My husband passed away six months ago, and it is quite evident to me that not only do I miss him, but so does our dog Grace. She adored Bill and would scamper to find him if I directed her to “Go find dad!” I no longer use the word dad, as that sets her off on a sad but fruitless chase around the house.
Very soon after Bill died, it became quite evident to me that Grace was still hoping he was coming home. One day I was walking her, and off in the distance was someone, a lady using a walker, coming toward us. Grace ran to get to the person so fast that I had to let go of her leash. A few feet out from the person, she came to what I would call a “screeching halt” when she realized it wasn’t Bill. He used a walker to get around what little he could, and she spent most of her life getting around them and out of the way of them. The woman was quite friendly and hugged Grace. We had an exchange of words about the dog. I didn’t have the heart to tell her why I thought Grace ran up to her. We had never even met before. I walked away in tears. Grace seemed to have her head down for the rest of the walk.
This has continued to happen. Anyone with a walker or a cane will set Grace off running to see if it’s Bill. I know I am putting my grief on the dog, but this is quite obvious to me and anyone who watches her do this. I can’t help but think that she is disappointed every time. Since I can’t explain why he isn’t coming back, I just have to love and hug her a little more, hoping she understands he hasn’t left her on purpose but has left for good.
Grace has also become more affectionate with men. She never really warmed up to other men when Bill was alive. In fact, she was a little “skitty” of them. Now every man we meet on a walk or if they come to the house, she will run to them barking, asking them to give her a treat. One of the men that work here comes by once a day to check on us and hug her, so to speak. None realize that her newfound affection for them has to do with the loss of the affection of her dad.
If I sit in Bill’s chair, she will quickly run over and put her head under my leg, so I will scratch her ears. This was done frequently when Bill was alive, and of course, she wants the practice to continue. My hands are always busy with sewing or needlework, so they were never as available to her. Bill was the “go-to” parent for ear scratching. She has trained me to take the job over, and I am happy to comply as it gives comfort to us both.
The question in my mind that might be affecting my judgment on this is whether I am interpreting her actions as part of my grief or if she senses my sadness and acts accordingly. I know that if I have to spend a day in bed for whatever reason, Grace will stay there with me without a move toward the door to go out. She is very sensitive in knowing the right thing to do, I think. Is she grieving with me?
My research proves me right in that Grace is more than likely grieving with me. Not only do pets grieve for a human who has died they also grieve for the loss of other pets in the house.
This excerpt is from an article by Lynn Buzhardt, DVM.
While our canine and feline family members may not fully grasp the significance of death, it’s clear that they grieve in their way. That makes it especially tough on us. While we mourn the loss of a loved one, whether human or pet, we must also be aware of how this loss affects other pets in the house.
Why do pets grieve?
Pets develop relationships. They bond with human and non-human family members alike. Since their world is fairly confined to the home environment, these family relationships are the center of their universe. Pets see family members, human or otherwise, as a pack, much as their ancestors did in the wild. They depend on the pack for a sense of safety and well-being. When one member of the pack dies, the surviving pets may feel unbalanced.
Pets recognize their position in the family and find comfort in the stability of the pack. The death of a pack member disrupts the family unit. A pet’s response to changes in his pack may manifest as grief. The surviving pet may exhibit signs of distress and anxiety or develop behavior issues. Grieving the actual loss of a pack member is bad enough. To make matters worse, our pets also respond to our sadness as we personally mourn the loss.
To put pet grief in relatable terms, pets, especially dogs, respond to loss much like human toddlers. They may not totally understand the concept of death as an everlasting separation, but they recognize and feel a current sense of loss.
Since our pets don’t verbalize their thoughts, how do we know they are grieving? By observing their behavioral changes. A study conducted by the ASPCA showed that over 60 percent of pets experience four or more behavioral changes after losing a companion.
Change in appetite. Many pets eat less following the loss of a furry friend, especially if the deceased was the “leader” of the pack. The leader, especially in dog families, usually controls meal time, and the other dogs “follow the leader” to the food bowls. Without the alpha dog to initiate feeding, the mealtime routine is disrupted. The surviving dog may eat less. According to a study in New Zealand, about 30 percent of pets have decreased appetite after losing a companion.
Changes in vocalization. Cats and dogs may bark, meow, or howl more than usual. After the loss of a companion, cats are more likely to increase their noise-making more than dogs, but both may whine. Watch for increases and decreases in vocalizations. If your dog usually barks at the postman and suddenly stops, take heed.
Changes in habits. Some pets sleep more than usual. In a New Zealand study, about 30 percent of grieving dogs and 20 percent of cats napped more. Other habits may change too. For example, some pets pace about constantly. Some hide. Some sulk.
Changes in personality. In this same study, about 60 percent of dogs and cats clung more to humans after the loss of a pack member. On the other hand, some may become withdrawn. They may lack interest in playtime. Others may show signs of separation anxiety or become destructive in the house.
Changes in grooming or bathroom habits. If your normally fastidious pet soils the house or misses the litter box, this should raise a red flag. If your cat or dog doesn’t groom himself, take note. He could be grieving.
Seeking behavior. Approximately 60 percent of pets repeatedly look for lost companions in their normal napping spots. If your pet constantly returns to his deceased friend’s favorite sleeping or resting place, he may be brokenhearted.
How can I help my grieving pet?
As an important member of the pack, you can help your pet through the grief cycle. Try some of these tips to lift your pet’s spirits.
Provide closure. Pets have a limited understanding of death as finality. It’s tough, but if possible, let your pet see the body of his deceased friend. He may not totally grasp the situation, but one last visit may help him understand that his pal is gone. Some behaviorists think that a dog’s grief response may be reduced by having an opportunity to investigate the deceased.
Control your emotions. It’s instinctive to lean on your pet for comfort as you process your own grief, but try not to become too emotional in front of your pet. Your pet is sensitive to your feelings, and your grief may add to his distress. It’s fine to allow your pet to console you, but try to be aware of his response to your emotions. Try to talk to your pet in an upbeat voice, even when you are sad.
Allow time for adjustment. With the loss of a family member, the pack is disrupted, and the household dynamic is temporarily unstable. In multi-pet households, it is important for the remaining pack members to establish a new social structure. Let your pets work things out for themselves. Only intervene if their restructuring becomes dangerous. No fighting allowed! In households with two pets, the sole survivor may be lonesome, but you should avoid your natural tendency to immediately get another pet. A new pack member may only add more stress. It’s best to adjust to the new normal first.
Spend quality time with your pet. Spending time with your pet during the grieving process is important, but as you and your pet comfort each other, be careful not to reinforce unwanted behaviors. As hard as it is, you need to fight your parental instinct to soothe your pet as he whines or paces incessantly or mopes around. It’s best to ignore these behaviors and choose times when he is quiet to shower him with TLC.
Try something new. The pack has changed, so now is a good time to introduce new things. Find a new challenge that will distract your pet from his sadness and teach him something at the same time. Buy an interactive feeding toy. Walk on a different trail. Visit a new dog park.
Respect the old. New things are fine, but pets like basic routines. Try to keep the household on track despite the disruption by keeping daily schedules as consistent as possible. Regularly scheduled meal time, exercise time, playtime, and bedtime will help your pet feel more secure. There’s comfort in familiarity.
Seek outside help. If your pet doesn’t eat for several days, call your veterinarian to avoid major health problems. Continued behavior changes like depression or anxiety should also be addressed. A behavior consultant can provide methods to facilitate the re-establishment of a happy household. There are also medical therapies and pheromones that may improve your pet’s attitude.
Nancie Wiseman Attwater is the author of A Caregiver’s Love Story.