Recognizing the symptoms of missing a departed owner or pal
Pet grief exists. It’s not the same as the grief a person experiences nor is it as deep. It’s not present in every case. But it exists in ways recognizable to us.
The most evident manifestations of grief are a loss of appetite, social withdrawal or the frequent revisiting of places that were meaningful, according to Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at Virginia’s College of William & Mary who specializes in animal behavior.
King, the author of “How Animals Grieve” (University of Chicago Press), says that in some cases an animal’s response to a death can be explained by the pet being in tune with the surviving people in the house.
“We know with dogs, they’re so tuned in to our gestures and facial expressions,” she says. “There’s fascinating research that they’re more attuned than chimpanzees are, and chimpanzees are supposed to be the end-all and be-all of cognition. The problem comes in when some animal grief gets dismissed (on that basis). … The depth of an animal’s response and the length it lasts seem to go beyond responding to people in the home.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did a still-quoted behavioral study in 1996 to gauge the degree of pet responses to the death of another pet. The survey asked about changes in eating habits, sleeping, vocalization, solicitation of affection and more.
In both cats and dogs, the survey found, the category showing most change was solicitation of affection. In dogs, 34 percent demanded more attention, 12 percent sought less, 24 percent became clingy/needy, 4 percent avoided contact with their human. Only 26 percent were unchanged. In cats, 38 percent sought more attention, 8 percent sought less, 20 percent became clingy/needy, 10 percent avoided contact, 23 percent remained unchanged. (Figures were rounded off.)
Eating habits showed considerable change, with 36 percent of dogs and 46 percent of cats eating less than usual following the death of a housemate. The observed decreased appetite lasted from less than a week to six months.
In their conclusion, the researchers wrote, “we can assure pet owners that signs of grieving are not uncommon in dogs and cats.”
“I don’t want to say dogs grieve, cats grieve, horses grieve,” King says. “I say some dogs grieve. Sometimes people contact me and say (they) had two dogs and one died and the other didn’t grieve — why not? It’s animal individuality … the survivor’s relationship to the dead, the survivor’s personality. Sometimes animals recover quickly or do not grieve at all, but I think they grieve for us.”
Grief isn’t limited to cats and dogs, King found. “It was very surprising to me how much rabbits grieve. Ducks too. There was a duck rescued from a foie gras factory who had a duck friend die, and it didn’t survive the friend’s death. There can be a slow decline and death.”
If you suspect a pet is grieving, provide extra attention and love for your pet. King also suggests letting the survivor see the body if possible.
“Lots of animal people on farms and in homes do this now,” she says. “Sometimes the survivor seems to get a sense of closure. You have two close pets, friends, one goes to the vet and … doesn’t come back. … If it’s possible, let them smell the dead animal, see it. It might help. Or get a clipping of fur from the animal at the vet and let the survivor smell it.”
Bringing a new animal, a young animal, into the home has been shown to rejuvenate an older pet. But in the case of grieving, it might be best to let things run their course.
“Animals do love,” King says, “and we know one of the risks of love is grief.”