Helping Grieving Dogs
One of the things that we love most about our dogs is their ability to form deep bonds with each other, as well as with us. However, the downside of this suggests that they can experience grief as a result of being separated from a family member with whom they have developed an extra special connection, whether human, dog or even another species.
When one animal in the household dies, surviving pets can sometimes appear ‘clingy’, be more sensitive to things going on around them, or might appear anxious or depressed, even losing interest in playing, sleeping, or eating.
These changes may be a temporary response to the loss of their friend, a response to their owners’ sadness, or a response to changes of routine and no longer being able to interact with their friend. However, as these types of behavioural changes might also relate to an underlying medical condition, it’s always important to consult your vet following any sudden change in your dog’s behaviour.
How you can help your dog
Although experts are still undecided as to whether dogs can experience true grief and understand the permanence of death, we know they can experience distress related to being separated from close friends. However, there are lots of things we can do to help make this difficult time of transition as gentle as possible for them.
Having your late pet’s belongings present in your home might be very difficult for you while you are coming to terms with your loss. However, be aware that if your grieving pet still seems interested in and attached to the items, then suddenly removing things like beds and blankets might make them panic.
All dogs will respond differently so take care to observe how your grieving pet is behaving. For some dogs, having their friend’s belongings lying about without them might add to anxiety, but for others these might provide comfort. There’s no right or wrong time to remove any unused items from your home, it will all depend on how you and your surviving pets are managing.
If you have more than one surviving pet, watch for changes in their relationships. The pet you are mourning might have provided a great deal of daily support for a surviving pet, especially if they are naturally shy for example, so now they might appear to have lost confidence without their friend to help them out. Bear in mind that your surviving pets now need to work out how to live without their old friend.
For the most part, allow surviving pets to work out their own relationships. However, if changes concern you or you see any signs of aggression, then please contact your vet about referral to a qualified behaviourist for additional guidance.
Remaining pets may begin to show signs of separation distress. These behaviours include panting, pacing, whining, drooling, howling, barking, and not eating treats while alone, or even refusing food entirely in some cases. This can be very distressing for owners, as they might feel helpless in comforting their existing pets while also still grieving themselves. Seeking professional help will be useful. Your vet will be able to refer you to a qualified behaviourist for support, but in the short term try not to leave your pets alone.
To monitor your dog’s behaviour when they are alone, consider sourcing a camera to record them (there are many available, including mobile phone and tablet Apps). Set it up in a safe position where your dog will be unable to interfere with it. Again, if changes in behaviour are worrying or persistent, please contact your vet about referral to a qualified behaviourist for additional advice.
Exercise can be an excellent stress reliever for dogs. It can also be a helpful tool in managing your grief. Visiting both familiar and new places might reignite your dog’s energy and provide a nice distraction for you both. Take care to let your dog explore at their own pace, and if they want to go home that’s fine. Calmly walk back and try a little closer to home next time.
Try to keep to your normal routine as much as possible, as predictability can help dogs cope with changes. Try not to change the way you interact with your surviving pets. Dogs have shown certain aspects of empathy and are likely to become more anxious if they sense your grief as well.
Avoid telling your dog off for unwanted behaviours they may have started, as this increases levels of anxiety and fear, and can lead to aggression. Instead, reward positive behaviours and ignore unwanted behaviours. Interrupt any behaviours that you can’t ignore by asking for an alternative behaviour or redirecting your dog into a more appropriate activity.
A new dog might not help your surviving dog feel better and may actually make them feel more anxious as further changes to the family can be stressful. It might be something you wish to consider longer-term, however taking your time and not rushing means you’ll get the timing right for your whole family.
Seeing your beloved pets struggling at any time in their lives can be incredibly upsetting, let alone at a time when you are going through the same experience. Making sure you talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling can be helpful.
The advice on this page is of a general nature and is no substitute for specific behavioural or veterinary advice. If you are worried about your dog, then please consult your vet.