Do pets grieve when they lose an owner or a companion? In short: Yes. There are various scientific studies, some contradictory, on the subject of animals’ responses to loss, but my experience as the owner of many pets and a behavior consultant makes me completely confident in saying that at least some pets grieve in much the same way as do humans. Stories abound of wild elephants remaining withheir deceased babies for days on end, or of primate mothers carrying and trying to feed dead infants while refusing food themselves.
How Do Pets Grieve?
I don’t think grief in pets follows the same defined path– denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– as it does in humans. However, I believe some of the same stages are present, though not necessarily all in the same pet or in any particular order. Some, possibly most, pets move right along to acceptance after losing a human or another animal friend. However, for those animals that do show grief, three of the other four stages can potentially be observed:
Denial– Some grieving pets or wild animals behave as if a deceased animal is still alive, despite showing the ability to distinguish between life and death at other times, such as when hunting or scavenging. Rats sometimes carry food to a deceased friend’s body or cuddle with it. As mentioned above, primate mothers that lose babies sometimes must be anesthetized to remove the dead babies because they continue attempting to care for the baby.
Anger– A pet that has recently experienced grief may be more prone to behave aggressively or reactively toward animals and humans. Timid dogs that lose a companion can easily develop fear aggression, because they have been depending on their companion to provide confidence and security, then find themselves more fearful after the companion’s death.
Depression– Depression is probably the most common type of grief observed in pets. Pets that have lost a companion may refuse food, ignore attention from humans, and refuse to play. They may be seen searching for their lost companion in its former favorite places, or vocalizing loudly to nothing in particular.
What Should You Do for a Grieving Pet?
If your pet is grieving, you may be able to help it recover more quickly. Some vets that practice complimentary care use essential oils and flower essences for grieving pets. Remember, never use essential oils on cats! Calming pheromones like Feliway can help cats. Traditional veterinary medicine solutions might include medication to boost the appetite or a mild tranquilizer to calm a pet that is particularly frantic with grief.