When a loved one dies — whether it’s a husband, wife, son or daughter — every member of the family is impacted in different ways. Routines shift, traditions are altered, and the family unit as a whole is changed.
This transition impacts four-legged family members like dogs and cats, too. Speaking to HuffPost, experts spoke about how grief can affect pets:
Yes, pets may grieve the loss of a family member.
Research suggests that both cats and dogs (although dogs are more studied) show signs of grief following the death of a companion animal in the home. So, it is reasonable to think that pets grieve the loss of owners too, said Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, the medical director of Behavior Vets in New York.
When an owner dies, pets experience changes to their routine and the simple reality that one person is no longer in the home.
“That can impact the emotional well-being of any creature in the household,” Tu said.
A grieving pet may experience behavioral changes.
Though pets do not mourn in the same way that humans do, there are consistent behavioral changes when they experience loss, Tu said. Dogs who are grieving may eat less or more slowly; they might also spend more time asleep. Grieving cats can be more vocal, and those vocalizations may be louder than normal.
You may also see a deviation from your pet’s normal routine, and they may even sleep in the normal spot of the deceased pet or person, Tu said.
Dr. Christopher Lea, an associate clinical professor at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, underscored the frequency of these behavioral changes in grieving pets, saying his clients noticed a loss of appetite and sleeping changes in their dogs.
If you notice these signs, get in contact with your veterinarian.
Though behavioral changes can be a result of grief, there also could be something else at play.
Lea said if you notice these kinds of shifts in your pet, make an appointment with your veterinarian. They’ll likely perform a physical exam and may also want to do some blood tests to make sure everything is OK.
If the vet finds nothing wrong, engage your pet to help them with their grief.
“If nothing is considered abnormal … engage the pet” to combat their grief, Lea advised.
Lea said exercise is one of the best outlets for animals going through a tough time. With dogs, you can take them out for more walks, hikes or “anything extra that you think they would enjoy,” Lea said. You can also engage them in social enrichment like doggy day care or training, he said.
But for many people, grief makes it hard to do things like take walks or hikes, even with a pet. If this is the case for you, Tu said you can rely on enrichment activities for your pets, like food-dispensing or puzzle toys.
Don’t reprimand them for what that may be their grief process.
If your pet is sleeping in the spot of the animal or person who passed, let them, Tu advised. The same goes for a cat who is meowing at you more, for example. Don’t punish them at a time when the household is dealing with change and loss.
“Recognize that they’re also going through their own grieving process,” Tu said. “Allow them to have that freedom to go through their own process.”
These behavioral changes won’t last forever, according to both Tu and Lea. “Most pets will experience changes in their behavior … potentially for up to six months afterward,” Tu explained.
Like humans, pets need some time to process their emotions and move through grief.
And just like people, pets who aren’t getting better can receive help from professionals.
You know your pet best — if they aren’t acting like themselves for long periods of time or they are displaying other concerning signs, get in touch with your vet.
“The key is always reaching out to your family veterinarian,” Lea said. From there, you both can decide how to proceed.
One possible option is to contact a veterinary behaviorist or a center that focuses on pet behavior. (For those who don’t live near a behavior center, Tu’s company, Behavior Vets, offers some free materials online.)
“Veterinary behaviorists are essentially the psychiatrists of the veterinary world,” Tu said. That means they can help you find the right medicine for your pet or help them deal with emotional trauma in a healthy way.
So, if your pet is having a hard time and your vet doesn’t have an answer, don’t be afraid to get in touch with a veterinary behaviorist.