir was a wonderful dog and was by my side supporting me when both my father and my husband passed away. He saw me through my grief for both of those wonderful men. I knew Bashir was growing older but the idea of losing him was not something I wanted to consider. Unfortunately, none of us, human or canine, are immortal and someday we all have to face it.
In working through the stages of grief after Bashir’s death I knew there were no shortcuts; I would simply have to deal with it. My personal sadness was interrupted, though, when I realized two of my animal companions were suffering as much (or more) than I was. Bones, my then three year old English Shepherd, had been raised by Bashir. Bones hero worshipped Bashir and copied him when he could. Bashir was definitely Bones’ father figure, protector, teacher, and friend.
While I didn’t see any signs of grief initially, within a couple of weeks after Bashir’s passing Bones became clingy and didn’t want to let me out of his sight. At that point I also realized he was becoming fearful about odd things, that he was hyper aware of what happened around him, and was becoming reactive; barking more. He was grieving for Bashir and showing it through changes in his behavior. Although Bones’ grieving didn’t follow the same pattern mine did, it was certainly just as relevant.
Other Pets in the House Grieve, Too
While I had expected that Bones would grieve for Bashir, I didn’t expect that one of my cats would, also. Scottie, a long haired white cat, was a foster I took in as a kitten who never left. Born in a feral cat colony, he was rescued with his brother, Spock, who also came to my home.
Bashir was the one who provided them with their first sense of security and Scottie especially seemed to need that. Scottie would curl up under Bashir’s chin, between his front legs, and sleep. He trusted Bashir implicitly.
I realized Scottie was grieving when I couldn’t find him. He never left the house but would hide under a bed, in a cupboard, in the cat tree, or even under blankets. Previously a social cat, he didn’t want attention from me, or from Bones, and often it seemed that he was avoiding his brother, too. He was an unhappy cat.
Filling the Void: Happiness is a Puppy
With a hole in all our hearts, I knew a new puppy would be joining my household but I didn’t want the puppy to come too soon. All three of us needed to process our grief but at the same time, I didn’t want all three of use to become mired in depression and get stuck there. So Bones and I went for walks, played games, practiced his training, and tried to keep to a normal routine. Scottie was a little tougher; when a cat doesn’t want to play, it’s hard to make him do it. But I did make sure he was brushed and petted each day and he got a bit more of his favorite foods than he normally got.
Then, a few months after Bashir’s passing, I brought home Hero, an English Shepherd puppy. Although initially Bones was standoffish (I do think he questioned why I brought this puppy home rather than Bashir), he mellowed quickly and soon the two were playing. It was fun to watch Bones try to figure out how to be the big brother. I could also see the last of Bones’ grief disappear and the normal confident, bold, happy dog reappear.
Whereas Bones’ recover took a few weeks after Hero joined us, Scottie’s recovery was immediate. The big white cat took one look at the fuzzy baby Hero and claimed the puppy as his own. Rubbing his face on Hero’s, arching around the puppy, and licking the puppy’s ears, Scottie was a happy cat again.
To Each Their Own Way
Grief is unique to each of us as well as the individual manner in which each of us processes it. Although a new puppy was the right answer for us, it might not be for anyone else’s situation. More time with you, a new training challenge, a new dog sport, or increased exercise might help your grieving dog.
Don’t allow your pet’s grief to turn into a deep depression, however, or to linger on too long. If you feel it has, talk to your veterinarian for some help.
We have to find our own way through grief, but if your own grief is too dark, or too deep, or too sad, ask for help. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that grief counselors are wonderful. There are also many pet grief support groups available now, too, and they can be of benefit. Find them through veterinary clinics, veterinary schools, and online. If you would like to find a group, you can either ask your veterinarian for a referral or search for “pet bereavement support.”